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December 17, 2009

Gwen Cooper on THE ODYSSEY

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HOMER'S ODYSSEY author Gwen Cooper reflects on her lifelong obsession with a different Homer, and what the numerous translations of his work have come to represent in her own life.

Long before I had a blind cat named Homer, I was obsessed with Homer the blind Greek poet. My lifelong love affair with all things Greek mythology began in the third grade, when my English teacher, Mrs. Hannah, gave me a copy of Edith Hamilton’s MYTHOLOGY as a holiday gift. “I thought you might enjoy this,” she said, and she probably had no idea how right she’d end up being.

Looking back, it was my desire to read more than the summaries of the stories Ms. Hamilton provided --- to read the original stories themselves --- that first propelled me from children’s literature to literature generally. I dug up the battered old Samuel Butler translation of Homer’s ODYSSEY in our school library and held on to it for so long that, three years later when it was time to move on to middle school, I was told that in order to graduate I’d have to reimburse the library for the cost of the book.

I still have that copy somewhere, thoroughly dog-eared, thumbed-through, and marked up.

In the years since then, the progressively newer translations of the ODYSSEY that I’ve received as holiday gifts are a snapshot of where I was at that point in my life. The Fitzgerald translation is me with my first job in high school, working at a local bookstore, and using my employee discount to splurge on a little gift for myself during a holiday-season sale. The Lattimore translation is me as a new college graduate with my first “grown-up” boyfriend, who unearthed a first edition to give me for Hanukkah. The Fagles translation is me less than eleven months after moving from Miami to New York, and two months after turning 30. A friend back in Miami --- who knew nothing about the Odyssey and cared even less --- was assured by a helpful B&N clerk that this newest (at the time) translation would make a perfect “missing you at the holidays” gift for someone like me who just couldn’t get enough Homer in her life.

Not too long before Thanksgiving this year, I returned to Miami to give a reading from my Homer’s ODYSSEY at the Miami Book Fair. In the audience was Mrs. Hannah. “I just knew you’d be a writer someday,” she told me, pressing my hand, when the reading was over.

As it turns out, Mrs. Hannah was right about a lot of things.

-- Gwen Cooper

Please check back tomorrow, as Susan Shapiro Barash shares fond Hanukkah memories of Austen, Shakespeare and Alcott.