Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Article excerpt

THE ANCIENT Greeks have been credited with inventing all sorts of literary genres (history, tragedy, comedy, rhetoric, pastoral, and so on), but one modern example has eluded the attention of the critics - the Note-andQuery. In this genre, readers are invited to send in questions to be answered either by a resident expert or other readers.

Pseudo-Aristotle (384-322 Bc) got there first over 2,000 years ago with his Problems (in 38 books), and Plutarch (c. AD 4S120) followed hot on his heels with his Roman Questions. In both cases, a question is put, usually beginning, `Why is it that . . . ?', to which the answer is given, `Is it because.... ? ' Our own `Dear Mary' could find even her formidable brows beetling at some of the ancient posers.

`Why do men sneeze more than any other animal?' probes Ps-Aristotle. `Is it because he has wide channels through which breath and smell enter?' Very likely. `Why do fishermen have sandy hair?' Ps-Aristotle argues it is something to do with salt and the drying properties of the sun. …

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