Book Market Vibes Prove Ancient Greek is ‘IN’

Emphasising the chance to study ancient Greek language is one of the best ways universities can attract students.

Ancient Greek is not only in, it is showing early signs of a renaissance which universities could capitalize on in various ways. A key piece of evidence comes from the burgeoning demand and prices for antiquarian books in the field.

A quick digression to explain how I know this. The close friend with whom I have had the longest continuous contact is the bookseller P J Hilton. Recently his central London shop ceased to be viable, but he is still a bookseller, adjusting to bookselling on online. Bookshops have been hit hard by the Internet, and will be hit again by the growth of electronic readers. In good times and bad, I was often in Paul’s shop several times in a month or even a week, and observed the stock turnover, the behaviour of customers, and heard Paul’s wisdom on the trade. The growth in demand for Greek has been striking.

When Paul was first in the trade, old Latin books and old Greek books would sit on the shelves gathering dust. These subjects were obsolete. Of course there was always a market for really rare, old and beautiful books in any language. By ‘old’ I mean anyone’s idea of collectable: the older the better, and a collector’s preferred century depends largely on his budget. ‘His’? Book collecting is also far less an exclusively male pastime that it was twenty or thirty or years ago, by the by. In past decades, books in English were for decades much preferred, even among collectable books which are unlikely to be read.

But now! Beautiful old Greek books sell fast. Burgeoning demand means burgeoning prices. A few people would always come in to the shop asking for ‘Greek and Latin Classics,’ and that did not change. Latin books are not less popular than they were, but they have not experienced the same market growth. Not yet.

Any analysis of the reasons for this massive demand for books in ancient Greek would be interesting, and inconclusive. Conclusively, it is clear that the fascination and resonance which these books exert are drawing attention and money, and not only from customers with origins or connections in modern Greece. The antiquarian book market might seem as far from the world of fashion as you can get, but it is not. The very rare and early will always be valuable. Beyond that, collecting is driven by fashion, and tells you as much or more about cultural trends at work in society as the catwalk. If people will devote money to collecting books in ancient Greek, some of those people will want to devote money and time to learning the language. Make no mistake, ancient Greek (which was fuddy-duddy’ when I started to learn it) is ‘in.’ Latin, on the basis of book market trends, is not.

Universities should respond to this semi-hidden groundswell of demand. How? Among other things, by emphasizing the offer of ancient Greek language teaching as the selling-point most likely to attract students onto a Classics course. I made this point with reference to both Latin and Greek in an earlier blog post, Yay! It’s Greek Prose Composition Month!, where I discussed the widespread interesting in learning Classical languages among amateur students.

This is not to suggest that professional academics are unaware of what is going on. But when you are engaged with the field every day, the new cultural shoots, the germination and blossoming of a new trend, may be harder to spot in its early stages. After years of visiting Paul’s shop, I was impressed by the way, gradually, Greek books started to fly off the shelves ever faster, and not only gorgeous examples of Venetian printing. Almost anything. Classicists and Classics Departments need no longer be on the back foot: once we convince the world that Latin should be as fashionable as Greek has become, our subject will be in ever greater demand.

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