On Cleopatra, the fine art of reading quality nonfiction, and graduation marches

Monday, May 16, 2011

Thousands of years ago, as an undergraduate of the University of Pennsylvania, I craved and read nothing but nonfiction. My major was the History and Sociology of Science. My passion was the evolution and technology of cities, the genius lives of science-saints, Thomas Kuhn and his paradigms. I read history and biography and could not make time for fiction. I took no writing class and but a single English class (on the Romantic poets) and could not wait to be done with the stuff.

I remained in that zone for many years, until fiction and poetry began to consume more space on my shelves, and until I began reading and (consequently) writing memoir.  I don't make nearly enough room for classic nonfiction these days, but when I do, I'm returned to a happy place, and Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra is, at the moment, making me happy.

I bought this book for myself in December. I've read at least four dozen books in the meantime—many of them prescribed by my teaching. I've been burning through things and Cleopatra cannot be burned through. I take my time. I turn the (paper) pages.

I'm up to page 68 on this foggy day, and I'm going to stop right here, share a passage.  Have you ever wondered what Alexandria was like in young Cleopatra's time—what she and Caesar looked out upon as they contemplated their strange, mysterious union? Let Schiff take you there:

From east to west the city measured nearly four miles, a wonderland of baths, theaters, gymnasiums, courts, temples, shrines, and synagogues. A limestone wall surrounded its perimeter, punctuated by towers, patrolled at both ends of the Canopic Way by prostitutes. During the day Alexandria echoed with the sounds of horses' hooves, the cries of porridge sellers or chickpea vendors, street performers, soothsayers, moneylenders. Its spice stands released exotic aromas, carried through the streets by a thick, salty sea breeze. Long-legged white and black ibises assembled at every intersection, foraging for crumbs.
 Oh, how I love this stuff.

I also love my own Penn students, some of whom are taking the graduation march today. Kim, Jonathan, Sara, Trixie, Ben, Lydia—my thoughts are with you on this steamy, atmospheric morning. Be well. Be safe. Travel widely. And write to me, every now and then, of your adventures.

The shimmer of this world awaits you.


Melissa Sarno said...

I so rarely read non-fiction. It seems I'm just not interested in facts. I think I was taught history in the wrong way, memorizing dates and understanding the order of things, so I never enjoyed it and now I am one of those people who is doomed to repeat it. Ack. Congrats to your students!

Caroline Starr Rose said...

I haven't read this one but loved THE MEMOIRS OF CLEOPATRA and am looking forward to Carolyn Meyer's YA coming out soon.

I used to only be able to read non-fiction in mini doses, but these last few years that has changed. Probably my favorite read last year was LIVES LIKE LOADED GUNS about Emily Dickinson and her family. It was utterly fascinating.

Jeannine Atkins said...

I was fascinated, and surprised, to learn about your college major. While I was gushing over the romantics. Not that I understood more than a word or two.

And you've convinced me to read Cleopatra. I'm generally not a fan of hefty biographies, except when researching: too often I feel like stuff is put in just because it was researched. But this sounds elegant. Foraging ibises are worth many rose petal filled barges.

Lilian Nattel said...

Good non-fiction! I should put it on my list. I like a balance.

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