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Discussion questions on ‘An Odyssey’

Our May pick for the PBS NewsHour-New York Times book club is Daniel Mendelsohn’s “An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, And An Epic.” Become a member of the Now Read This book club by joining our Facebook group, or by signing up to our newsletter. Learn more about the book club here.

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Below are questions to help guide your discussions as you read the book over the next month. You can also submit your own questions for Mendelsohn on our Google form here. Mendelsohn will answer reader questions on the NewsHour broadcast at the end of the month. Spoiler alert on questions further down.

  1. Before you begin, what do you know about Homer’s “Odyssey”?
  2. “An Odyssey” begins with Mendelsohn telling readers that his father, aged 81, plans to sit in on his college class on the ancient Greek epic poem, “for reasons I thought I understood at the time.” What do you think is his father’s reason?
  3. Homer’s “Odyssey” begins with a son gone in search of an absent parent. How does that parallel Mendelsohn’s narrative?
  4. Mendelsohn tell us that the “Odyssey” is filled with “sudden mishaps and surprising detours.” What is he setting up readers here?
  5. What is the arke kakon, or “beginning of bad things,” for Mendelsohn’s father? What is it in the Trojan war?
  6. One of the themes of the “Odyssey” is the search for the “true self,” and “how many selves” a man might have. Do you think a man or woman can have many selves?
  7. Mendelsohn’s father Jay repeatedly questions whether Odysseus is a true hero. How do you see Odysseus? Is he a hero?
  8. Mendelsohn explains that Homer’s “Odyssey” is told in “ring composition,” in which a narrator starts to tell one story but then loops to earlier moments, and then back again. How is Mendelsohn’s narrative written in a similar structure?
  9. Mendelsohn says the “Odyssey” is in part about “a son who for a long time is unrecognized and unrecognizable to his father.” Why do Jay and Mendelsohn, too, have such a hard time seeing each other?
  10. Do you relate to Jay and Mendelsohn’s relationship?
  11. How does Jay’s presence in the classroom change the dynamic?
  12. Do you think that Telemachus got an education in Books 1-4? What was it? What is Mendelsohn learning at the same time?
  13. Why does it take Odysseus so long to come home?
  14. On page 174, Jay says that he’s learned from one particular scene in the “Odyssey” that “you can spend your whole life believing in something, and then you get to a point when you realize you were wrong about the whole thing.” What have both Jay and Mendelsohn been wrong about?
  15. What do you make of Jay and Mendelsohn’s “Odyssey” cruise? And of Jay’s observation that “the poem actually is more real than the place”?
  16. A poignant moment in the book happens on page 216, when Mendelsohn realizes that Jay may have been hurt by the fact that he sought out other father figures. Have there been times in your life that you’ve belatedly realized you’ve hurt someone?
  17. What does Mendelsohn learn not only about his father but also about his parents’ marriage toward the end of the book?
  18. In the end, Mendelsohn writes, the “Odyssey” is about “an endless tug-of-war between father and sons” and also the unexpected teachings of life. What did you learn unexpectedly from this book?