Details: (c) 1951, 1957 HDF Kitto; Pub Pelican (Penguin Books) 1979; ISBN 0-14-02-0220-X
Verdict: The Greeks is a romp and incidentally informative.
Reasons for reading it: I couldn't remember whether it's appropriate to read novels on a fast day, so I thought I'd use the excuse to start this, as I have a hard time starting non-fiction books sometimes. Not because I inherently dislike non-fiction, but because it doesn't always satisfy my craving for story. I think I might just as well not have bothered, both in terms of respecting the fast, and in terms of thinking I needed to motivate myself, because The Greeks is easily as fun as any novel!
How it came into my hands: Present from rysmiel.
Kitto is the sort of person I would have had a total crush on if he'd been my lecturer. He has a wonderful way with words, a huge erudition and the most endearingly dry wit. He also knows damn well he's cleverer than almost everybody else, and tries to carry an argument on sheer force of intelligence and sweeping rhetoric, but the experience is so enjoyable I don't mind if it's less than rigorous.
As a straight popular history, The Greeks didn't teach me that much that was new to me. Though it does a great job of sorting out the chronology; I now have a clear timeline in my head of how the various key figures and major battles fit together and how they relate to the political atmosphere at the time. So that's cool. But the main way The Greeks is informative is as a social history of post-war Britain, partly because Kitto gives contemporary (for him) examples and analogies to explain Greek concepts, and mainly because he keeps getting diverted into rants about the current political scene and why 1950s English society is so vastly inferior to Classical Greece. The way it doesn't even occur to him to question the assumption that European culture is the only sort that deserves the term is quite mind-boggling.
I don't for a minute believe his arguments either about what's wrong with modern life or about the forces that shaped Greek history. In fact he doesn't really present arguments so much as state opinions. But he does so in such a fun and lively way that I can't resent it at all. I think his ideas about the Polis, the way all citizens contributed to public life and took their turns at politics, farming, fighting and anything else that might need doing, could make an interesting subject for real scholarship; his theories of the history of Greek religion are just wild speculation though.
I don't think I've ever read a non-fiction author who so clearly loves his subject. And he comes up with sentences like this:
The words "government" and "administration" have, among us, acquired capital letters: they are things in themselves, pursuits to which some misguided persons devote their lives.I actually thought he was going to get all the way through the book without once mentioning any woman beyond a passing comment that Sappho was a good poet, but the last 20 pages provide a rant about how Greek society wasn't as misogynistic as it's made out to be. Oh, and includes a throwaway comment that the Greeks were accepting of homosexuality (another topic he'd managed to avoid altogether, even when talking about citizens seeing themselves as the erastae of Athens) and if you find that kind of thing interesting, here's a footnote to a good book on the subject.
I only wish I had a time machine so I could kidnap Kitto and introduce him first to Jared Diamond and then to the internet. I'm also nostalgic for a time when non-fiction books were small enough to fit easily in a handbag and read in a few days worth of short commutes.