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ARCADIA


blinding him. They proceed to sneak out by clinging to the underbellies of his flock as the desperate giant lets them out to pasture. The story – every child’s favourite from the epic – serves as a valuable classroom lesson in the ancient Greek concept of xenia, or rather, the violation of it. Usually translated as ‘hospitality’ or ‘guest-friendship’, and ap- plicable to one’s relations with strangers, xenia governs most interactions between Odysseus and the peoples he visits and is cru- cial to our understanding of the poem. Whereas the magical Phaeacians know the correct way of doing things – invite the stranger in, provide him with food and wine, and only then ask him questions – the Cyclops knows nothing of this unwritten code. The fact that Odysseus and his friends help them- selves to Polyphemus’s freshly pressed cheeses the moment they arrive, thereby breaching the code of xenia themselves, is a sign either of deep hypocrisy or intuition. It says something about our taste for trans- gression that tales of the laws of xenia being broken often excite us more than those of them being kept. While the Cyclops resides safely in the realm of myth, the ancient histo- ry books abound with accounts of humans performing similar monstrosities. According to Herodotus, the so-called Father of History, Cyrus the Great, the future King of Persia, was handed over to a servant when he was a baby to be killed so that a prophecy could be averted. Some years later, Cyrus’s grandfather was perturbed to discover that the child had in fact been saved and brought up by a herdsman and his wife. To punish his disloyal servant, the grandfather killed his son and had him cooked for him for dinner. The poor man had no idea what he had eaten until it was too late. The story may defy belief – it is strikingly similar to the Greek myth of Thyestes and his grim banquet – but, like Homer’s, it revolves around very real concerns over the horrors that could ensue when xenia was broken. Far from being merely a man-made law, or a so- cial construction, xenia was, at heart, a hu- man quality, which crossed ancient borders and cultures to bring people closer together. Most people may no longer talk about


xenia explicitly, but it remains second nature to want to share food and wine with guests. Trust in strangers may have dimin- ished in most quarters (in 2021 few would invite in a man who turned up on their door- step without first asking what he wanted), but


many of us are still willing to invite friends of friends into our homes, or to cook for people we don’t know for the purposes of charity. Who would have thought it would take a pandemic to thwart many of these natural instincts? The Roman architectural historian Vitru- vius may point the way when it comes to xenia in our age of social distancing. At their most extravagant, he said, the Greeks provided visitors with their own separate dining rooms and even larders. On the day after their arriv- al, the hosts would send their guests chickens, eggs, vegetables and other fresh produce to save them from visiting the market or having to dine with them every night. These welcome packages looked so attractive that artists even took to painting them. The resulting pictures were also known as xenia. Now there’s some- thing we could all share on Instagram. S


were nevertheless retained as a design choice to give books a bit of antiquarian distinction. Right up into the early noughties, big US publishing houses (it was always more of a US thing) would use this finish on literary fiction and prestigious historical non-fiction. So I was shocked this week when I learned


that Jeff Bezos may have done for this blameless quirk of publishing tradition. I learned about it in a tweet from Random House’s infallibly shrewd copy chief Benja- min Dreyer: ‘It’s amazing,’ he wrote, ‘the way one retailer’s distaste for rough fronts (deck- led edges, whatever, do people really call them that?) destroyed them so thoroughly it’s as if they never existed.’


LITERARY NOTES


ROUGH JUSTICE Sam Leith


YOU ALWAYS REMEMBER your first. For me, it was an American hardback of Ian Hamilton’s biography of Robert Lowell, lent to me in my teenage years by an attractive blonde girl called Clarissa. It had a matte paper dust wrapper in yellow with no photo- graph, which seemed very sophisticated. And, blimey, the pages were all weird. When the book was closed, rather than present a smooth face they zig-zagged in and out like the teeth of a comb. What devilry was this, I wondered. Now I know better. This was what US publishers call ‘rough front’ and others, in- cluding me, call ‘deckle edge’. It’s a way of mimicking how books used to look when paper was produced by squishing wood pulp flat in a press called a deckle (the rough edges were where the pulp squidged out of the side). For much of the 20th century, after machin- ing made those rough edges optional, they


What has happened, it turns out, is that ignorant Amazon customers had been re- turning deckle-edged books complaining they were defective, or leaving one-star re- views saying ‘pAgeS arE cUt Baddly’. Instead of telling these eejits to go hang (because imagine how many one-star reviews they’d leave then, and the algorithm must be propi- tiated like a primitive god) the online retail monster instead started putting enormous trigger warnings on the listings several sizes the author’s name. ‘Deckle edge’, these warn- ings said, right next to the book title and in the same size font; which made the listings look clunky and ugly. Then, apparently, if any edition of the same book – a large-print pa- perback, say – didn’t have the deckle edge it started showing up as the top search result, with the rough-front version lower down. Duly, publishers opted as one, pretty much, to discontinue deckle edges altogether. Look, I know this may not seem like a huge deal to you. And, indeed, if I’m honest it’s not that big a deal to me either. I never really liked deckle edges. They always give you the faint sense that there may be a dried blob of egg yolk lurking in there somewhere, and it makes it that much harder to riffle pages smoothly in search of a quote. Books with deckle edges tend to look olde worlde, or American, or both. But they are a part of the bibliographic ecosystem. I mean, I don’t hold much of a brief for crested grebes either. If I found one doing whatever a crested grebe does any- where near me I’d probably be, like, ‘Yuk, get out of here grebe!’ But at the same time, when I read in the paper that the path of a new mo- torway threatens to eradicate the habitat of said grebe, leaving it – ha! – crestfallen, and that plucky protesters are chaining them-


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