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Staff Picks: Pandora’s Jar

In July ‘22, Kaitlyn Greenberg introduced us to Madeline Miller’s Circe, as a great read for “anyone with an interest in mythology, a fondness for retellings of “classic” stories, or fantasy.” I had never read any modern takes on the Classics (and have little experience with the primary source material either!), but my interest was piqued. Later on, I was sold by Audible’s description of Pandora’s Jar, by Natalie Haynes: “In Pandora’s Jar, the broadcaster, writer, stand-up comedian, and passionate classicist turns the tables, putting the women of Greek myths on an equal footing with the men. With wit, humor, and savvy, Haynes revolutionizes our misunderstanding of epic poems, stories and plays, resurrecting them from a woman’s perspective and tracing the origins of their mythic female characters.”   

I listened to Haynes’ reading of her book while walking around New York City, while doing chores in my house and while driving up to Vermont. She explained how different versions of Greek myths end up in popular culture from a posture of overwhelming fluency in the Classics. However, this level of mastery did not feel exclusive or hard to follow. I was grabbed by her continued focus on the positionality of the women in these stories. She encourages readers/listeners not to accept the stories as they are told, uncovering the subtle differences in versions of events.  

The book also encourages a deeper appreciation for the physical objects that tell these stories. Haynes talks about the nuances of different pieces of artwork that represent elements of myth. I have seen many relics at the Metropolitan Museum or Art, but had no context for the figures on each pot or oil jar. I was very interested in Haynes’ reading of these pots and made a trip to the Met’s collection to see them again with a new perspective. Coincidentally, I was recently gifted with a beautiful book that discusses the Met’s collection which also enhanced the experience of walking through the cases of artifacts.  

One of my favorite aspects of hearing Haynes reading her own book was the immediacy of inflection and tone. (For a taste of her sense of humor and mission of sharing the Classics, check out this clip of Haynes “standing up for Sappho”.) There was a notable moment in Pandora’s Jar where the format of audio book required extra clarification. As Haynes is describing the wifely virtues of Penelope, she must spell “chaste, t-e” and “chased, e-d”. She delivers this play on words with an ironic and dry tone that embedded itself into my memory. It seems that the audiobook had an ease of access that assisted my encounter with the stories of the Classics. (Check out these resources for audiobooks!) However, now that I have a taste for it, I’ll be looking into more formats and perspectives.  

More new books on Classics at Rutgers: