Review: Shmoop’s Coverage of Homer’s Iliad

January 12th, 2010

I read The Iliad recently; see my review of it here.

This article isn’t about The Iliad, but about Shmoop’s coverage of it.

I have never been a person who puts much stock on “study guides” before, and my own prejudice is that they have probably earned their reputation as useful for little more than a tool to help students pass exams without reading the material. However, I felt rather unequal to reading The Iliad; after all, it has been many years since I had been exposed to Greek mythology, and even then it was very brief. I had remembered from Amazon’s blog that they are offering some of the classics with a Shmoop study guide built in. I figured the $2.39 would be worth it. But I’m not sure it was.

The resulting ebook has two sections: the main text, and the Shmoop overview. The overview contains essentially the information available for free on their site. This information is pretty good. It has some overviews of the entire book, plus summaries of each chapter. They helpfully provide the “backstory” in the chapter summaries, so I know why certain gods are on the side of the Trojans and the others on the side of the Achaeans. It helped me figure out the point to some of the actions described on the text. These are linked to at the beginning of each book (chapter) of the Iliad, which was a bit inconvenient because I prefer to read them after reading the main text. Nevertheless, it wasn’t a big problem.

The summaries were written colloquially, sometimes too much so. I grinned as the “less grabbin’, more stabbin’” summary of the Achaeans being told to salvage armor from the dead later and keep fighting now. I cringed as “no way Jose”, and rolled my eyes as it described how one of the heroes got “owned”. That would have been less clear than the original for many.

I would probably have given the Shmoop edition 4 or 5 stars on Amazon were it not for numerous boneheaded mistakes they made.

The commentary uses one translation (Lattimore), while the included text uses a different one (Butler). That’s bad enough, but it gets worse: Lattimore uses the Greek names for the gods and heroes, while Butler uses the Roman ones. So you can be reading through the text, learning about Jove, Ulysses, Juno, and Mars. But the commentary refers instead to Zeus, Odysseus, Hera, and Ares. Now, some might have memorized the Greek and Roman names for everyone, but then such people probably aren’t wanting a study guide. I finally had to print out a page to help me understand the study guide. That is terrible, and completely inexcusable. They should have used the same translation for the text as the commentary, or at least have provided parenthetical notes throughout the commentary.

Next, they really did a poor job of the main text itself. They have apparently grabbed the Butler ASCII text from Project Gutenberg, and cut and pasted it into some editor. I say this because each line renders as a paragraph; that is, the text doesn’t reflow to fit the screen as every single other book does. Worse, it’s too wide for the Kindle. So you get one line full width, the next only half as wide as the display (some of the first having wrapped), then the next full width again, on down. Butler is a prose, not a poetic, translation, so this is pointless. Moreover, the line endings are exactly where they are at Project Gutenberg.

So, what we have here is that somebody at Shmoop cut and pasted from their own website and Project Gutenberg, and nobody bothered to check if the resulting product was crap. At least with the new Kindle firmware you can read in landscape mode to prevent most of the lines from wrapping. Still, I’m very annoyed at this.

There are other flaws. They highlighted some passages in the text. Clicking on them goes to some commentary about it. OK, fine. But why are some passages highlighted in the text, and some mentioned in the chapter summary? There seemed no rhyme or reason. The highlighted passages commentary was iffy in quality. Sometimes it was useful, and sometimes it asked a question of the sort I might expect in a jr. high English question — “When has pride helped you in your life?” or some such. Worse, not all of the highlights linked to the correct place, and they also suffered from the Greek/Roman name issue.

In all, Shmoop has helped me understand The Iliad and place it in context. But they need to spend a lot more effort on copyediting. Even a couple of hours of someone actually looking at their Kindle product on an actual Kindle would have immediately shown these problems. They could have made a far better product with a few hours’ more effort.

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  1. Ellen Siminoff

    I am writing on behalf of Shmoop. We feel terrible that you did not find value from our Iliad-Shmoop mashup. We certainly understand your issue about differing translations. We would have loved to use the same translation in the mashup as we used in the analysis but it was not available to us. We also have Shmoop only editions available on Kindle. We take your copy editing issues to heart and will review our Kindle mashup edition pronto. Thank you for the feedback.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    Hi Ellen,

    Thank you for the reply! I am glad to hear you will investigate it. If you must stick with Butler for the text and Lattimore for the commentary, I would highly encourage you to use both the Greek and Roman names in the commentary (that might be a good idea in general) to make it more cohesive.

    Incidentally, I might also point out that on January 4, I used the web form on shmoop.com to send you the same feedback I noted in this blog post, and received no reply to that.

    Your entire-work and chapter summaries are valuable, and integrating them with the text is a nice plan too.

    I notice you do have the standalone Shmoop material for The Iliad, but not for The Odyssey. It would be nice to see it available standalone there too.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    I also just checked out the free sample of The Odyssey for Kindle. It appears to suffer from these same issues as well.

    Reply

    Ellen Siminoff Reply:

    Thanks for checking out the Odyssey. Before you check, I think Medea and other Greeks have the same problem. I will get on them and appreciate your feedback. I have left my contacts so please feel free to email me directly as well. We are a young company and are far from perfect but we do love lit and are striving to make it approachable for all.

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