Review: Cleopatra at the Breakfast Table by Peter O’Brien

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Did you know that Latin has shaped sixty percent of all English words? Or that today there are over 800 million native speakers worldwide of Romantic languages derived from Latin? Neither did I until I had the pleasure of reading Peter O’Brien’s clever and enlightening Cleopatra at the Breakfast Table: Why I Studied Latin with My Teenager and How I Discovered the Daughterland. These are just a few of the many facts about the Latin language and its continued influence that can be found in this delightful treatise on communication in the modern age.

Cleopatra begins with a single father setting out to connect with his teenaged daughter, injecting himself into her daily life by undertaking the study of Latin, one of her tenth grade electives. “The horror!” a chorus of dismayed and scandalized teenagers cries, but despite O’Brien’s fears of becoming known as the lame imposing dad, his interest in studying the ancient language for his own purposes – finally reading classic authors such as Plato and Ovid, challenging his “hard and crusty” gray matter with the pursuit of new knowledge – combined with the touching anecdotes he shares of growing as a parent alongside his daughter make for an endearing tale of family connection.

The book is peppered with interesting facts about ancient cultures and stories about the father/daughter relationship throughout history, and O’Brien discusses with refreshing openness topics both mundane and sometimes uncomfortable to address between parent and child. His reflections on the development of language and new communication technologies are timely as public debates continue relating to youth’s exposure to technology and its connection to juvenile delinquency.

Cleopatra at the Breakfast Table uses classical examples to demonstrate that parents have always been concerned about the degeneracy of youth when, in fact, the kids seem to be doing alright. By injecting snippets of Latin grammar, images from classical art and sculpture, and comparisons between the unknowable languages of Greek and codespeak, Cleopatra becomes so much more than a mere history or language lesson.

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