Monday, May 18, 2015

2015.05.20

Evan Hayes, Stephen Nimis, Lucian's 'A True Story': An Intermediate Greek Reader (revised Aug. 2014; first edition 2011). Oxford, OH: Faenum Publishing, 2014. Pp. x, 191. ISBN 9780983222804. $13.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Adam Bartley (ab290@kentforlife.net)

Version at BMCR home site

Full Text

This volume, part of a series produced by these authors, is designed to address the stage in a student's progress with an ancient language where they make the transition from manufactured material to reading that first genuine ancient text. To have chosen Lucian's Vera Historia as the means to do so is an interesting move. On the one hand the story is lively, the language tries hard to be very Classical and the sentence structure is often not as laboured as, for example, book 2 of Thucydides. That said, this text can often present more challenges to the reader than one might expect. Episodes such as the battle between the Moon and Sun men at 1.13-16 are full of newly coined vocabulary, such as ἱππόγυποι and Νεφελοκένταυρος, while there are a number of rhetorical excursuses in the text, such as at 1.1-4, which can be very cryptic for a student who is probably still at a stage where they struggle to follow all of the actions in a military narrative, let alone an ironic discourse on the merits of serious literature. There are though, it must be said, no perfect texts for teaching beginners, with even Xenophon's Anabasis presenting serious challenges in places. Why not Lucian, then? Hayes and Nimis have taken a number of very reasonable steps to smooth the way for the newcomer and the resulting text is a very worthwhile option to consider when choosing a text for a group making their first steps with unaltered texts.

The volume is set out as follows: There is a brief introduction to the text, with references to some academic works on the Vera Historia and Lucian more generally, as well as some advice on using the features of the book. The text itself, that of Harmon's 1921 edition, is presented with a vocabulary list below on each page and glosses designed to help the reader progress. These glosses include identification of verb and noun forms that the reader may struggle to recall at this stage of their learning, such as the more unusual perfect participles, and also tries to illustrate the parts of compound forms, where it is helpful to do so. There are also a number of linguistic digressions scattered throughout the text that range from a quarter of a page to a full page in length. These are on themes such as the use of the subjunctive and the optative in subordinate clauses (p. 27), glottal verb stems (p. 33), verbal aspect (pp.80-81) and causal clauses (p. 94) inter alia. Liberal use is made of examples from the text. Lastly, the volume concludes with a 13-page list of verbs with irregular forms and functions and a separate 11-page glossary.

On the positive side, the linguistic passages are well written and well targeted for the audience in question. The text becomes in part a grammatical primer for the student, reinforcing the lessons that will have been learnt in introductory courses. The glosses are helpful and it is hard to envision that the student should not be able to make good progress with the text under their own steam with their help. A common problem I have encountered with students is that they often don't think to look to the commentary included in most texts for help when they struggle or avoid doing so in a belief that this is somehow 'cheating'. Having the material that is designed to help them on the same page as the text brings home the message that the help is there to be taken advantage of with a clear conscience. The help in the glosses is suitably terse, but well targeted. In a few instances there is also some very brief but welcome discussion of mythological, philosophical or historical figures and features that come up in the text.

There are, it should be noted, a few limitations in the text. The help provided in the vocabulary on each page is nothing if not generous. When this is taken in combination with the glosses that appear beneath them it is hard to see what role the glossary at the end of the volume is intended to perform. A similar issue emerges with the list of challenging verb forms. These issues are addressed very competently in both the glosses and the grammatical digressions in the main volume. The presence of a glossary will also present issues for some teachers. An important part of student learning is the mastery of the skills required when using the standard dictionaries. The time needed to do so is often underestimated and ideally this learning process should be begun as soon as possible. By including the material in the glossaries twice – both on the relevant page and at the end of the volume – the student benefits from being able to read the volume fairly rapidly, which builds confidence. This confidence does, however, come at the cost of the development of lexical skills and as a result this aspect of the volume will not suit all teachers of Greek.

A further limitation is one of format. One of the reasons for the widespread modern practice of including the commentary at the end of a text is to avoid the spectacle of one or two lines of ancient text followed by a densely packed page of notes in a smaller font. By careful editing this is mostly avoided in this volume. Nevertheless, each page has at least three, sometimes four sections, each with a different function and a different format. This is something that some teachers will find too cluttered for students. An added complication that many university teachers of ancient languages now face when designing a course is a mandated requirement to ensure that all texts are in a form that is accommodating of students with dyslexia and related learning difficulties. This layout may mean that this text may not be perceived as suitable for some student groups. This may sound like a trite point to raise, but in my own experience across a number of institutions it is something that comes up with surprising regularity.

In summary, then, this is a text with a highly didactic focus and has much to recommend it as a result. It is clearly intended for students late in their first year or early in their second year of studies. The choice of the Vera Historia for this cohort is mostly a canny one, as the students may be dreading reading something very dry, which is something Lucian can never be accused of. The help given shows a good understanding of the needs of this group and is provided generously. Some teachers will find the focus on fluency and confidence in reading welcome. Others will perhaps prefer a text that easier on the eye or encourage a focus on lexical skill development. The choice will depend on the skill set of the student group in question, which, of course, depends not only on the background of the students in the catchment for the class, but will also vary from year to year. For many, though, this is an important stepping stone towards the use of text and commentary volumes students will encounter in their senior years of study.

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