In the dark, dark cloud of our culture’s increasing post-literacy, there is a sliver of a silver lining. The less capable we become of immersing ourselves in intelligent long-form literature, the more we approach the condition of Homer’s intelligent, pre-literate audience. We can now imagine what Matthew Arnold said there was no point in trying to imagine: “how the Iliad affected its natural hearers.” In fact, we don’t have to imagine it—we’ve been close to experiencing it for roughly two decades on cable television.

For its natural hearers, the Iliad obviously emerged from, and shared the same medium with, an ordinary type of performed heroic narrative poetry—just as, for us, The Wire emerges from and shares a medium with the ordinary television cop show. But the unified magnitude of the plot is entirely new. The Iliad takes roughly...

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