May 28

An Odyssey – A Father, Son and an Epic by Daniel Mendelsohn

Did you know that the word “odyssey” derives from Odysseus, the central character of Homer’s epic Greek poem?  Or that the word mentor derives from the character “Mentor” who Odysseus chose to watch over his infant son during the many years he was away?

Before you worry, no I didn’t read Homer’s Odyssey (or pay attention during ancient Greek literature week at School). I read a book about a father and son and their transformative journey whilst studying Homer’s Odyssey together.

Daniel Mendelsohn is a 40 something professor delivering a seminar on Homer’s Odyssey at Bard. He is the kind of professor students dream about: passionate, encouraging, knowledgeable but also genuinely open to new perspectives on the poem he has spent his life researching. But this semester he has a new student to manage…. his father. 

For reasons that become clear later, the author’s elderly father, Jay (a retired scientist and mathematician), decides to enrol in Daniel’s course.  Oh and he doesn’t just sit there politely taking notes, he throws grenades from his little desk on the side of the room, constantly and very deliberately challenging his son’s interpretations.

As you are reading this classroom drama and learning about one of the most significant works of literature ever written, two things become apparent. 1. Daniel and Jay have a lot to learn about each other; and 2. The author is using many of the same themes and techniques that appear throughout Homer’s Odyssey in the telling of the story of their relationship.  Very crafty stuff.

It’s not long a long book, but reading it still took me the best part of 12 weeks. The truth was I didn’t want to rush it any more than I wanted to give up.  I loved the classroom antics and the fascinating discussion of Homer’s work. I also loved the tense but tender relationship between father and son and how they come to know and understand each other by a mutual love of learning. 

Normally when I finish a book like this, the first thing I want to do is start something completely different but this time, I have to admit, I found myself entertaining the idea of reading The Odyssey in full.  I will miss Professor Mendelsohn but I still think I might learn a thing or two. I just have to get between Scylla and Charybdis.  Let me get back to you in a year.

And that’s my 2 cents worth

Thank you to the dear friend that bought me this book for my birthday this year x