Sunday, 18 July 2010

BOOK REVIEW: A Don's Life-Mary Beard

It's not often I write about Books, actually I don't. I haven't written a book report in YEARS, by that I mean, 8 years exactly. Unfortunately, this review isn't the good kind of review, in fact the book left me seething, so I'm writing about it. (Yes, I know, it's not THAT kind of blog, but it's got a cultural aspect to it!)

If you've been following my tweets (not many do, I am a very very boring person-it's all about trains on my twitter, but that's besides the point!) the place where I am interning released books that they get sent/reviewed to the employees, I picked up a few, A Don's life, written by Cambridge Professor Mary Beard, caught my eye. Bite sized portion blogposts, now in book form-perfect for train rides! (and might stop my incessant train-tweets)-(It didn't by the way, I just ended up frothing at the teeth on the train ride home.)

Mary Beard's blog has been featured on the times online website for a fair amount of time, and her blogposts were widely read by many and thus with her success, they captured some of the blogposts she wrote in this book.

In her blog, she addresses a number of issues, ranging from her own specialist subject-classical studies to modern day controversial topics, about education and the politics of Britain. The latter blogposts just show her in a negative light because it becomes clear that Beard has no sense of living in the real world. For example; her questioning of the university grading system in relation to the A-level system. Apparently for her, students become aware from A level that exams are an assessment criteria (Oh god forbid, they know!) and thus ask why they didn't acheive a first honours degree when they only receive a 2.1 degree. According to Beard, that is asking too much! I'm sorry, grades are about assessment criteria and if they didn't fulfil that criteria, there's no reason why they shouldn't ask why they didn't fulfil it. It's only natural to do so!

Although I do think that my view on Mary Beard's book is rather overshadowed by her ignorance on the East Asian community in Britain. The whole reason being that she didn't understand why Cambridge University changed the Oriental department to the Faculty of Asian and Middle Easterm Studies. She reckoned that instead of abolishing the word (which rings of colonialism AND Orientalism) that they should re-invent it as a good thing. Isn't it easier if you stop using it? I'm sure once people stop using it, people will understand that we shouldn't label people with colonialist terms. I'm sure we don't call middle eastern people Levantines still, do we? So why do we still call people of East Asian/SE Asian origin, Oriental? It's just sheer ignorance!

I don't think Beard has a grasp on the modern world at all, she may be a genius in the world of ancient greco-roman studies, but she certainly hasn't grasped how people think in the real world yet. I'm glad this book was free, because I would have been very unhappy if I lost £8.99 on this crap.

The details

A Don's Life
Mary Beard

Profile Books


9 Golden Nuggets:

Carine said...

Beard seems to have spent the last century locked up in a cave :)

maryb said...

Oh dear .. I really dont think that i am as wicked as you say, and I am very careful about what I call 'crap'! That's always dangerous.. and it spreads dangerous rumours.. no Carine (I dont know how much of what I have written that you have read) I didnt spend the last century locked up in a cave -- but working hard, keeping a job with two young kids etc etc

But let me reply to one thing.. happy to engage in others if you wish. The Oriental Studies to FAMES debate.. surely it is more complicated. True, we all know the political implications, now, of "Oriental", and I guess that I shudder almost as much as you. But there really are two ways to confront this a) change the name and b) change the sense. I guess you dont remember when it was impossible to say 'black' or "queer".. but the power movements in both those areas reclaimed the words. So too for Oriental?

I think that is what the School of Oriental and African Studies (London) and the Oriental Institute in Chicago is waiting for... nether institution being (currently) an instrument of colonial oppression.

Hope this isnt 'crap'. m

Yin said...

Thanks for replying Mary, and taking the time to reply!

I see your point about Oriental studies and how both the chicago institute and SOAS are not institutes that promote colonial oppression. But can you see a power movement for the word oriental to be reclaimed? We East asians seem to keep to ourselves alot in Britain. Not in the best way either because we usually get overlooked. =)

It's really my own view that I don't like the word Oriental, and perhaps my review is rather unfair but everyone is allowed for their opinions, right?

Yinnie x

Anonymous said...

Well at the moment, no.... but when I was a kind there wasnt a movement to reclaim Black or Queer (in fact i remembered getting really blasted by my parents for using the word 'back'... I think we were supposed to say 'coloured' or 'negro'.. unlikely as that sounds).

It's not clear how that reclaiming gets off the ground, but it is sure is a much more effective way of undermining the oppressive implication than just finding another word that we now like better. (I know plenty of people who hate "Middle East" or "Far East" for the understandable reason that it is only "Far" or "Middle" from the point of view of Europe.

maryb said...

sorry that anonymous was from me, Mary

Madam Miaow said...

Wow! One of my fellow long-listers in the Orwell Prize. I had no idea she suffered from Ivory Toweritis to this degree. She doesn't know what the word "Oriental" means? The same root as "orientate": "determine one's position with reference to another point". As in Europe is at the solid centre and all Other is oriented around it?

"Oriental" will always men that which is not at the centre. That is its meaning. I only use the word when I'm being ironic or referring to orientalism.

BTW, Yin, have you seen the Mac/Rodarte story?

maryb said...

Hi... and to Madam Miaow...

I'm losing the plot here. I thought that that was exactly what I was saying about "Oriental", or "Far East" etc etc... in terms of it all depends what the assumed starting point is.

But I think I was also saying that there are other ways of contesting than -- not just changing the words. I mean changing the meaning. Which is something that Said didnt really take on board!

Madam Miaow said...

Hi Mary,

I'm afraid I dpn't want to "reclaim" the word "oriental". It was never ours in the first place and was always dubious.

The problem I have is what we do call ourselves. There are certain easy things about the word — it conjures images of a particular physiognomy that ranges from statuesque strong-jawed super-models from the north to smaller darker people in the south of East Asia.

I've taken to calling myself Far East Asian, but as others have pointed out, far East of where?

Perhaps I'll settle for the Pacific Rim. Yeah, "Hi, I'm Anna. I'm a Pacific Rimmer. Pleased to meet you."

Yin said...


Late reply, I've been busy ALL week.

I don't think you can change the meaning, not with the history the word has, because you can't un-do what it's gone through. You can't take back quotes like 'the great unwashed hordes of the orient' (Victor Heiser) because it's even relevant in today's world of new disease (e.g: SARS and animal flu). Like Anna said, it's a dubious word.

But thank you for taking the time to reply! To Both Mary and Anna.