A Father, a Son, and an Epic

Coming September 2017 from Alfred A. Knopf

Read An Excerpt in THE NEW YORKER (24 April 2017)

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A deeply moving tale of a father and son’s transformative journey in reading–and reliving–Homer’s epic masterpiece.

When eighty-one-year-old Jay Mendelsohn decides to enroll in the undergraduate Odyssey seminar his son teaches at Bard College, the two find themselves on an adventure as profoundly emotional as it is intellectual. For Jay, a retired computer scientist who sees the world through a mathematician’s unforgiving eyes, this return to the classroom is his “one last chance” to learn the great literature he’d neglected in his youth–and, even more, a final opportunity to more fully understand his son, a writer and classicist. But through the sometimes uncomfortable months during which the two men explore Homer’s great work together–first in the classroom, where Jay persistently challenges his son’s interpretations, and then during a surprise-filled Mediterranean journey retracing Odysseus’s famous voyages–it becomes clear that Daniel has much to learn, too: Jay’s responses to both the text and the travels gradually uncover long-buried secrets that allow the son to understand his difficult father at last.

As this intricately woven memoir builds to its wrenching climax, Mendelsohn’s narrative comes to echo the Odyssey itself, with its timeless themes of deception and recognition, marriage and children, the pleasures of travel and the meaning of home. Rich with literary and emotional insight, An Odyssey is a renowned author-scholar’s most triumphant entwining yet of personal narrative and literary exploration.


Beguiling…Mendelsohn recounts a freshman class on the Odyssey that he taught at Bard College with his father, Jay, an 81-year-old computer scientist, sitting in; the two followed up with an Odyssey-themed Mediterranean cruise…Gradually, Mendelsohn unwraps layers of timeless meaning in the ancient Greek poem: the muted battles seething inside the epic’s many troubled marriages (which parallel the battles waged by his own parents); the reunion of Odysseus with the grown son who doesn’t know him, their stilted unfamiliarity a template for the awkwardness lingering between the Mendelsohn father and son; and the longing to strike out for unknown parts coupled with the fear that holds men back. Mendelsohn weaves family history and trenchant literary analysis into a luminous whole.”

Publishers Weekly

“There have been plenty of gimmicky books about returning to the classics and unearthing the contemporary implications and timeless wisdom therein. This sharply intelligent and deeply felt work operates on an entirely different level—several of them, in fact…Ultimately, this is a book about what [father and son] learn about each other and what they know about each other and what they can never know about each other. The author uses a close reading of the epic to illuminate the mysteries of the human condition, and he skillfully and subtly interweaves the classroom textual analysis and the lessons of the life outside it… Revelations for Mendelsohn provide epiphanies for readers as well.”

Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)