The University of Miami’s Center for the Humanities welcomed back the Book Talk series on Sept. 16. This series, which has been active and running for over a decade, is designed to give the university’s faculty an opportunity to share their recently published books with other faculty members, students and local community members. During the monthly Book Talk seminars, UM faculty present their books, as well as answer questions from the audience.
Usually, the Book Talk’s occur at the Coral Gables Books & Books store. However, due to the pandemic, the Book Talk series has been moved fully online via Zoom.
The first faculty member to present in the 2020-2021 series is Jennifer Ferriss-Hill, with the introduction of her second book, “Horace’s Ars Poetica: Family, Friendship, and the Art of Living.”
Ferriss-Hill is an associate classics professor and senior associate dean for academic affairs in UM’s College of Arts and Sciences. She specializes in ancient Latin and Greek poetry—specifically Roman satire and Greek old comedy—and she publishes works on Varro and Catullus. Her first book, “Roman Satire and the Old Comic Tradition,” was published in 2015 with the Cambridge University Press and received the First Book Award from the Classical Association of the Middle-West and South in 2016 .
Ferriss-Hill commenced the seminar by addressing her inspiration for her second book. Her first published book was inspired by her Ph.D. dissertation on the Roman poet Horace. While she wrote her first book, she realized Horace’s “Ars Poetica” struck her interest as well but by accident. This accidental interest in another one of Horace’s works solidified into her second book.
“The first [book] led to the second one, not in the way that I had ever intended, but just sort of by accident…I got this bug in my brain and I was like I have to write this book, and it all came out very quickly,” Ferriss-Hill said.
When asked about the most challenging aspect of completing her second book, she quickly responded: the criticism from her editors.
“The first draft just poured out of me, and I was so pleased with it, and I sent it to Princeton University Press, which had expressed interest,” Ferriss-Hill said. “And then I got these comments back from the peer reviewers…they weren’t soul-crushing, but it was more of a ‘this is very clearly a first draft, and now the author needs to turn it into a coherent work.’”
She continued to describe arguably the most complicated part of book writing: removing the writing that was not deemed necessary. From feeling energized by the act of writing all of spring and summer, to having the following spring and summer revolve around removing writing that she loved, she said it was a difficult but necessary process.
“I took it from 180,000 words to 140,000 words, so I basically spent six to eight months just figuring out how to cut 40,000 words from this thing that at the time I did not really believe needed to have 40,000 words cut from it. But it really did, and the final product is much better,” Ferriss-Hill said.
Although the entire process was tedious and emotional, Ferriss-Hill said she feels she was able to bridge the gap between Horace’s “Ars Poetica” and present-day priorities such as family, friendship and the art of living.
“The parent in Horace’s poem is always on this pedagogical role, as I know because I have children. They are 6 and 9, and I’m always like ‘do it this way, don’t do it this other way.’ So as a parent you are always teaching,” Ferriss-Hill said.
The importance of how teaching is portrayed is an underlying factor in the poem that the book dissects, Ferriss-Hill said. Not only is the role of a parent and the relationship between the parent and a child conveyed, but the way teachings and criticism are expressed is just as important. Ferriss-Hill explains that a parent or a friend can say as much criticism to someone as they’d like, but if the criticism is not intended and given in a positive manner, then the criticism won’t be received or handled very well.
From taking Latin classes at 11 years old to reading Horace’s work during the final two years of high school, Ferriss-Hill has had many years of exposure to classic literature. She said she believes that since she encountered Horace’s work at such a young age, it made a huge difference to her current work, advocating for others to start early as well.
“I think the really beautiful thing about English literature and classics is that regardless of what you as a person are interested in, and regardless of what you as a person thinks is important, there is a course that you can take that will really grip you,” Ferriss-Hill said. “If you are really interested in public speaking, you can seek out a course that includes Cicero, and by reading Cicero and studying Cicero, you can learn things about how to be a better public speaker and about how to be a better writer.”
Ferriss-Hill ends with her gratitude towards the Book Talk series occurring via Zoom despite the chaos of the pandemic and hybrid-learning at UM. She said she hopes the new Zoom medium will allow for students who might otherwise feel intimidated showing up to the normally physical location—mostly an audience of professors and older locals—to attend virtually instead.
“I hope that this builds a following of undergraduates for the Humanities Center events that will then continue when we go back to being in person because I’d really like to see that,” Ferriss-Hill said.
The next Book Talk seminar will take place on Oct. 7, 2020 at 8 p.m. Berit Brogaard, a philosophy professor at UM, will present her book, “Hatred: Understanding Our Most Dangerous Emotion” via Zoom at this link.