Books That Built Me

Books That Built Me: the Inferno by Dante Aligheri, the John Ciardi translation

I am the child of two librarians. I grew up in libraries and used bookstores. I don’t remember Mom or Dad ever telling me that I was too young to read a particular title, though I do remember once being scolded for trying to impress my parents’ friends with what I was reading.

So I read The Inferno in junior high. I remember exactly where I got it: Ann’s Gifts and Antiques, a now-defunct bookstore in Hebron, Ohio where we’d always go to stock up at the beginning of vacations in Ohio. I remember handing the paperback to Dad to add to the stack of Mom’s mysteries. What was Dad buying? I think Mockingbird by Walter Tevis.

The Inferno was perfect for junior high. There were so many people I wanted to condemn, and here was a handy guide to let me know in exactly which circle they belonged.

I liked, too, that the translation was by John Ciardi. I felt like I knew him from Cricket.

I remember where I read it: lying in the top bunk at the cottage on Buckeye Lake that we time-shared with a lot of relatives. I decided the introduction was important, so I plunged in before I let myself start reading the poetry. I learned that it was written in “the humble vernacular.” I tried to make sense out of Guelphs and Ghibellines, Beatrice and exile. Why? Well, I had a scheme that I wanted to read everything I thought would be required in college before I was even in high school, so I’d be, somehow, ahead.

It worked and it didn’t. You can get a lot out of The Inferno without intimate knowledge of Italian and ecclesiastical history, but mostly what you get is stuff like OH YEAH THE HYPOCRITES HAVE ROBES THAT LOOK GOLD ON THE OUTSIDE BUT ARE ACTUALLY MADE OF LEAD BECAUSE OF, YOU KNOW, HYPOCRISY! ALSO SATAN TOTALLY ENCASED IN ICE AND EATING THAT ONE DUDE.

I read it over and over. I never called myself a horror fan, but Dante gave me gore and justice.

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  • Talya
    January 19, 2008 at 1:39 am

    I read The Iliad at about that age (the Richard Lattimore translation, which I didn’t like so much; and the Robert Graves one, which I loved). I read it lying on the floor of our living room, and I still associate the opening lines with the blue and red geometric pattern of the carpet.

    It gave me all sorts of ideas about honor and warfare that made me even more of an oddity as a girl in NYC, and marked the start of my interest in ancient military history.

    It also gave me the setting for one of my more memorable stress dreams, in which I was chased around the walls of Troy by a Latin text book.