One-Minute Book Reviews

May 11, 2009

‘The Aeneid’ in Three Sentences (Quote of the Day / Robert Fagles)

Filed under: Classics,Poetry,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:08 am
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

The problem with book reviewing in America isn’t usually that it’s unfair or inaccurate – it’s that it’s dull. And it’s dull partly because it’s timid. Reviews often tell you almost everything about a novel except what it is really “about” beyond the plot details.

This failing has less to do with dwindling review space and than with declining courage and intellectual confidence. You can express the theme or message of even a complex, multilayered work in a few sentences if you know it well enough. Here’s how the classics scholar Robert Fagles summed up The Aeneid:

“It says that if you depart from the civilized, then you become a murderer. The price of empire is very steep, but Virgil shows how it is to be earned, if it’s to be earned at all. The poem can be read as an exhortation for us to behave ourselves, which is a horse of relevance that ought to be ridden.”

As quoted by Charles McGrath in “Robert Fagles, Translator of the Classics, Dies at 74” in the New York Times, March 29, 2008.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


  1. I like Fagles’ translations. This, though, is a great quote.


    Comment by knightofswords — May 16, 2009 @ 2:22 pm | Reply

  2. What you say is true. It does take courage and intellectual confidence. I’m a book blogger myself, fitting into a niche somewhere between academic and intelligent general reader of literature. (See And reading and blogging for pleasure, not for profit or to get through a pile of review books, I find that the hardest part is to articulate the theme – I don’t want to put myself out there looking like a fool writing inane commentary, but nor do I want to invest the kind of time and effort that I used to put into university essays.
    I suspect that my reading/blogging habit is much like that of a press reviewer – read the book over the space of a few days (depending on length), do the blog review at night or the next day – and move straight onto the next book. It doesn’t make for in-depth contemplation.
    I subscribe to various journals e.g. the Australian Book Review, and our Australian quality press also publish review supplements (like the London Book Review) and they do provide the kinds of reviews that you seem to be thinking of. The ABR has even recently introduced a reviewing competition with a handsome prize to support the craft, so I would say that even though dumbing down has afflicted much of our press, there is a future for the quality review here in Australia.

    Comment by Lisa Hill — May 17, 2009 @ 7:14 pm | Reply

    • Would love to know more about that reviewing competition. It’s a potentially wonderful idea, especially if the judges would articulate their standards in a way that helps people understand what a good review is, and to my knowledge we have nothing like it here in the U.S.

      We do have reviewing awards here such as the Pulitzer for criticism, but these are for well-established critics with regular posts. And it sounds as though the Australian prize might be open to less-well-known writers, who in many ways need the encouragement more because they get so much less attention but often do better work than the big guns.

      Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — May 18, 2009 @ 2:37 am | Reply

  3. Here’s the ABR website that explains all:

    Comment by Lisa Hill — May 18, 2009 @ 2:51 am | Reply

    • Great contest! I’m going to send the link to the National Book Critics Circle here, and see if the NBCC will publicize it. Thanks so much.

      Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — May 18, 2009 @ 9:44 am | Reply

    • Lisa — Just sent news about the ABR contest to the president of the NBCC here in the US, and she posted information about it on the group’s site The ABR should get some good traffic from the post, which it will owe it to you. I’ve also sent you a private e-mail to thank you for letting me know about this.

      Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — May 18, 2009 @ 7:05 pm | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: