How I Can Manage to Read for Enjoyment and (at the same time!) Get Sidetracked - Or! How It Is I Learned That Theseus Wore a Mullet!

Mad Madge: The Extraordinary Life of Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle, the First Woman to Live by Her Pen - Katie Whitaker Plutarch's Lives, Volume I - Aubrey Stewart, Plutarch, George Long

Somehow the books I enjoy the most are usually the ones that make me inspire me to immediately google other books, and then - if I'm being good - make a list of those titles to read later. If I'm not being good - which is most of the time - I'll pick up that book immediately and read a bit of the contents. Whether I keep reading or put the book down and go back to what I was trying to finish totally depends on how interested I get in the second book. If it's an ebook that's available for free (I so dearly love Project Gutenberg) the odds are pretty high that I'm going to have to read a bit immediately. I think that's probably due to me being of the generation that once I had to trudge to the library (through the howling wind and snow! etc!) to hunt down a book or article (or order it on interlibrary loan, or hunt for info on microfiche, etc., etc.) - and the fact that I can start reading a book the instant I find it continues to make me giddy. Seriously. I feel like I should have one shoulder lower than the other from the books I toted to and from the library in college and then grad school.


Er, anyway, so I have this habit of starting one book, then that leading to a second book, and then another - and suddenly I'll have multiple books that I'm trying to read all at once. Sometimes this goes very, very badly. Sometimes I manage to work it out - trying to tell each book diplomatically that while I can't focus my attention on it constantly, I will definitely have some quality time with it - eventually.


Which leads me to the current of the current reads:


  Mad Madge: The Extraordinary Life of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, the First Woman to Live by Her Pen, by Katie Whitaker (2002)


If you've not heard of Margaret Cavendish here's her wikipedia page - spoiler, she was amazing. Here's a quote from the wiki:


"Her writing addressed a number of topics, including gender, power, manners, scientific method, and philosophy. Her utopian romance, The Blazing World, is one of the earliest examples of science fiction. She is singular in having published extensively in natural philosophy and early modern science."


There's more at the link, and the page is long because she is indeed that interesting. Also it has a nice healthy list of sources, which is (I think) where I found this particular book.


I've wanted this biography for years now, and only just gave up on it ever appearing in ebook form thanks to a friend's giftcard - so now I have it in hardback. And I can tell I'm going to enjoy it because I hadn't made it through 20 pages before I already had another book to look up. And yes, I'm about to quote a large chunk, but I feel I have to because there's the story of a teen who adores books - or at least people she's only met in them - in it.


Ch 2, Childhood Ambitions, 1623-1642, p. 20:


"But as contemporary educators decried most fiction as immoral, many of the stories children read were factual, including both English works such as Sir Walter Raleigh's History of the World and the classical histories of Thucidydes, Plutarch, Livy, and Tacitus, all available in translation. Plutarch's Lives, translated in 1579 and reissued in numerous editions throughout the seventeenth century, was a common favorite with children for its vivid, warts-and-all accounts of great men of Greece and Rome. His stories fired the imaginations of generations of children - both girls and boys - right up to end of the eighteenth century. That Margaret was familiar at least with his tales of Julius Caesar is clear from her own lifelong admiration of this Roman statesman, general and orator. As a child, her heroes came from books she read. While other teenage girls talked to their girlfriends about love and young men, Margaret "confess'd I only was in love with three dead men, which dead long before my time, the one was Caesar, for his valor, the second Ovid, for his wit, and the third was our countryman Shakespeare." Shakespeare was Margaret's favorite English author for his ability to create vivid, realistic characters of every possible type. His Midsummer Night's Dream influenced her poetry, the fools of his plays provided models for her own, and Margaret later became the first woman to write a critical appreciation of his work."


After reading that I had to stop a bit and imagine Margaret as a bookish teen crushing out on Caesar, and spending time writing in her room. I especially liked that she was not singled out as an always brilliant and studious creature - she seemed very human. But I'll quote oodles more about that when I finally review it. I suspect I'm going to have to restrain myself from uber long quotes. Especially about Margaret's enjoyment of clothes - she designed a lot of what she wore, as many women did at the time, and she was very creative about it all. Very refreshing after reading so much of male authors throughout history writing harumphing essays on how women "fussing" about clothes was a sign of their being "featherbrained."


Anyway, that paragraph also had me pondering the list of authors children at the time were reading. I've read lots of Shakespeare and some Ovid, but only quotes from the others. So I go online to peruse what Plutarch was out there - and what do you know, I already had some Plutarch on my ereader, specifically the Lives, Part 1. From a time when I was reading some other book that mentioned Plutarch and I bet inspired me to add it to that always growing To Be Read pile. (Note to self, clean out that TBR folder more often.)


  So I started reading a bit (the Aubrey Stewart/George Long translation), and I kept reading because Theseus was the first part and as a child my father would often tell me the story of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth at bedtime. (And very vividly, with lots of scary bull noises, and dark corridors and blazing red eyes glowing in the darkness - such that I'd get all wound up and very awake and mom would have to get me settled down - and dad would get A Stern Talking To.) At 5% in I read:


"...But he [Theseus] only cut the front part of his hair, as Homer tells us the Abantes did, and this fashion of cutting the hair was called Theseus's fashion because of him. ...So they cut their hair short in front, that their enemies might not grasp it."

Theseus had a mullet! And I had never been informed. Somehow you'd think this would have come up in the 80s and 90s when guys were actually wearing mullets (and not ironically!) in public. Actually I'm sure some folk probably wrote about it at the time, but there being no internet and no google to refer to, I somehow missed it. It wasn't ever brought up when any of my profs were going over Greek mythology and art - and enough of those folk had a sense of humor that I'm sure it would have been mentioned - and laughed over. 


Of course now I can google, and find:


Heroic Hairstyles, or Did Hector Have a Mullet, by Laura Swift

American Philological Association


"One of the great things about working on a commentary is the random avenues it leads you down.  What starts out looking like an unpromising bit of text turns out to raise issues about the ancient world that you’d never have thought of. Before you know it, you’re discovering all kinds of obscure debates, bizarre ancient texts, and random pieces of trivia: it’s the scholarly equivalent of link-surfing on wikipedia.


My most recent experience of this began with one of Archilochus’ least known fragments, 217 West, 'with hair shorn away from the shoulders close to the skin'. Not a line that sets the world on fire, all things considered. It might well have been really interesting in its original context, but we don’t know anything about it,  since the line is quoted  simply as an example of accentuation. But where it led me to was the wonderful world of Greek haircuts, and in particular to two notorious haircuts of the modern era, the bowl cut and the mullet."


There are only three more paragraphs, so click if you want to read more - and I'd encourage you to do so because such scholarship definitely deserves the traffic. Also it specifically mentions Plutarch and the mullet as "the Theseus cut." Once, hundreds of years ago, men would tell their barbers to give them The Theseus cut, because it was the cool look everyone wanted. (Here I paused to snicker. Because I remember the eyerollingness of this. And this - second photo from the top, and seriously, you must laugh at that.)


Meanwhile I am SO grateful to have missed the resurgence of the bowl cut in the 60s, because - blergh. Even worse than the mullet.


Anyway the mullet thing led me to more links, but I'll just share one more because I'm fairly sure not many will be quite as amused as I am by the whole "ancient Greeks in bad hairdos/mullets" thing.


'Immortals' is an Epic Adventure in Getting it Wrong [Review], by Chris Sims, Nov 15, 2011


"....I’ll be honest with you, folks: Aside from the whole minotaur-in-the-labyrinth thing, the mythological equivalent of a Greatest Hits record, I wasn’t all that familiar with Theseus before I went into the movie. As it turns out, I didn’t need to be worried — I don’t think anybody involved with making this movie was really familiar with it either — but I figured I might as well do the absolute bare minimum of research before I went in. So I asked comic book writer Benito Cereno if he could give me a crash course on Theseus, his favorite mythological hero. Among the many things he told me were the interesting facts that Theseus invented both wrestling and the mullet, which he used to prevent other wrestlers from being able to get a grip on his hair by keeping it short in front."


Which reminds me that I still need to get around to seeing Immortals. Because my Netflix To Be Watched list is almost as long as my To Be Read list.