I hate this book more than any other book ever published.

While visiting a priest friend, the mighty Fr. George Welzbacher of St. Paul, one of the 5 smartest men I know and owner of nearly every book ever written, I took my ease of an evening in a comfy chair surrounded by a tiny percentage of said books and in pleasant conversation involving many and polysyllabic words.  Ice and scotch tinkled in the glass.  Wit and word-jousting abounded.

And then it happened.  It was a moment so harrowing as to bring me back to the brink of a long-escaped but not forgotten black hole on the edge of Delta Quadrant.  As I write, my throat constricts.

There in my comfy chair, taking my ease, Fate struck.

I innocently turned slightly to my right, as is my wont, and I spied it.  The Enemy Book.  The Book which caused me more suffering, more irritation and anxiety than any book I have before or since encountered.

I hate some books.  I really hate this book.


Leap back with me three decades.

I was a grad student in the Classics Department and for my black sins I had to take also ancient history courses from, yes, the History Department.  Therein we poor grads found an Ogre of a prof – of Irish extraction, by the way, which has tainted me in regard to that Island ever since, who announced above his mustache-less beard on the first day of class that he detested grad students from the Classics department, didn’t want them in his classes, and that he was determined to make our lives a living hell.   He openly opined, smiling malevolently over the cringing, puling, now whey-faced undergrads, that we would never get a decent grade out of Himself.

He wasn’t kidding.

And thus we come to the tale of Gradstudent Zuhlsdorf and The Book of Loathing and Scorn.

The prof, as lethal and relentless as Species 8472, assigned us one book after another to read and review.  And he was brutal.  These weren’t fluff pieces.   Fine.  We did it.   We were graduate students, after all, used to hardship, inured to abuse, seasoned in pain, suffering, humiliation.

Then, toward the end of the quarter, he wrote upon the board…

Hignett, Charles. A History of the Athenian Constitution.

O the black grief of the world.

He, Prof. Species 8472, had – with his stupid little beard – checked out any and all copies from the campus libraries.  He knew also that the other schools in town did not have it.  He’d had a plan, you see.

It was like a movie about a spaceship with a self-destruct thing that had to be switched off while battling the monster.

We all searched.  In vain did we search.  We searched, before you ask, both high and low.  There was no chance, back in the day, of getting things from other large universities… and no time, such was his malevolent plan, long in the devising, deep in treachery, deadly in execution.  This was the age before amazon.com and Google.  And there was no time.

Finally, I despairing went to the Law School Library and asked, nay rather, grovelled before the librarian much as Aeneas consulted Cumaean Sibyl.  The prof had their copy,  and if only they would… re… re… recall the book, then we students could…. defeat the black-hearted Fiend.  No dice.  However, there came a ray of comfort from out the light-devouring singularity.

What Prof 8472 didn’t know, and what the librarian did know, is that the Law school had acquired a law library still in boxes and in storage.  We found the catalogue and determined that in the myriad boxes was, in fact, Charles Hignett’s Tome of Despair.

I was permitted to hunt.

Xenophon would have cowered before this march through mounds of boxes.

I searched until my hands cracked and bled from the drying effects of cardboard.  I breathed dust which I am still coughing up decades later.  Had I known of the maledictory psalms in those dark days, O the sorrow and woe, I would still have them memorized now.

Then…. I came within sight of the sea.  I had found it.

Charles Hignett’s A History of the Athenian Constitution… was mine.

I wept.  I exalted.  I danced a jig.  I photocopied every damn page.  Copyright?  Pffft.  This was war.

In my true entrepreneurial spirit I then sold copies to my fellow grad students.

In truth, I think they would have given me promises of their first born children or endless supplies of their own blood for a glimpse, yea even a saving touch, much less the Hated Book Itself.  My demands were actually quite modest.

Who can guess what substance abuse the others engaged in to get it read and the summary written?  For my part, I replaced my blood with coffee and, having propped up the book on a chair, knelt on my sweat-soaked hardwood floor with arms in cruciform and a notebook on the seat in front of me just to get through one soul-annihilating page after another.

We all turned in our papers on time.

History Ogre 8472 said, I am not making this up, “I shall not send you to hell”.

We received passing grades for our full, conscience and active participation in that hated class.

Charles Hignett’s A History of the Athenian Constitution.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in Just Too Cool, Lighter fare, Wherein Fr. Z Rants and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. disco says:

    So is it worth a read, Father?

  2. tmjost says:

    Thank you so much for that laugh! You really can make me smile! :) Pax tecum, Father!

