While in Boston I had dinner with a friend who teaches philosophy.
My friend had told me a long time ago that she had taught her children to spell their names in Greek. She liked The Last Samurai for other reasons, but one thing that appealed to her was the presentation of the teaching of Greek to a small child.
For those who haven't read the book, the method was to start by spelling very short English words in Greek letters. So, even if you've never contemplated learning Greek, you can probably see that this looks pretty manageable:
ατ βατ ιτ βιτ οατ βοατ ουτ αβουτ
Greek diphthongs are quite different from English diphthongs, so there's a certain amount of fudging, but you do realise that, how can I put it, you can actually read some recognisable words in a form you're not used to - and the first hurdle, the squiggly alphabet, is often the one at which many people fall. Most of us have learnt one alphabet by the age of 6, so you'd think a slightly different alphabet would not present problems - but the fact is, for English speakers, learning the protocol for representing spoken language in written letters is traumatic, and to the extent that we become literate we repress the trauma.
There was more Greek in the book, but this was the starting point. My thought was that we couldn't really know how exceptional Ludo was, and readers needed to see that there was no way of knowing. There's no doubt that every reader of the book could have learnt Greek from an early age if it had been properly presented; we have no way of knowing how many would have wanted to do so, or how far they could have taken it, but it mattered that something that looks daunting should be revealed as approachable if the first steps made use of things the reader already knew and had mastered by the age of 6.
My friend, anyway, said that her daughter had read the book and had wanted to learn Greek and had been told she could learn Greek when she started college. This is perfectly comprehensible to anyone who knows what it takes to make a career as a professional academic. My friend also said that her daughter, who was in her first year at university and had taken Greek, had refused to take her final exam in Greek because this seemed false to what study of the language was about. My feeling was not that my friend had let her daughter down - that she could have magicked time out of thin air to teach her daughter Greek. My feeling was that the publishers of the book had let them down, as they had let down other readers of the book who responded to this element of the book. The book could have been useful, among other things, as a starting point for readers who wanted to pursue this path, if additional materials had been available on a website. For this to be put in place, someone -- presumably the author -- would have needed to spend extra time preparing materials. A publisher committed to the concerns of the book might certainly have made all sorts of resources available, but this was not necessary. The crucial thing was that the publisher should have set value on the author's time.
I've seen a new discussion online of an old post on this blog, the post on copy-editing (Cormac McCarthy and the Semi-colon). As so often, there is no understanding of the concept of opportunity cost. If the editor is 8 weeks late with comments, if the lawyer refuses to clear permissions, if the copy-editor makes hundreds of gratuitous changes and reinstates them, against authorial veto before sending the book to press, they use time that could be spent finishing other books. A year is spent getting The Last Samurai into print, destroying all other books in the process. If that time had to be spent on Samurai, it might better have been spent, for example, preparing additional materials to assist the kind of reader who wanted to learn Greek. By comparison, months spent wrangling over whether numbers under 100 should be spelt out don't strike the author, at any rate, as a particularly good use of time.