Mary Beard: ‘Virgil was a radical rap artist of the first century BC’
My earliest reading memory
When I was about four, my mother read me Beatrix Potter’s The Story of a Fierce Bad Rabbit. It was so scary (with the hunter’s gun coming for the bad rabbit) I could hardly bear for my mother to go on, yet didn’t want her to stop, either. It was a great lesson in the pleasure of the terror of reading.
My favourite book growing up
It depends what you mean by growing up … I still am. But if you are taking me back to school, I would say Jane Eyre. I am not sure that I’m entirely proud of the way I engaged with it. I empathised with “Reader, I married him” a bit too strongly. But it made its mark. When I was about 10 I was determined to learn it off by heart, but sadly only made it to page three.
The book that changed my life
Purity and Danger by Mary Douglas. I read it when I was a PhD student, and it opened my eyes to anthropology in general, and in particular to what we think of as “dirty”. I tried to use the ideas in my own work on the ancient world. I owe that book a lot.
The book that made me want to be a writer
It was an academic book, Keith Hopkins’s Conquerors and Slaves, which was published in 1978 while I was writing my PhD thesis. In all kinds of ways this was very hardcore ancient history, but it was also witty, confessional, naughty and personally engaged. It made me realise that writing highly technical nonfiction didn’t have to be boring.
The book that changed my mind
There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack by Paul Gilroy, which came out in the late 1980s when I was teaching classics back in Cambridge, after a wonderful few years in London. I still think it is one of the very best books I have read on race in the UK. I’m not sure about “changing my mind”, perhaps rather reformulating the issues so I understood them better.
The book that influenced my writing
This might sound a bit ivory tower, but you can’t study Latin for half a century without thinking hard about the process of writing. Reading Tacitus’ Annals, his history of the early Roman emperors, was one turning point for me, or a series of turning points – from the time I first struggled with it at school in 1970 till my last go at it a few weeks ago. It’s a cynical and bitter account, but it’s as close to poetry as prose can get, and it helped me see how you could get words to really work for you.
The book I came back to
OK, I will confess, Virgil’s Aeneid. I spent so many years of my life writing essays I didn’t believe explaining why it was brilliant. But it was only decades later that I actually saw what the point was, and that Virgil was not a worthy classic, but a radical rap artist of the first century BC.
The book I am currently reading
Elif Shafak’s The Island of Missing Trees, a brilliant evocation of Cyprus and civil war, and Alex von Tunzelmann’s Fallen Idols, one of the best books there is for understanding the long story behind our own “statue wars”. And I am rereading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, with even more enjoyment second time around.
My comfort read
It’s a toss up between Lindsey Davis’s Falco mysteries (about Marcus Didius Falco, the Roman gumshoe, and his posh wife, Helena Justina) and Robert Harris’s Cicero trilogy (which did more for the reputation of Cicero in the modern world than a battalion of classicists ever have).
The book I could never read again
I have made it a point not to ruin Tess of the d’Urbervilles by reading it again.
• Twleve Caesars: Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern by Mary Beard is published by Princeton (£30). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.