Weber reads "The Odyssey": Tale of ancient Greek warrior subject of community-based reading program

Jan 5 2014 - 9:42pm


Photo illustration by BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner
(Left to right) Christina Reyes, Alan Lynch, Maddie Roe and Annie Roe show off various copies of “The Odyssey” at the Weber County Library in Ogden. “The Odyssey” is the Weber Reads selection for 2014.
BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner
Variations on “The Odyssey,” ranging from graphic novels to translations of the original poems, are available at the Weber County Library in Ogden.
Photo illustration by BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner
(Left to right) Christina Reyes, Alan Lynch, Maddie Roe and Annie Roe show off various copies of “The Odyssey” at the Weber County Library in Ogden. “The Odyssey” is the Weber Reads selection for 2014.
BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner
Variations on “The Odyssey,” ranging from graphic novels to translations of the original poems, are available at the Weber County Library in Ogden.

Maybe you met him, once upon an English class, facing one obstacle after another on his epic 10-year journey home.

His name is Odysseus and his struggles to return to his wife and son after being away at war form the basis of one of the world's greatest works of literature. The tale of this ancient Greek warrior has fascinated listeners for centuries, whether told in stories around the campfire, read on the printed page or re-enacted -- in modern day -- on the silver screen.

Now "The Odyssey" comes to life again as the featured selection for 2014's Weber Reads, an annual community-based reading program that kicks off this month at various Ogden locations.

But fear not, gentle reader, if the thought of reading Homer's epic poem in all its glorious dactylic hexameter sounds a trifle daunting.

Try a comic book version of the classic tale, or a graphic novel, or even a children's picture book.

That's the idea of Weber Reads, to make "The Odyssey" accessible to of all ages, says Lynnda Wangsgard, director of the Weber County Library Systems, which hosts some of the community events and facilitates activities in local schools.

"One does not need to read 'The Odyssey' in a scholarly edition in order to experience the joy and discovery that comes from that work," the library director says.

Historian Kathryn L. MacKay at Weber State University agrees, adding, "We want to assure people they do not need to be intimidated by this. ... Pick something that works for you, pick something that makes sense for you, and go for it and enjoy it."

Even Wangsgard says she isn't sure she will tackle a "tough" reread of "The Odyssey." Instead, the library director envisions herself settling in on a winter's night with a much lighter version of Odysseus' adventures with the cyclops and the sirens -- "one that will allow for a quick read in a new way."

Test of time

Weber Reads began in 2007 with "Beowulf," the oldest existing work in the English language. Since then, the volunteer-organized program has also tackled "Frankenstein," slavery, classics by Mark Twain, and last year, the poetry of Emily Dickinson.

"Our goal is that people will come together around these texts and gain understanding of their own lives," says Margaret Rostkowski, a retired teacher and codirector of the Wasatch Range Writing Project, which prepares Weber Reads lesson plans for school children.

The project includes lectures at Weber State University on different facets of the selected work; curriculum and presentations for children from elementary school to high school; and family-oriented crafts, games and activities. There's even a screening or two of the hit 2000 film, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," which was loosely based on this epic Greek tale.

Why select "The Odyssey" for Weber Reads?

"Our mission statement says we choose pieces that have lasted and 'The Odyssey' has lasted, goodness, 2,700 years, so we think it's one of those pieces that really speaks to us," says Rostkowski, who taught the book for 20 years in her classes at Ogden High.

Wangsgard adds, "It is such a seminal work in the foundation of our culture. It deals with so many issues that are just as relevant today as they were when it was written."

Even the name of the ancient Greek poem has become embedded in our language; an odyssey is a long journey, full of adventures.

Remaining relevant

Some of the timely topics addressed in the "The Odyssey" revolve around war, the organizers of Weber Reads say. Odysseus is away from his home in Ithaca for 10 long years fighting the Trojan War. Then it takes him another 10 years to return to his wife and son.

"We can learn so much about what our own soldiers are going through as they return home," says Rostkowski.

Wangsgard says she read the work for the first time in high school but it wasn't until later in life, after knowing family and friends who had experienced war, that she could truly appreciate what happened to Odysseus.

"The Odyssey" is also a story of those left at home when soldiers go off to war, like Penelope, Odysseus' faithful wife, who cleverly rejects the advances of young suitors who are after her hand in marriage.

"She does not give up hope he is going to return alive," Wangsgard says.

Odysseus' long journey back to Ithaca involves encounters with such colorful characters as the one-eyed cyclops, a six-headed monster, lotus eaters and seductive sirens. These monsters are Homer's way of showing that men are weak because they face temptations, says Jessica Whetman, adult programming coordinator at the Weber County Library.

"They're present there to talk about life's choices pretty much, and what happens when you get thrown off course," Whetman says.

All the monsters, witches and adventures make this a "cracking good story," adds Rostkowski, who says teenagers at Ogden High always enjoyed studying "The Odyssey."

Heroes, 'Star Wars'

Homer's "Iliad" and its sequel, "The Odyssey," are literature's original epic poems and also the root of many of our culture's ideas about heroism.

"We talk about the Homeric hero, the person who's larger than life, who can do things way beyond what the normal person can do," Wangsgard says.

Odysseus had to accomplish many great feats -- like sailing past the six-headed monster or resisting the potions of the nymph Circe -- if he ever wanted to return home and see his family again.

"All these journeys will be little tests of his endurance and his courage. They're the kinds of trials we all face in some way as individuals," Wangsgard says.