  3. Jack Hughes says:

    And I thought that checking the internet for reseach papers to write my essay on the Ethics of Social Marketing was hard

  4. MyBrokenFiat says:

    Holy wow – that’s a hardcore meanstreak in that Professor. St. Anthony was your champion in that dusty, forgotten room, Father! :)

    It’s amazing that crotchety folks like that ever get the chance to step foot in a classroom. Hurmpf.

    Glad, however, that you not only succeeded… you spited the fool. Good for you! :)

  5. Luke Whittaker says:

    My uncle was forced by my grandfather to memorize Shakespeare by what many would consider cruel and unusual means. My uncle continues to hold that playwright in disdain, but he can quote Julius Caesar as though he learned it yesterday. But, for my own part, it was Greek to me (1.2.283). Based on my uncle’s experience I can imagine that you remember this book quite well whether you want to or not.

  6. Charivari Rob says:

    “There in my comfy chair, taking my ease, Fate stuck.”

    Sounds like the Spanish Inquisition.

    Are you sure it was Fate? Perhaps it was Fang (Cardinal Fang, that is) with the soft cushions.

    “It was like a movie about a spaceship with a self-destruct thing that had to be switched off while battling the monster.”

    Sounds like a Sigourney Weaver movie.

  7. Patti Day says:


    A used hardback edition of the book (not pictured, so it might not even be as nice as the one shown on your blog) is offered at Amazon.com is $128.82.

    Have you ever written one of those ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ books? There are probably at least 100 people here who buy a copy. :)

    I needed a laugh.

  8. ttucker says:

    Excellent purple prose!
    And hilarious.

  9. yatzer says:

    Wow. I am impressed with your tenacity, an attribute which no doubt the devil hates when you apply it to upholding the Faith.

  10. Bos Mutissimus says:

    Ice? In Scotch? Father, are you feeling all right?

    Oh — it must have been a blend. Surely you wouldn’t have contaminated Laphroaig or Lagavulin?…

    (BTW, sorry ’bout the difficulty you experienced in reading the History of Athenian Constitution….)

  11. lucy says:

    That was deliciously fun to read. Thank you !

  12. lucy says:

    Oh, I forgot – that was deliciously fun to read whilst I drank my Mystic Monk coffee.

  13. Bos: It was… O the grief… Dewers.

  14. Inigo says:

    Father, you can’t imagine how I smiled when I saw your Star Trek references. I’m so relifed I’m not the only one!

    Live long and prosper!:)

  15. Gregg the Obscure says:

    Had the evil prof used his abilities for good instead of ill, what greatness he could have achieved!

    Fr Z, you’ve a standing invitation to a Johnny Walker Blue at Cimerado (the bottle was a gift) – your call as to whether you’d like it iced, watered or neat. Balvenie Doublewood and Laphroaig 12 are also usually on hand.

  16. jlduskey says:

    This information, about your struggles and the unfair professor, should have been brought to the attention of the administration of the university, and the university should have taken some immediate action. The action could have been something simple, like not requiring classics students to take the course from that professor, or it could have been some direct orders to the library, to prohibit anyone, including faculty, from taking out from the library, more than one copy of the same book.
    The point is that the professor may have a grievance against the administration, but he should not be allowed to inflict such suffering on students, even graduate students, because he resents their presence in his class.
    I once took a course called History of Mathematics, which was required for teaching certification in Math. The professor made no secret of his dislike for the idea of any math majors taking the class for credit. He also indicated that he disliked history majors or other students from around the university taking the class. I don’t think he wanted anyone to take that class. However, he didn’t take part in any outrageous harassment of me or any other students, but I did notice a few math majors dropped the course.

  17. AnAmericanMother says:

    ???????! ???????!

  18. AnAmericanMother says:

    Ha. Preview misleads again.

    Thalatta! Thalatta!

  19. GirlCanChant says:

    Inigo: I loved the Trek references as well.

    Fr. Z: Thanks for the laugh. I needed that.

  20. Bos Mutissimus says:

    Father: what a penance. You have my deepest sympathy. Slainte.

  21. Margaret says:

    Bwahaha! Awesome story.

    How much did you sell the copies for??

  22. Inigo says:

    Talking about Trek references:
    Did you find a volume of the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition in those boxes as well, or did you come up with the selling of the copies all by yourself?:)

    The Grand Nagus would be proud!

  23. albinus1 says:

    Hah! Cramming that book helped get me through my own Ph.D.oral exams in Classics some 20-odd years ago.

    As I recall, Hignett relies heavily on the Aristotelian (or perhaps pseud0-Aristotelian) Athenaion Politeia (Constitution of the Athenians). I remember talking to a Greek historian some years ago who ranted, “I’ll never forgive the papyrologists for giving us that @#$&% Ath Pol!” ;-)

    When I was in graduate school a couple of decades ago, I remember when the campus library changed their policy so that faculty could no longer ignore recall requests, as they had previously been able to do. In fact, if anyone — including faculty members! — received a recall request, his or her borrowing privileges were suspended until he or she complied with the request! I remember at least one conversation with a faculty member who asked whether I had been the one who recalled a certain book, because he needed it awhile longer but could no longer check out books due to the recall request.

