Book Review: "Living with a Dead Language: My Romance with Latin" by Ann Patty 1

Ann Patty, a highly successful woman in the world of book editing in New York City, is ejected into unwelcome retirement during the Great Recession. At loose ends in her country house in upstate New York, she is increasingly haunted by the memory of her mother, a parent with whom she felt she had had little in common and whose final years had been an accelerating slide into alcoholism. Ms. Patty’s solution? To throw herself into learning Latin as an auditor at Vassar and Bard.
Although the heart of this book is extremely serious, addressing the issues of the fear of being trapped by our parents’ mistakes, of unwanted change and of growing old, the narrative reveals Ann Patty to be a very lively-minded soul, clear-eyed about herself, with a hilarious but fundamentally kind sense of fun. I really roared at her incidental sketches of Vassar and Bard students and profs. Her glimpses into the New York publishing world in the 70’s and 80’s is captivating and leaves one a little breathless. Ms. Patty’s keen eye for the characteristic quirks of the people she studies with, learns from, and comes to know and love fills this book with unusual, intellectually passionate people.
Patty (perhaps unsurprisingly for a very successful editor) is also an unusually perceptive reader.  She comes to know Latin remarkably well (I would be silly to dwell on differences of opinion and the occasional mischaracterizations or slips that pop up.) A remarkably large portion of the book is given over to describing the structure of Latin, even the nuts and bolts of Latin grammar. I’ll admit that my eyes often glazed over trying to read what I teach all the time. But Patty just loves all of it, and really does manage to convey her enthusiasm. She is without question a person and an intellect who, as our colleagues who embrace the principles of providing comprehensible input to their students to foster true language acquisition would say, a true 4 percenter. Di ita eam ament, Patty’s a four percenter’s four percenter.
The outstanding qualities of Roman literature, as we all know well, differ a lot from those found in any modern literature. Roman literature is (among much else) demanding of the reader and unabashedly elitist. Patty is an excellent interpreter, forging interesting connections to the writer’s world that she knows and to a series of pivotal events and people in her life.
As I read most of Patty’s book with real interest, I found myself wondering what sort of ambassador for the study of Latin she really is. She excels, by virtue of consistent hard work, in a traditional Latin program, with classes that differ little in their fundamentals from those I took 4o years ago. To judge from book reviews on Goodreads and Amazon (wherein the most damning review is from someone who claims to be a career Latin teacher), Patty’s enthusiasms leave some entirely out in the cold. And, as a secular, progressive adoptive New Yorker who is not shy with her opinions, she has several strikes against her around this country to begin with.
And yet, to give Patty due credit, when she discovers SALVI, Paideia, and John Byron Kuhner, she is like a cat in cream. Not only does she like the people in the Latin-speaking community, she likes the approach (which is difficult and frustrating for her). In the garden of Patty’s mind, many flowers bloom and are welcomed, even those who showed up by chance.
The takeaway? I wouldn’t give this book to my Republican in-laws to explain why I do what I do. But if you have a friend who is over 50, intellectually curious and who loves the humanities, make this their Christmas present.

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One thought on “Book Review: "Living with a Dead Language: My Romance with Latin" by Ann Patty

  • Ruth Breindel

    Stephen and I have agreed to disagree, and we hope this will encourage some fruitful discussion! Here is my review (albeit much shorter):
    This book can be read on many levels: as the story of an older woman who decided to learn Latin, her ability as a “Latinist,” and as a way for the author to come to grips with her mother and her death.
    It succeeds most as the first and third; as a “Latinist,” Patty has some of the most convoluted discussions of grammar I have ever seen! The autobiographical points, both of her actually learning Latin and how it felt to be an adult learner, are very well done. She stretches the point sometimes, trying to draw parallels to her studies at a particular time and a chronological description of her work and home life; but it is interesting to see how she goes about her studies (although, horribile dictu, she uses “myself” instead of “me” – and this from a book editor!). At times it drags, but it is interesting, especially if you can get it from the public library.
    [please note: I couldn’t get the computer to put horribile dictu in italics…)