PENGUINCLASSICS.COM The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Penguin Classics On Air
Essays

Campus Classics

Feb-Jan 2010

For each Penguin Classics Newsletter we invite a professor to share an experience of teaching with a Penguin Classic. Inspired by the Ten Essential Penguin Classics video, Christopher Syrnyk chose the Penguin Classics edition of Homer's The Odyssey to begin his Introduction to Literature course.

On the first day of my Introduction to Literature course, I brought in all of the Penguin Ten Essential Classics and lined them up chronologically on a desk. I informed the class that we would use the "Ten" to explore how literature takes shape over time, that literature serves to accumulate culture and to create culture. Likewise, our roles as learners and readers perpetuate literature's cultural, historical, and social value. Considering the amount of time represented by these texts-over two thousand years-it was now our turn to read these texts, as part of our own culture, in our own time, in order to learn how literature can inform our own sense of humanity.

I explained that we would put Penguin's editors to the test: this semester we were going to actively question why so many people consider these ten works "essential," as well as what earns a work the reputation of a "classic." I suggested that we could develop these ideas of "essential" and "classic" by examining how our ten "required" texts have also "inspired" others to carry forth the ideas contained within Penguin's Ten Essential Penguin Classics.

Given The Odyssey as our first required text, we imagined how the experience of reading this work differed from the experience of listening to a poet declaim it. We "mused" what makes a work of literature "epic," from its scope to how it crosses oceans of time. Further, the class discussed whether Odysseus deserved the title of an "epic hero," the "food-and-gift" nature of hospitality in antiquity, and the toll of war on families in the ancient world. We also pondered the fickle sweep of the gods' influence and interference, and the nature of father and son relationships, even when the absent father is Odysseus how all of these issues inform our sense of literature.

Given the many inspired texts, we read the Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky's poem-as-letter "Odysseus to Telemachus" and we discussed how the Coen brothers sampled the topoi of Homer's world and recast these in O Brother, Where Art Thou? The class sampled a podcast from the BBC's World Book Club of Derek Walcott talking about his Omeros and how it didn't serve as a mere transference of The Iliad and The Odyssey, but stood as a work of associations inspired by Homer, not derivations, and an epic in its own right. Lastly, we made a solid academic nod to Joyce's Ulysses and how an epic can literally be contained within one fateful day. Getting The Odyssey under our collective belt was itself an epic feat: we clearly took in all the "good things that lay at hand" which Homer set forth in his grand human story.

Christopher Syrnyk
Instructor of English Liberal Arts Transfer Program
Madison Area Technical College
Course: Introduction to Literature