  24. Denita says:

    Reminds me of a few teachers I have had. Especially the collage art teacher who kicked me out of art because I got too “nervous”.

  25. Fr_Sotelo says:


    What great skills you have to search and find. If you had been a detective with the FBI, we would know what they did with Jimmy Hoffa. LOL.

  26. irishgirl says:

    Oh, man….that guy was one ‘evil’ son-of-a-gun! (I’m typing this out with a smile!)
    But thanks for the laugh on this soggy Assumption Day, Father Z!
    You sure had some winners in your university days….makes me glad I didn’t go to college….would never have survived!
    I almost burst out laughing here in the library-and good thing I wasn’t eating or drinking anything!

  27. Gregory DiPippo says:

    Optime pater, nimium me ridere fecisti!

  28. frobuaidhe says:

    Unfortunately such characters still exist and are still unfairly treating students. Right now I could name names. What I don’t understand is why admin won’t grab the jaggy nettle and deal with them.


  29. Theodore says:

    Father Z:

    Thanks for the great writing. This took me down memory lane to the only two teaching episodes that ever really frightened me:

    1. My final exam in physical chemistry. Less than a B and no grad and no med school.
    2. Any fencing lesson I took from Maestro Aldo Nadi. Lose attention and get a leg whip from his foil.

    [For me it was a Hungarian sabre master slightly younger than dirt named… I am not making this up… Zoltan. My wrist still hurts.]

  30. Jason Keener says:

    That story was a hoot.

  31. benedetta says:

    Oh academia follies. When I got into the paragraph “I was a grad student…” I laughed out loud. Nothing like being a pawn in others’ petty tenure wars. Book hiding among students is a known occurrence in some places, and in others it seems like people have no use for it, often in the places reputed to be most competitive. Go figure. The second time around at an ivy grad school all the materials were placed on reserve and one had to check it out. It’s a wonder the time and energy people invest though. It boggles the mind that people could think they are going to actually change the world by manipulating the lives of a few people from their little corner of the universe.

  32. r.j.sciurus says:

    Gee, I thought it was going to be, “Liturgical Dance Favorites of the New York Yankees”

  33. AnAmericanMother says:


    Stan Sieja at Princeton was another leg-whacker. Even us girls got nailed.

    “Did you come to Princeton to be a scholar or a fencer?”
    “A scholar, sir.” WHACK!

  34. Luke Whittaker says:

    Father Z: You use the word “mighty” within your first sentence in a most endearing and deserving way. I wholeheartedly agree with you. He is a mighty man in so many ways. God love him.

  35. Pachomius says:

    Ah, but Fr., this book was merely impossible to get hold of, and not in and of itself evil. Surely, there is one book so depraved, so weak in scholarship, so widely-read, so perniciously quoted that it deserves only hate: The Golden Bough. ceterum censeo delenda est. [If the Golden Bough is evil, perhaps Hignett’s book is merely cursed.]

  36. benedetta says:

    It’s like they say what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger!

  37. AngelineOH says:

    I’ve never so despised a book as much as “As I Lay Dying”. I will never forgive Faulkner writing it or the professor who foisted on us. He was Satan in a sweater!

  38. Angeline: You can take away the bad memory by reading the book of the same name by the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus.



  39. Wow, that stinks. In my university, the profs were tough on their own grad students, a little less tough on undergrads in the same major, and pretty much didn’t worry about folks from outside their area. (Unless, of course, they decided they’d like Outside Student A to do some research for them in Associated Outside Subject.) Occasionally they’d scare off excess students with a rerun of the Paper Chase speech, but that’s about it.

  40. BJM says:

    First, thank you Father for a good laugh

    As far as the tinkling in the glass, the scotch on my desk as I read the post had ice in it (as it always does). Hopefully, this is a small issue we can agree to disagree on without causing schism.

    Finally, RE: Dewars:

    1. I remember vividly, when I was in high school, every foodstuff on the market was reported to cause some form of cancer. I’m sure we can never reliably attribute the underwriters of those studies but the only blended Scotch that (apparently) did not was Dewars White Label.
    2. Dewars happens to be what my wife drinks so please excuse the umbrage. [It is what I accept when there is nothing else. And the ice is entirely appropriate … for Dewers.]

  41. That book looks as though it is a refugee from Monty Python’s “Bookshop” sketch.

  42. UncleBlobb says:

    Father Z: How did you learn of the fortuitous and secret cache of books in stowed in boxes? That seems a really fine piece of detection work there. [The librarian told me.]

