Believe it or not, modern classicists are not the first
Take Homer for instance. Whenever you're dealing with handwritten texts, you're bound to find differences between manuscripts. The field of textual criticism analyzes the different manuscripts and tries to explain the variants, often attempting to figure out what the "original" said. This is no modern academic innovation: we find ancient Alexandrian scholars asking the same questions about Homer's works. Also consider the problem of words. Sometimes when we're reading an ancient work we come across rare or odd words and expressions and we're not entirely sure what they mean. Ancient and medieval readers of Homer faced the same issue. After all, Homer had composed his epics centuries before them in a Greek that was different from what they spoke and wrote (consider some of the odd words and expressions we come across reading Shakespeare). These scholars from yesteryear discussed and commented on the meaning of these words, just like we do today. And then there's the question of meaning. What does a text mean? How do we make sense of it in our own time? These too, were questions our academic ancestors explored.
Luckily for us, some of the work of ancient grammarians, lexicographers (dictionary writers), textual critics, and commentators have survived. These works are invaluable in at least two ways: (1) they can help us gain a better understanding of works like Homer, thus making them useful "secondary" sources, and (2) they are interesting objects of study ("primary" sources) in their own right, giving us insight into the history of scholarship and the history of interpretation.
The problem? These works are confusing, difficult to find, and difficult to use. When I started studying Homer's Iliad it was a whole new world for me, and when I learned that there was another murky world that commented on the Iliad -- well, it was a bit intimidating. That's where Eleanor Dickey's volume has been a lifesaver. Her Ancient Greek Scholarship: a Guide to Finding, Reading, and Understanding Scholia, Commentaries, Lexica, and Grammatical Treatises, from their Beginnings to the Byzantine Period is a truly fantastic reference work that provides orientation to an otherwise vertigo-inducing field. I won't say too much about it, since its lengthy subtitle sums up its contents well. A few high points: (1) She organizes her discussion of commentaries, lexical works, and scholia (scholia are notes in manuscript margins of classical works, often quotations from earlier commentaries) by the ancient author they comment on. So if Plato is your guy, you can just go to the Plato section to find the relevant resources. (2) She provides the bibliographic information you need to know where to go. (3) She offers an introduction to scholarly Greek (which has its own conventions and style), complete with a lexicon of common terms you'll encounter in these works.
This book is a must-have for anyone who studies the classical world, including (in my humble opinion), those who study ancient Judaism/Christianity. It will particularly benefit those who already know some Greek and are already knee deep in classical studies, but it will also be interesting for those who have a general interest in the history of scholarship. If this is not already in your college/university library, then you should chastise your librarian (or just ask them nicely to put it on their wish list).
- Dickey, Eleanor. Ancient Greek Scholarship: a Guide to Finding, Reading, and Understanding Scholia, Commentaries, Lexica, and Grammatical Treatises, from their Beginnings to the Byzantine Period. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Note: I have it in Kindle edition. The Greek displays well enough in electronic format.