Professor Mary Beard talks Death, Europe and singing. Photo: David Hartley/Rex/Shutterstock

"A day in the library is sexier than you think": Mary Beard on universities, Trump, and the most over-rated book of all time

Classical historian Mary Beard answers Prospect's "Brief Encounter" questions—and tells us why she wouldn't want to find Aristotle's lost book on comedy
September 12, 2017
  1. What is the first news/historical event you can recall? 
The Kennedy assassination. I remember reading “Assassinated” in the headlines of my grandmother’s newspaper and not knowing what the word meant.
  1. What is the most over-rated book of all time? 
Well that is tough. I am tempted to say Aristotle’s lost book on comedy. It wouldn’t live up to the hype it has had simply because it is lost, and so we wrongly imagine it would solve all the problems about ancient comedy. Among the slightly better preserved specimens, I have never been a huge fan of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades project or at least I have never been a fan of all the (self-)congratulatory hype that surrounds it.
  1. What is the book you are most embarrassed you’ve never read? 
It used to be Middlemarch, but I rectified that. Now I tend to be a bit vague about how far through the Elena Ferrante series I have got.
  1. One bit of advice you’d give to your younger self? 
A day in the library is sexier than you think.
  1. What is your favourite saying or quotation? 
Tacitus on conquest: “They make a desert and call it peace.” I remember reading this in Latin lessons at school and it was the first bit of Latin literature that really spoke to me. I was amazed that someone so long ago should hit the nail on the head so very sharply. The best line on military conquest ever.
  1. Where do you want to be buried/have your ashes scattered? 
The ascension parish burial ground just up the road from me in Cambridge would be a nice place to spend eternity (but I probably should have put my name down years ago).
  1. If you were given £1m to spend on other people, what would you spend it on and why? 
I would like to be one of those university donors who endows something that looks really frivolous, but turns out to be socially and academically central: an annual trip to Paris for the whole faculty.
  1. The talent you wish you had? 
Singing. I can sing beautifully in my head, but even with the best-known carol it never sounds so convincing when it comes out of my mouth.
  1. The best & worst presents you’ve ever received 
I have blotted out the bad ones, but the gold bicycle helmet my daughter gave me for Christmas a couple of years ago was pretty special.
  1. What have you changed your mind about? 
I think I used to be a bit cool about the European Union, or the Common Market as we used to call it then. Not now.
  1. What is the biggest problem of all? 
  1. Are things getting better or worse? 
Better, of course: just imagine living in ancient Rome, especially as a woman. We are all a bit afflicted with nostalgia even if we don’t go quite down the route of “Make America Great Again.” (When exactly, by the way, is he thinking we should go back to?). But I have seen a revolution in, for example, women’s rights in my lifetime, even if there is more to do. Going back would only be worse.