  43. APX says:

    Your story reminds me of my first year Geology class in university. [What we called at my school, “Rocks for Jocks”.] It was a 100-level course meant for first year students, but fourth year students took it as one of their electives to get an easy grade. My prof, aware of this happening, decided to mark everything using his 400-level class grading rubrics. Needless to say those of us who were in our first year and first semester of university didn’t do so well, but we were fortunate enough to have the Students’ Union to file our grievances to. After much back and forth mediation, all our papers, assignments, and exams were re-marked by another instructor using the proper 100-level class grading rubrics.

  44. GoZagsGo says:

    Best. Post. Ever.

  45. Stephen Matthew says:

    This thread reminds me of two similar experiences:

    As for books I detest, “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison which we were required to read over the summer before senior English class in high school.

    As to strange college class situations, the worst was again an English class, English 102 in fact, where the instructor decided to change the syllabus unilaterally near the end of the semester, adding an extra paper and lengthening another, because it turns out she was out of compliance with departmental guidelines for the class. After a quick read over the student handbook and academic standards policies I went and had a nice chat with the department chair, which satisfied me of any problems, but a little later the academic dean asked for a meeting and offered additional assurances. In the end I was given an unofficial guarantee that no matter what happened I could expect my final grade to be OK and that the individual responsible would not be teaching in the state’s college system again.

  46. Kerry says:

    One is reminded of this Far Side cartoon: http://phonographia.com/SourcePhonoToons/GL8-29-90%20500.jpg, though for whom…?

  47. benedetta says:

    Funny, to me though I may read something that I vociferously, seriously disagree with, on the merit of the ideas or views, I can’t recall just about anything that I really could say, I hate it. There are things which are of great beauty, and some things can be taken for that at that level alone for what it offers and others, such as Shakespeare, sonnets, for example, can be appreciated with also some knowledge of background and other connections. And then there are things which are appreciated for its truths. I generally do not care much about the personal life behind writers and artists in terms of appreciating the work itself. Though I have come to see that some artists dedicate their lives and work to God, in the first place, and I see now that when this occurs there is something which occurs which is not predictable and beyond our full analysis.

    I would draw the line at some political theorists or dictators and reject both what they stood for as well as their writing and say their works are worthless to their fellow man and not worthy of our time except to learn how to prevent, if possible, such things occurring again.

    I guess Fr. Z isn’t saying he hates the content of this book. He hates the book because it was used as an instrumentality of oppression against him and other grad students just trying to do what they were supposed to do, by a professor-despot. Not the content or ideas of it, mind you, but, the object of the book. It seems unlikely really that the prof cared himself much about the content at the end of the day if he thought it an excellent idea to prevent selected people because of their affiliation alone, from reading it.

    I do appreciate albinus1 who can weigh in as to a reasoned (and pretty funny expressed conclusion of one qualified to make distinctions) discussion about the content, the ideas of the book. I myself never knew that the Athenians had a constitutions and I did take several courses in Classics. Shows you that a few of this and that are really not always adequate to have an opinion and comment on every possible topic.

    I have found through experiences in academia and other contexts that the truth ultimately wins out despite all kinds of petty efforts, manipulation, propaganda. The truth never fears open, robust, free dialogue and analysis, and always tends toward the light.

  48. Luke Whittaker says:

    Love the Far Side. I love it! Thanks Kerry.

  49. irishgirl says:

    You took fencing, Father Z? Whoa-what else don’t we know about your university days!
    Your story is still a hoot, though.

  50. Lots of fencing (sabre and épée) and even more Taekwondo.

  51. Bryan Boyle says:

    @Fr.Z: your experience with fencing and Taekwondo only reinforces the impression that besides being a heavyweight and skilled verbal sparing partner and competitor in defense of our Faith, we REALLY REALLY wouldn’t want to accost you in a dark alley. Perhaps ol’Scratch should take note?

  52. I was just thinking– I can just imagine Jean Shepherd narrating a story like this on WOR radio, and I can imagine myself with a transistor radio on my pillow at 11:30 PM or so listening to it!

  53. Melody says:

    Wow, I will remember that story so that I may offer up sorrows I suffer from my more incompetent than cruel professors. Loved the trek references. Had to read it to my roommate in appreciation of its geekery.
    Peace and long life,

  54. AnAmericanMother says:

    Interesting. My DH is a former epee man, and an Aikidoka.

  55. Jack Hughes says:

    Quick question Father

    When I went to University I gave up Taekwondo as friend told me that it was incompatable with the Faith, is that true? [I don’t think so.]

  56. John Nolan says:

    I hope your experience has not given you a lasting prejudice against historians.

Comments are closed.