The HORROR! Fr Z’s recurring nightmare… thanks to a reader’s gift.

20140108-100043.jpgOnce upon a time I wrote here about the book I hate more than any other book… ehvur.

Today I opened up a package to find that one of you readers… you wags you… send me a copy of the hated volume by Charles Hignett, The History of the Athenian Constitution to the End of the Fifth Century B.C.!  The sender must have seen my original description of the trauma I underwent as a grad student.

Mind you, I have received some pretty creative hate mail, but this takes the proverbial baklava.

“But Father! But Father!”, some of you invasively curious are now frothing.  “Why do you hate this book so much?  Why does it give you nightmares?  Is it because you hate Vatican II?  Is it because you are a self-absorbed promethean neopelagian?  What other books do you hate so we can send those too?!?”

Very funny.

For your opportune knowledge I hereafter append the post in which I explained the whole sordid episode that left me scarred for life beyond recognition.  Originally posted in 2011.


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 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{]:¬)
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  1. Faith says:

    You are a very good writer, Father. I enjoyed this post.

  2. mamajen says:

    Very entertaining post, and kudos to whichever reader dredged up that memory ;) I had one or two crazy professors, but this one takes the cake.

  3. Suburbanbanshee says:

    It would seem that either the Ogre is haunting you, one of your fellows is repaying you for the photocopy, or one of your readers wishes you to turn the hated book into a wall trophy or footstool of victory.

  4. Dimitri_Cavalli says:

    At least no one sent you a copy of “Final Exit.”

    I used to send out copies to people I didn’t like. (Okay, I didn’t.)

  5. teomatteo says:

    Dear Father Z.
    Your catharsis not withstanding… there are professionally trained ‘counselors’ that can help you. Please seek their services. [I guess that admitting you have a problem is the first step.]

  6. danhorse says:

    I’m glad that Species 8472 didn’t send you to hell all those years ago, we would have missed your great writing. Thanks for the morning laugh (at your expense it sounds like).

  7. knute says:

    I think Father Z missed his calling as a British comedian.

  8. Unwilling says:

    “Then…. I came within sight of the sea.”

    I am new to this group. You have me under probation. But I you too. However, your spontaneous use of the above allusion, pretty much proves, thalatta thalatta, you are the real thing.

  9. NBW says:

    Very good post Fr.Z.! At least the book wasn’t written by Hans Kung. ;)

  10. murtheol says:

    HAHAHAHAHA!!! That was great. Fr. Zuhlsdorf, you are human after all!!!! HAHAHAHAHA

  11. SKAY says:

    Loved this post, Father. Thank you.

  12. AVL says:

    Now this made me laugh aloud. One of your readers is quite mischievous. Funny stuff!

  13. e.davison49 says:

    All some editor of The Tablet or The Fishwrap would have to do to put an end your mischief making blog would be to dig up and send you a 1st edition, autographed by the author.

  14. ocleirbj says:

    Oh Fr. Z, not all Irish profs are like that! My own Irish professorial husband buys texts from used book stores to give to his students. Mind you, he doesn’t teach History but Classics, a discipline which imparts true generosity of spirit.

  15. The Masked Chicken says:

    While this is an entertaining story, this is grounds for faculty discipline. You , simply, are not allowed to deny students the materials needed to complete an assignment. I am assuming that the prof. didn’t check out all of the copies to put them on reserve, but, maliciously, checked out all of the copies to make them scarce. If all of the Classics graduate students went to the dean and explained the prof.’s prejudice against them and his actions, especially since the time constraints did not allow for Inter-library loan, the dean could have demanded an explanation. I am glad that you found the book, but this was not supposed to be a scavenger hunt, I suspect, although, I have been involved in graduate history classes that did exactly, that. The obscure manuscript references were scattered in the equally obscure bibliographic references. It was great fun tracking things down.

    There is an episode of the first season of much under-rated and short-lived t.v. series, The Paper Chase, where prof. Charles Kingsfield does something similar, so that the students have to split up their efforts at finding the material and they end up constructing working contracts for the division of efforts and sharing of findings (it was a contract law class).

