When I feel myself sliding into Spenglerian depression about the decline of most publications, convinced that some time around 2013 Upworthy put an end to three thousand years of Western literary culture with its weaponising of A/B tested headlines, I turn to the Bryn Mawr Classical Review to remind myself that there are still people who write complete grammatical sentences about subjects to which they have devoted more than half-an-hour of thought.
Here, for example, is Matteo Fulvio Olivieri writing about Giuseppe Squillace’s ‘Le lacrime di Mirra: miti e luoghi dei profumi nel mondo antico’ (Bryn Mawr ranges freely into German, French and Italian scholarship):
“Discussing perfumes in the Greco-Roman world means having to deal with an especially broad range of material: odorous liquids, but also oils, powders, rocks, vapors; circulation and trade of flowers, plants, roots, spices, fruits; products as diverse as foodstuff, ointments, maquillage, decorative plants, plasters, drugs and medicines; the history of the sciences of botany, chemistry, animal and human biology; literary traditions in myth, geography, and ethnology. The scholarship displays a confusingly diverse disciplinary and methodological range: sensory approaches to smell, social semantics of perfumes, diachronic reconstructions of odorous products, and technical details of products and production, while some studies focus on one product or one location.”
This is a paragraph to cut out and keep, by the way, for demonstrating when a list does add value to prose.
I could not read only the Bryn Mawr Classical Review, any more than I could eat only oysters or listen only to clarinet music. It is a refreshment, a palate cleanser, a breath of mountain air, a friendly face in a crowded room. It reminds me that the race to the bottom in which 99.999% of online publications are engaged is a choice, not an obligation, and that publications which maintain high standards are becoming more distinctive and more valued as other publications abandon them. In the future we will have more sites like Bryn Mawr, not fewer, as writers and publishers learn to prize small audiences of loyal and appreciative readers over the vast numbers seeking merely distraction.
Robert Cottrell is editor of The Browser, which recommends five or six pieces of exceptional writing available online each day. He was previously a staff writer for The Economist and the Financial Times.