Classics and Product Design, Or, The Original Handheld Device

Given that I wrote some not very nice things about Classics product design last, week, I thought this would be a good week to talk about Classics product design done right. So, here goes:

Right before I moved, I bought a book. It was really the last thing I should have done, given that the packing was already terrible, but this was a particular kind of book, one that I can’t resist: it was what we in the Classics trade call a “schoolboy edition” of a Latin text — and yes, the assumed user would have been a young British dude, preferably at an age impressionable enough to absorb some of Vergil’s lessons. The book fits into a hand, or a pocket, or a bag:

A schoolboy edition of Vergil.
A schoolboy edition of Vergil.


This edition is the second book of the Aeneid, an epic poem in 12 books, and also the standard capstone of Latin education. The book comes complete with a targeted dictionary in the back, so the reader doesn’t need to lug around an actual dictionary (remember those?).

It really is the best way for a Latin lover (no, not that kind) to read Vergil under a tree — and preferably with a pencil, which the original owner certainly had. Pencil and paper is its own fantastic interaction design, one allowed — nay, encouraged, by this user interface.


The Latin is pretty heavy: Aeneas is begging his father Anchises to flee the burning, war-torn ruins of Troy, which has been captured by the Greeks. His father refuses, leaving Aeneas to flee miserably with his wife Creusa and son Ascanius. (Don’t worry, Anchises relents eventually, and if you’d like to explore the Latin more, it’s here on Perseus.)

And yet, there’s so much fun stuff going on here.  From years of being Latin classes, and writing pencilled in notes exactly like this, I can guess that it’s a mix of actual academic notes (“zeugma”, to the left of line 654, is the poetic device being used), striking phrases that the prof said, and random thoughts/doodles. Because even if the passage is solemn, the classroom interaction isn’t, as we can see documented here.

At the top of the left page, it says “Go boil your head!” which may be an irreverent translation of agitate fugam given the underline.

The facing page is more obscure. in Phyllistiam means “against Phyllistia”; Phyllstia should be name, and the form is a typical one, used in speeches or court cases against a person. I can’t find any connection to any sort of Phyllistia in the text. I can, however, find a 1910 edition of Punch that has a piece called In Phyllistia.  Several other pieces in the magazine mention Phyllis, leading me to think she’s not a real person, but perhaps a stock figure in Punch‘s universe.

My favorite might be “You Bumatoot!” just because it reminds me of something you’d hear in P.G. Wodehouse. And no clear referent that I can see in the text.  “The Unexpressive She!” is a reference to Rosalind in As You Like It — did I mention that Classics had a tendency to translate stuff into Shakespeare? Yeah, don’t ask. But again, I don’t see anything that corresponds to the text, leading me to believe this is an idle thought or a snippet of classroom conversation.


I suspect the “phenomenal cherub” (this is from the next page) is a Biblical reference to the cherub in Genesis, possibly related to the portent of Ascanius’ flaming head; if we assume a typical “great books” education, both Shakespeare and the Bible would definitely be on the curriculum. And let’s remember that this is before anyone could Google this stuff — which is what I’m doing, frantically, btw — great books were stored most definitively in the educated individual’s noggin.

Elsewhere, there are drawings that don’t seem to correspond to…anything, really. They look like elephant butts to me, but wouldn’t swear to that in court.

A mysterious drawing.
A mysterious drawing.

The book has been rebound, robbing me of the information that a lot of these editions have about the owner’s name, school, and gift-giver. Which is really too bad — I own too many of these, and my favorite ones have their original owners’ names in beautiful, looping script that can only come from a pen and inkwell.

Back to the idea of product design. This is a product with a purpose; it knows its audience well, and designs with the user in mind. Honestly, books like these are still my preferred way to read Latin or Greek texts. The tangible book, the muscle memory of a pencil, and a dictionary that doesn’t just give you the word right away, but forces you to recall it if you can. I find all of these things better for my own memory. And the book is fully interactive in its own right, allowing for more personalization that any computer; when I was still teaching, I’d see students using new-fangled highlighters instead of pencils. The colors would help the parse the grammar and parts of speech, and while the result wasn’t as aesthetically pleasing as pencil, it worked for them.

The book does just what you need it to, in a small edition. It has no online advertisements distracting you. And it’s something I think about a lot — is really possible, or advisable, to try to capture this experience online? To insist that your Kindle (or whatever) is the same thing, even with a stylus. To me, it’s not. I remain skeptical that deep language learning can happen on a device that doesn’t allow for physical interaction, or even for quick flipping. Ah, flipping — I could write an entire post on the act of flipping through books, or magazines. And maybe I will, eventually. But for now, I’ll just leave this nice little product here.