Yet Wangsgard says the story also shows another view of heroism through characters like Penelope, who is left at home waiting for her husband. She doesn't have to slay any monsters but Penelope demonstrates a "determination to live with an intolerable loss and still have a meaningful life," Wangsgard says.

"If that's not key to every challenge facing everyone at some point in time, I don't know what is," she says.

Homer's classic tale is also, in part, the story of a son's search for his father, rather like a "Star Wars" of ages past, Rostkowski says. Telemachus is only an infant when his father goes off to war, and the opening chapters of "The Odyssey" revolve around his efforts to find out what has happened to Odysseus.

Gather round

Most people are probably vaguely familiar with some parts of "The Odyssey" story, MacKay says, but, through Weber Reads, "We encourage them to delve into it a little bit deeper and more deliberately."

There's value in reading such a tale together with others, be it with family or friends or members of the community, the Weber State University history professor says.

"A lot of literature comes alive with discussions, with good discussion," she says. By talking and listening to others, we discover new viewpoints and perspectives on a book, she explains.

And as a historian, MacKay says she also believes we can better understand the present by "taking a long view."

"I think thinking about other people in other times can enrich our lives," she says. "There's a whole repertoire of the human experience that we get to explore by looking at the past."

"The Odyssey" offers the chance to think about journeys we all take in life; "Are we going to be a better person for having gone through this trauma that is illustrated in the text, or is it going to destroy us?" MacKay asks.

Just curious?

Rostkowski says "The Odyssey" is loaded with adventure, beautiful writing and great characters. But she emphasizes people don't need to read the story at all to take part in the Weber Reads events.

Come even if you're just curious, she says -- "Why do we talk so much about 'The Odyssey'? What makes it great?"

Or if you have read the book, give it another look, maybe by picking up a new version, the organizers say.

"The Gareth Hinds graphic novel is extraordinarily good," Rostkowski says. "The illustrations are beautiful. The translation, some of it is right word for word from the actual poem so you're really getting a good sense of what it's like."

Wangsgard says "The Odyssey" is the kind of work that can be revisited over and over again.

"Life's lessons," she says, "are not taught or learned by reading it one time."

Contact reporter Becky Cairns at 801-625-4276 or Follow her on Twitter at @bccairns.


Weber Reads offers a variety of free events focused on this year's selection, "The Odyssey."

Here's a sampling of upcoming programs at Ogden's Weber State University and various branches of the Weber County Library.

WSU lecture series

All events begin at 12:30 p.m. and are held in the Hetzel-Hoelin Room of the Stewart Library on the Weber State University campus, 3848 Harrison Blvd.

* Jan. 14: Pre-Greek sources for Culture and Mythology, Linda Eaton of the WSU anthropology department

* Jan. 28: "Witches, Nymphs, Lotus-Eaters and the Long Way Home," Kathy Payne, WSU library and history department

* Feb. 11: "The Greeks and the Stars," Stacy Palen and Brad Carroll, WSU physics department

* Feb. 25: "Odysseus, the Warrior and PTSD," Jim Svendsen, retired University of Utah professor and director of the Greek Festival at Salt Lake City's Westminster College

* March 18: Popcorn discussion of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" (2000, PG-13). This event will last more than one hour due to screening of the film.

* April 1: Panel discussion of books based on "The Odyssey"

For more information, visit

Library events

* Jan. 8: "Epic Journeys" film series, 7 p.m., Pleasant Valley branch, 5568 S. Adams Ave., Washington Terrace. This week's film is "Clash of the Titans" (2010, PG-13). For more information on this and all Pleasant Valley branch offerings, call 801-337-2690.

* Jan. 15: "Epic Journeys" film series, 7 p.m., Pleasant Valley branch; featured selection is "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"

* Jan. 21: Heroes of "The Odyssey" activity and movie, 3:30 p.m., North branch, 475 E. 2600 North, North Ogden.

Test your strength against the cyclops and sirens, then watch a 4 p.m. screening of "Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters" (2013, PG). For more information, call 801-337-2650.

* Jan. 22: "Epic Journeys" film series, 7 p.m., Pleasant Valley branch; featured selection is "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" (2012, PG-13).

* Jan. 23: "Epic Journeys" book discussion series, 7 p.m., Pleasant Valley branch.

"The Penelopiad" by Margaret Atwood is the theme of the discussion; copies are available at the library's reference desk. The 2005 novella recounts Penelope's life story and the murder of her 12 handmaidens by her husband Odysseus.

* Jan. 29: "Epic Journeys" film series, 7 p.m., Pleasant Valley branch; featured selection is "Elysium" (2013, R).

* Feb. 20: "Epic Journeys" book discussion series, 7 p.m., Pleasant Valley branch.

Scott Huler's book "No Man's Lands: One Man's Odyssey through the Odyssey" retraces the journey of Odysseus from Troy to Ithaca in six months, instead of 20 years. Books are available at the reference desk.

* March 27: Spanish language book discussion series of "La Odisea," 6 p.m., main library, 2464 Jefferson Ave., Ogden. 

The full epic poem is presented in an illustrated adaptation of Homer's classic by Rafael Mammos. The discussion will be presented in Spanish; refreshments will be served.

For more information on this and other events at the main library, call 801-337-2632.

* May 19: Book discussion series, 7 p.m., main library.

This discussion centers on a translation of "The Odyssey" by Robert Fagles, with lavish illustrations and text from the original Greek.

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