One of my favourite poems is John Keats’ On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.
Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific—and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
In his poem, John Keats has spent years reading Homer and though he knows that this old, epic tale is loved by many it isn’t until he reads a translation by George Chapman that he understands the beauty of The Odyssey and The Iliad and it feels to him much like an amazing new discovery.
This poem has always served as a reminder to me as a readers’ advisory librarian to keep an open mind about people’s reading preferences and to actively challenge myself not only to read beyond my own interests but to reread in areas that I have not previously enjoyed. It is about considering a new storyteller when all the other storytellers have not given you that feeling of magic that you hear other readers discussing. For example, I have read numerous science fiction novels over the last 30 years yet none have filled me with awe and compelled me to read more. But I continue to read a few science fiction novels a year for I am hoping to have my Chapman’s moment and eventually discover a whole new world to explore.
Last week, the Orange Prize for Fiction was awarded to Madeline Miller for The Song of Achilles. Here is yet another book of a story that is thousands of years old that is still inspiring retellings and rediscovery of Homer's popular and much loved tale.
I think that it is apt then that the ALIA Biennial this year has the theme of Discovery. Our library and information profession is as old as Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad. And just as Homer’s original story has changed over the millennia so has our profession. From the original depositories of scrolls, to the codex, the printing press and now to digitisation, The Odyssey and The Iliad and librarians have been on an age old journey together as keepers, disseminators and storytellers. And as long as there are new readers in the world, Homer and librarians will continue towards discovery.
Looking across the Peloponnese from Mycenae, Greece: the location from which Helen was kidnapped by Paris, triggering the Trojan War. (Photograph is Vassiliki's own.)
Vassiliki Veros is the ALIA State Manager for NSW, and is on the steering committee for the NSW Readers' Advisory Working Group, which runs the Love2Read Reading Group celebrating the National Year of Reading 2012.