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'An Odyssey' author Daniel Mendelsohn answers your questions


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

William Brangham: And to our monthly conversation for our Now Read This book club, which is a partnership we have with The New York Times, where we encourage you to join on our Facebook page, read along with us and thousands of others, and then hear directly from the authors.

Jeffrey Brown has our pick for June, a story at once epic and intimate.

It's part of our ongoing arts and culture coverage, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: What happens when an 81-year-old father sits in on his college professor son's class, and what if the subject of that class is one of literature's greatest epics, at the heart of which is the story of a father and his son?

"An Odyssey" is a personal memoir about "The Odyssey" and family teaching, learning and much more.

Author Daniel Mendelsohn is a writer and literacy professor at Bard College, and he's here to answer questions from our readers.

Welcome to you. Thanks for being part of this.

Daniel Mendelsohn: Thanks for having me.

Jeffrey Brown: First, tell us, for those in the rest of the audience, what was this book about? What were you after here?

Daniel Mendelsohn: Well, the book is really two stories that are twined together.

The first story is a personal story. My father, at the age of 81, announced that he wanted to be a student in my freshman Homer class. So that becomes the story. What's it like to have your father as a student?

And then, at the end of that semester, we heard about a cruise that recreates the voyages of Odysseus. And so we went on the cruise, had another interesting set of experiences.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Daniel Mendelsohn: And then he fell ill not so long after. And so there are sort of three acts, the classroom, the cruise and the hospital, all filtered through "The Odyssey."

Jeffrey Brown: Filtered through "The Odyssey".

So we're going to go to our first question, which gets us right into "The Odyssey" and your father.

Daniel Mendelsohn: OK.

Jeffrey Brown: Let's take a look.

Daniel Mendelsohn: All right.

Bob Braitman: Your dad repeatedly challenged Ulysses' status as a hero. And I don't recall seeing your take on that. Do you consider Ulysses heroic?

So part of this is looking at the book and your father is, what is a successful life? Who is this guy Odysseus, Ulysses? Why is he a hero?

Daniel Mendelsohn: Right.

Well, I think the thing about heroes that are interesting is, they're heroes not because they're necessarily 100 percent good, but because they're 100 percent interesting.

And so Odysseus is -- has dark sides, he's difficult, he's a liar, he's a cheat.

Jeffrey Brown: Which your father calls you out on.

Daniel Mendelsohn: Which my father...

Jeffrey Brown: He says, what do you mean? He cheated on his wife. He lost his crew.

Daniel Mendelsohn: Right.

Jeffrey Brown: He couldn't get his way home.

Daniel Mendelsohn: Right.

My dad, who was a mathematician, wasn't charmed by him. And he kept challenging me all semester long. He kept saying, I don't think he's a hero. He kept interrupting my speeches in class.

So the tension between me and my dad in the classroom became a kind of vehicle for the students to learn about "The Odyssey."

Jeffrey Brown: Well, that leads nicely into our next question, because it goes right into the classroom.

Daniel Mendelsohn: OK.

Jeffrey Brown: Let's take a look at that.

Abby Althshuler: Can you talk about the feelings of embarrassment and shame that your dad's behavior in your classroom brought up for you and about how those feelings changed?

Jeffrey Brown: This really is -- goes to one of the most touching aspects of the book is, I mean, the personal.

Daniel Mendelsohn: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: How you felt about having your father as an outsider there.

Daniel Mendelsohn: Well, I have to say, I won't lie. It wasn't always easy.

When you're teaching, you have to establish a kind of authority in your own classroom, especially with freshmen, right? And here was my dad sitting behind me all semester raising his hand and interrupting me.

But I began to see aspects of my father that I thought were very touching through his -- through his combative interaction with me, the professor, his son. And I was very touched by how important it was for him to show that he knew something about this, the life experience that this great poem is about.

Jeffrey Brown: All right, the next question came in. This was irresistible to us because it's both from a father and a son.

Daniel Mendelsohn: OK.

Jeffrey Brown: Let's see that.

Sven Lembke: From the author's point of view, "An Odyssey" a paradigm?

Michel Lembke: Or a confession?

Jeffrey Brown: So the paradigm question, we went back and checked about exactly what he meant, which was sort of asking, were you trying to write a primer about fathers and sons or a kind of confession of your own life?

Daniel Mendelsohn: Well, I think there -- it's probably lies between those two poles.

I don't think it's a confession. I have written three memoirs. I just tell things the way they are. But I thought that this experience of interacting with my father, in this classroom, in the cruise ship, in the hospital, having been thinking for a full year about "The Odyssey," Homer's "Odyssey," which is largely about fathers and sons.

I mean, everybody knows it's about a guy trying to get back to his wife.

Jeffrey Brown: Right. Right.

Daniel Mendelsohn: But there's also a great father-son story.

I should say parents and children. It's not just fathers and sons.

Jeffrey Brown: OK, let's go to the next video.

Martha Bowden: Have you taught "The Odyssey" since this class? And if so, have you been more flexible about allowing your students to take more leadership in the discussion?

Jeffrey Brown: And I was glad to get that question...

Daniel Mendelsohn: That's a wonderful question.

Jeffrey Brown: ... because so much of it is about the act of teaching, right, and the experiencing of it, and learning from your students.

Daniel Mendelsohn: Yes.

So, I admit in the book that I learned a lot from the students in this class, among whom was my own father, about teaching. And I felt that, during that semester, I learned something very important.

I love "The Odyssey." I have been reading it my whole life, teaching it my whole life. And I wanted the students to love "The Odyssey" exactly the way I loved it. And that was a mistake.

Jeffrey Brown: Right. Right, as though there's one way, huh?

Daniel Mendelsohn: And partly -- yes.

I learned after that to loosen up a little and to let the students approach the work in their own way. And so I would like to think that I learned something that semester, and I'm a little more flexible than I used to be.

Jeffrey Brown:You like to think it. You look like you're not so sure.

Daniel Mendelsohn: Well, you only know what you know, you know?

Jeffrey Brown: All right, we will continue this conversation and have it all available online and on our Facebook page.

For now, Daniel Mendelsohn and "An Odyssey," thank you very much.

Daniel Mendelsohn: Thanks for having me.

Jeffrey Brown: And next, a very different kind of trip.

Our June book club pick takes place on a planet not our own, but its premise is all too timely. In N.K. Jemisin's fantasy novel "The Fifth Season," the world is menaced by environmental catastrophe, and its inhabitants struggle to survive.

It won the 2016 Hugo Award, science fiction's highest honor. We hope you will join us and read along, get to know the author and many other readers, all part of our Now Read This book club, in partnership with The New York Times.

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