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CfP CAAS 2024 Panel: Size Matters: Big Books and the Idea of the Classic(al)
The Classical Association of the Atlantic States 2024 Annual Meeting
Dates: October 17-19, 2024
Venue: The Heldrich Hotel & Conference Center, New Brunswick, NJ

Many people first encounter the “classics” via big books in the Classics section of any given bookshop. These include the ancient epics, for starters, but also tomes like Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, James Joyce’s Ulysses, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. While the nature and intensity of classical (meaning “Ancient Mediterranean”) reception may vary, each of these works draws on and interweaves Greco-Roman tropes to varying degrees and with varying effects.

As classicists, we are often primed to highlight the themes that we know best for both ourselves and our students: the Platonic farce of the book burning in Don Quixote (not to mention the Socratic — or should we say “Quixotic”? — search for truth), the Homeric and Virgilian echoes and structuring principles in Ulysses, the Xenophontic catalogs and Ahab’s Promethean qualities in Moby Dick, etc. From both pedagogical and analytical standpoints, we ought to ask, “What does this kind of contextualization gain for us? What does it lose?”

Indeed, these questions are by no means new, as the chorus of scholars who are interested in, say, Melville’s use of epic and mythology (Cook 2003 does so specifically by reading Bulkington as a Hercules figure; Treichel 2009 reads the work as katabasis tale, which Melville places in conversation with his epic ancestors) or Joyce’s use of Latin and its implications (through the lens of Buck Mulligan, as Ronnick 1992 has done). We welcome papers that offer new approaches to these or similar readings. Or to put it the other way around, how do these “big books” influence the classical texts on which they draw? How does the order in which we encounter these texts come to bear on our understanding of and engagement with them? Does it matter?

This panel aims to explore the question of big books and classical references from the perspectives of philology, reception studies, and “great books” pedagogy. We want to position the “classical” “great” book as an object that both filters and is filtered by other “great” (in every sense of the word) books.

One way of thinking about this question is through what Catherine Malabou has called “seeing thought”: “How does thought figure itself when the figurable and thinkable, to draw a distinction between them, are nonetheless coalescent?” (Malabou 2022, 16). In other words, how do great books and the currency that they carry shape what we can say about them? How does the weight of the “classical” affect the realms of possibility for our interpretations of these texts?

Another, more philologically oriented way of approaching this question is through the notion of the temenos, the piece of land apportioned for a divine or official domain. What do we cut away when we cut off sections of these works for classical inquiry, and what is left behind by this kind of apportioning? As Jacobo Myerston’s work on Bolaño shows, Greco-Roman (re)interpretations can just as easily hide reactionary prejudices as they can challenge the canon’s innate conservatism (Myerston 2016). This kind of approach perhaps leads us to James Porter’s argument in Homer: The Very Idea, in that the notion of the classic or classical is itself an ancient fabrication that attempts to impart prestige to those who know how to use it (Porter 2021).

We invite papers that deal with these and related issues, both on the general topic of the “big classic” and on the specific/philological use of “classics” in these “big books”:

  • What does a classicist see when reading the “big books”?
  • What definition do we use for a “classical” “big book”?
  • What challenges does the scope pose, e.g., for teaching and/or scholarship purposes?
  • What does size have to do with what’s classic?
  • Does the way we measure size make any sense? Is a “book” a unit of measure?
  • For that matter, how does the size of a “book” influence its social/cultural/political cachet?
  • What meaning can we draw from the relationship between literary size and prestige?
  • How do we teach these texts when we know students barely read half of them?
  • (How do we teach these texts when we know that we barely read half of them?)
  • Who decides how big is too big, and what does that decision say about our influences?

Please send abstracts of no more than 200 words to the panel organizers, Charles Pletcher ( and Lien Van Geel ( by 10 February 2024. Please note that this panel is subject to CAAS’ Program Committee’s approval. Additionally, please adhere to CAAS’ guidelines about the use and incorporation of bibliography, which read as follows:

  • “A bibliography of five items (not included in the word limit) following each of the abstracts.
  • The expectation of the Program Committee is that authors weave these references into the narrative (using parenthetical citations) to build the argument, rather than just listing them at the end of their abstract.
  • A couple of major/recent publications (depending on the topic of the panel) should feature in the bibliography. Pedagogy proposals may reference innovative teaching approaches in progress explored by the submitter(s) and/or other educators.”

Please prepare for presentations of 15 minutes in length. Do not hesitate to contact us if you have any questions about the panel. We look forward to receiving your abstracts!

Selected Bibliography

Cook, J. A. (2003), Moby-Dick, Myth, and Classical Moralism: Bulkington as Hercules. Leviathan, 5: 15-28.
Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Translated by Richard Nice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Griffiths, F. T., & Rabinowitz, S. J. (1983). “Tolstoy and Homer.” Comparative Literature, 35(2), 97–125.
Nagy, Gregory. 2009. Homer the Classic. Hellenic Studies 36. Cambridge MA and Washington DC.
Myerston, Jacobo. 2016. “The Classicist in the Cave: Bolaño’s Theory of Reading in By Night in Chile.” Classical Receptions Journal 8 (4): 554–73.
Malabou, Catherine. 2022. Plasticity: The Promise of Explosion. Edited by Tyler M. Williams. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Porter, James I. 2021. Homer: The Very Idea. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Ronnick, M. V. (1992). Buck Mulligan’s Latin in Ulysses, 14.705-10: Ciceronic Not Ciceronian. Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, 2(1), 217–221.
Treichel T. (2009). "And so hell's probable" : Herman Melville's Moby-Dick and Pierre as Descent Narratives. WVT Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier.

Call for Papers