    The Chicken

  16. Priam1184 says:

    Forced you to improvise in the face of ridiculous obstacles Father, didn’t he? Species 8472 may have turned out to be the best teacher you ever had…

  17. Suburbanbanshee says:

    As Masked Chicken explained nicely, there’s a considerable difference between “tough but fair” (or even “devious but fair”) and “nasty jerk with delusions of grandeur.” Photocopying an entire book is a considerable expenditure of time and energy for even a single person, and those who do it are usually paid. They do not usually have to pay for the privilege, much less suffer malicious threats and mockery from their professor in order to do so.

    More to the point, student fees pay a professor’s salary. It is his job to make his time and teaching worth their money; it is not his job to take their money and leave them with nothing but uglification and derision. It is his job to stand a little bit “in loco parentis” to the development of their minds, and to make them work and sweat; it is not his job to act as an abusive parent or a slavedriver.

  18. Mariana2 says:

    Sounds a bit like our lecturer in Heraldry….

  19. excalibur says:


    But Father, but Father! How was the book?

  20. Mike says:

    A fantastic, funny story! What maroon, that guy!

  21. joan ellen says:

    Though I laughed and laughed as I read this most humorous account, I still felt so bad for you Fr. and the other students. What a tough lesson!

  22. Kathleen10 says:

    I hope you have a book idea you are kicking around. Loved this.
    Those professors. They do it just because they caaannn. Oh the horrors.
    @MaskedChicken. I didn’t see the Paper Chase, the show, but loved the film, especially the end when all the papers went out the window.

  23. Oliverian says:

    Oh, my! I’m delighted to discover that I share something else with Fr. Z … even if it is a “most hated” book, Charles Hignett’s History of the Athenian Constitution.

    Father, I still have my copy. I can send it to you if you’d like another!

    On second thought, perhaps I’ll hang on to it, partly because I don’t think I hate the book itself quite as much as you do, but mainly because it reminds me of the teacher I had who assigned it, and taught me. The saintly Fr. Fred Turner, SJ, in his semi-retirement from teaching Classics at Oxford, was given ‘light duty’ at Stonyhurst College in Lancashire, teaching ‘A’ Level Ancient History. I was in his class in 1970 and ’71. He (almost) made the book tolerable.

    Actually, it was not Fr. Turner’s fault; the text was on the required reading list set by the Oxbridge Examining Board. I’ll keep my copy because it reminds me of one of the most wonderful teachers and holiest priests I’ve ever been lucky enough to learn from.

    But the book itself? You refer to your Irish Prof. as being a member of Species 8472, but I think the author, Hignett, must have been one of the leaders of that evil species. Wading through that 400+-page tome caused my brain to liquify and trickle out my ears, and I have never been the same since. It was bad enough for you to have to been subjected to it as a graduate student, but for the Oxbridge crowd to impose it on high school students is surely sufficient cause for them to be charged with Crimes Against Youth by some U.N. agency. I’m sure Captain Janeway, who defeated Species 8472 with genetic nano-weapons, would be happy to prosecute. Hignett almost destroyed my love of ancient history … and that love has been one of the props of my attachment to the Ancient Mass.

    Perhaps you’ll be pleased to learn that on Google Books Hignett’s volume has had zero reviews, and a quick search on Amazon suggests that it is no longer in print. Thank God for small mercies. I know that it is unCatholic to wish for another’s damnation … but may I at least hope that Hignett is still in Purgatory?

  24. nasman2 says:

    What if, just possibly, this was a yearly event for this evil person. And the Law School Library acquired those boxes in 1972. And the Law School librarian and your prof were friends. They may have had a small wager as to whether any class of Classics grad students could ever finish this assignment. Until your class. To this day they regale the story of the Classics grad student who through great effort, and gentle guidance, found the One Copy. Then copied it and sold it to his fellow classmates. The smile, raise their glasses of bourbon in toast to that exceptionally gifted student, Zuhlsdorf and wonder what ever happened to him.

  25. Ben Kenobi says:

    Great story, Father! Brings back fond memories.

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