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Getting lost in lost books

Jordan Kurker-Mraz '14, advised by Tim Hofmeister, Classics

Q & A with Summer Scholar Jordan Kurker-Mraz ’14:

What’s the title of your research?

“The Classics Postmodern Age and Culture: Questions of Relevance and Regard”

Tim Hofmeister, Professor of Classics, on his advisee:

I was pleased when Jordan asked me if I wanted to work with him on a summer project. He’s an exceptional student—not only very bright and well-read but also restlessly inquisitive, always hungry for more. We discussed a couple of possible topics before we settled on one: an essay on Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey.

We had read Mason’s book in a fall semester course (“Echoes of the Trojan War”). That’s where I met Jordan, in fact. The course consisted of pairings of an ancient epic with a modern work that somehow responded to the ancient one. Mason’s book intrigued Jordan, partly because it bothered him. The book is innovative and challenging and its ultimate meanings elusive, as is its relationship, intended and otherwise, to Homer’s Odyssey. We came up in class with answers to the questions of what the work might signify and how it might be read against the Odyssey. But Jordan wanted to explore these questions more deeply.

So this summer we are reading more examples of the reception of ancient texts in the works of later writers. We are also reading other contemporary fiction that Mason has cited in interviews as sources of inspiration for his own approach. All of this is designed to give us a broader perspective on how Mason’s book is put together and the ways it might be read at this point in time.

What’s the story behind the idea?

I was drawn to it when I read The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason with my advisor last year. It purports to be those texts that were once up for inclusion in the Odyssey story we know, but were not included, much like the extraneous books from the Bible. I’m trying to investigate this kind of deconstructive aesthetic by reading other books in the classical canon—Metamorphoses, Gilgamesh, Argonautica, etc—along with more modern works that relate or refer back to the classics (Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad, Walcott’s Omeros among others). In the lost books, many of the vignettes and fragments are reminiscent of Borges and Calvino, so I’m reading those, too. I hope to write a scholarly paper that investigates Mason’s aesthetic in context—and then a more casual abstract/article that talks about our culture’s attitudes to the classical tradition.

What personal approach do you bring to the topic?

I want to see whether I will enjoy academic work, to answer why this book was so perplexing and disconcerting in its treatment of the classics, and not spend the summer like I did last year: cashiering at Marshalls.

What is the most unexpected bit of information you’ve discovered during your time with this project?

Tricky question. Since my research is basically reading old, old books, not many things new have sprung up; though I truly did not realize how dangerous it was to be good-looking in the ancient world, especially if you were a pretty nymph/mortal girl because of the god’s inclinations to snatch up/rape/transform you.

Jordan Kurker-Mraz is a sophomore classics major from Tuscon, Ariz. His summer research was funded by the Helen L. Yeakel Summer Research Fund.


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