This is a review of D.R. Shackleton-Bailey's commentary on Select Letters of Cicero for the Cambridge green and yellow series. This commentary presents many difficulties to the reader attempting to read Cicero's correspondence in Latin for the first time. The most vexing of these is that even though the prose of Cicero's correspondence is qualitatively different from his oratorical and philosophical works -less complex and more conversational to be sure, but for that very reason more alien and potentially more difficult for the reader used to Cicero's speeches- SB offers a minimal amount of grammatical help to the reader. Moreover, the commentary proper is only about 20 pages longer than the text of the letters itself, with the result that only a slight majority of the text of this book consists of commentary at all. SB mostly provides notes on the identity of proper nouns, translations of Greek words, and the antecedents of potentially ambiguous demonstrative pronouns. The commentary on individual letters is sometimes prefaced by a short paragraph to provide it some historical context or some context in Cicero's broader correspondence -sometimes helpful, sometimes not- but even so the letters allude to realities, places, and events that SB leaves obscure or acknowledges obliquely in an allusive note. SB assumes an intimate knowledge of Roman political realities and procedures, among other things, in the reader.
As for the selection of letters itself (79 in total, ranging in length from a few sentences to several pages), there are many letters included here with undeniable literary and historical value, but as a unit the selection suffers from consisting of letters culled from disparate parts of Cicero's surviving correspondence, which is itself quite large. The letters are arranged in the order in which they were written, but besides the chronological relationship between them there is usually no immediately discernible interaction or progression between them, and SB does not explicitly trace out any recurring themes or evolutions of thought in them. To begin a new letter is to effectively begin the book anew.
On the whole, then, instead of using this commentary it might be more profitable to read a selection of letters from SB's larger commentary on Cicero's correspondence for the Cambridge Classical Texts and Commentaries series, choosing a continuous series of letters from a particular stretch of time and thereby finding a measure of continuity in one's reading. Even reading a selection out of SB's Loeb edition might be preferable.