It must have been difficult enough for those blokes back in 1874 when they were trying to set the type for Bohn’s Classical Library; not only did they have to cope with back-to-front letters, but nearly every page carries a footnote or three, often including Greek script. Did they receive special training in how to understand Greek, or was there an eager brigade of proof-readers ready to inspect the printed sheets and identify any mistakes?
And even the bits that are not Greek seem vaguely foreign; I have forgotten nearly everything I learned at school, but I am absolutely certain that we never encountered the term ‘zeugma’.
Once I think it would have been a vivid green, but all the years have laid grey dust in close-up constellations of the unseen mystery. I bought the book back in 1980 from Treasure Trove, a ramshackle warehouse of old books and plates and ornaments. I recall there seemed to be a lot of hardback novels by Augusta Wilson and Philip Gibbs, along with physical chemistry textbooks.
But the book I decided to purchase was Bohn’s edition of Homer’s Odyssey; I knew nothing about this work other than it was a cornerstone of Western thought, and felt that my life would be improved in some vague manner if I were to own a copy.
When we got home I started browsing through the book, and immediately found it to be hard going – partly because it was a literal translation, designed expressly for scholars with a deep interest in Classics – and also because it had not been fully cut, and several of the pages were still joined together.
Not thinking of the possible damage to the historical value of this volume, I took our mild-steel carving knife and set about opening up the pages. Alas, after this I lost interest and put the book in a shelf where it remained, unread, for years.
I recently picked it up again and came across the brief section in book IX where the crew of Ulysses’ ship arrive at the island of the lotus-eaters and are seduced by the narcotic blooms.
How many layers of meaning lie hidden in this narrative, I wondered? And then I remembered that Tennyson had written a poem all about this episode, where the sailors give voice to their loneliness and fatigue, explaining the appeal of forgetfulness. As well as the hypnotic lotus flowers, Tennyson mentions amaranth and moly, two plants with legendary medicinal properties; the restorative herb moly appears in book X of the Odyssey.
Amaranth refers to a synthetic dyestuff, but the actual pigment contained in the petals of the amaranth flower is usually a betalain, consisting of a glucose unit bonded to a base then via an azo linkage to a betalamic acid derivative. The various different functional groups attached to this structure give rise to yellow, crimson, or violet pigments. These materials are currently being studied for their antioxidant properties.
Tennyson’s sailors end their narrative by resigning to a life of ease and happiness; but in Homer, we find the men dragged back to the ships where they gradually recover their senses and smite the hoary sea with their oars, ready to encounter the Cyclops and the glorious dwelling of Circe.
Curious, then to recall that many of the pages of this book were still sealed when I bought it; for, looking through the chapters I found some ancient handwritten notes. The book had also been owned by Jean Harris, at the University of Birmingham; I wondered if she had bothered reading the book and found the unopened sections, but did not wish to damage the structure.
Covid-19 update, 01 July 2020:
UK: 313 thousand cases, 43,900 deaths
US: 2.74 million cases, 130,000 deaths
Perhaps the vaccine, when it arrives, will allow us to forget the horrors of the past, the long-term respiratory damage and neurological disorders caused by the coronavirus, the induced coma state endured by patients on ventilators and the agony of being transformed into swine during their drug-flavoured nightmares…
Context and future context
Looking through the Bohn edition of Homer’s Odyssey, we find that nearly every page carries footnotes, often to explain the difficulties in translating the original text but sometimes to post a reference to later commentaries; a few of the footnotes compare sections of Paradise Lost with the body of Homer’s work. But this overlooks the fact that Milton would seem like an alien being to the ancient Greeks.
In the same way, perhaps the reported numbers of Covid-19 cases should always carry a contextual note to explain how many infections (and fatalities) have been measured per head of population.
Some people would say that, to aid simplicity, the infection rates should always be reported as numbers per thousand head of population so that we can compare different countries. However, extracting the raw data then becomes a problem and it is not easy to identify the source of any errors in the calculated numbers.
Many years ago, my research project involved measuring the bond strength of adhesive joints, and I reported the results as being failure loads in kN, having already described the joint configuration.
Some colleagues pointed out that this was not consistent with other published reports, since most researchers in this field would quote failure loads in MPa, dividing the failure load by the surface area. This appears to be a sensible idea, since it would allow the results from different project to be compared. However, the standard lap-joint undergoes eccentric loading and differential strain, which means that the stress is highly concentrated at the edges of the bonded area.
Perhaps every research paper should be revisited after five years, to see whether the results have been supported or dismissed by the work of later project teams; my own work would carry footnotes to advise that the primer systems I studied have now been replaced by eco-friendly versions using water-borne emulsions and chlorine-free polymers. And after a few years, other commercial organisations might be able to publish their own private results, demonstrating that they had already been engaged on similar research. This information could be added to the text of the original research paper in the form of a subsequent footnote.
So it is correct that the number of Covid-19 cases needs to be placed in context, by reporting the population from which they are taken; but merging the data would impair our ability to analyse the figures and formulate an effective response.