Sweet Briar’s Common Read for 2019-2020 is a conversation between two books ‘across thousands of years’

Madeline Mill by Nina Subin
Madeline Miller. Photo by Nina Subin

Sweet Briar College’s Common Read selection for the 2019-2020 academic year features not one book, but a pair of books “in dynamic and rich conversation with one another across thousands of years,” says Director of the Center for Creativity, Design and the Arts Carrie Brown. They are Madeline Miller’s No. 1 New York Times best-selling novel “Circe” — about the legendary sorceress and goddess who (among other things) turns men into pigs in “The Odyssey” — and Emily Wilson’s celebrated translation of “The Odyssey,” the first English translation by a woman.

Circe book
“Circe” by Madeline Miller

The writers will visit campus and bookend the year: Madeline Miller on Thursday, Nov. 7, and Emily Wilson on Wednesday, March 18, 2020. Their presentations are free and open to the public.

“Both books are full of magic and mystery and monsters and morality,” Brown says. “They delve into the classical story of Odysseus’s return from the Trojan War with fresh insights about the experiences of women once seen only in the shadows of the famous epic.” Both have been praised for their language, she notes, as well their “visionary perspective and imaginative reach,” which makes them not just great works of literature, but also fun to read. And in both, Brown adds, “women emerge as modern, sympathetic and formidable figures in a literary and cultural landscape once dominated by a focus on the male experience.”

Emily Wilson. Photo by Kyle Cassidy
Emily Wilson. Photo by Kyle Cassidy

The New York Times called “Circe” a “bold and subversive retelling of the goddess’s story that manages to be both epic and intimate in its scope, recasting the most infamous female figure from the Odyssey as a hero in her own right.” In the Washington Post, Ron Charles wrote, “We know how everything here turns out — we’ve known it for thousands of years — and yet in Miller’s lush reimagining, the story feels harrowing and unexpected. The feminist light she shines on these events never distorts their original shape; it only illuminates details we hadn’t noticed before.”

The Guardian dubbed Wilson’s “Odyssey” a “crisp and musical version” and “a cultural landmark.” The reviewer wrote, “This translation will change the way the poem is read in English.”

Free copies of both books were made available to students, faculty and staff at the end of the spring semester. In addition to the readings, first-year students will talk about the books during two discussions during orientation, and faculty will lead book club-style conversations over the lunch hour in the dining hall each week throughout the fall semester.

For more information, email Brown at cbrown@sbc.edu.