In many ways, Homer's epics mark the beginning of true Western Culture. The story, characters and phrases used by Homer have remained in common cultural use right down to the current day.
Because of this, and because we don't have any Greek epics dating from before Homer's time, it's easy to picture the Iliad and the Odyssey as the primordial works of our culture -- the first things ever written by the Greeks. However, this would lead you in the wrong direction. Although the epics date to 700-800 B.C., and thus are the oldest preserved pieces of Greek literature, Homer represented the pinnacle of a fully developed tradition of oral epic poetry.
Some scholars believe that a few elements of the Iliad may trace their way back through four hundred years of bardic tradition to the actual events that it describes. Regardless of whether the stories themselves go back that far, the creators of the Iliad and Odyssey were working within a long and rich tradition of long epic poems that were created, sung to rapt audiences, and memorized by other bards to be repeated elsewhere. It was perhaps several hundred years after the creation of the Iliad and Odyssey that the poems were actually written down.
It's important to remember that these poems originate from the peak, rather than the beginning, of a literary tradition because as you will find when you read the poems, they have a fairly sophisticated narrative structure, both in terms of there the work itself is placed within the mythology which it relates, and in the use of place, character, time, flashback and foreshadowing in the narrative. In many ways, these poems achieve a narrative complexity which will not be found in later literature until the arrival of the modern novel.
Because of this narrative complexity, I would advise the student to read no more than 2-3 books of the Iliad per day. This will probably take 1.5-3 hours, and if you attempt more you may have difficulty retaining all you read. Also, some students may find it useful to write a brief (no more than one paragraph) summary of each book as it is completed in order to keep the events straight.
Several of the elements which mark the Iliad and Odyssey as oral poetry may strike you as you read the poem.
Homeric tags were standard adjectives applied to the name of a noun throughout the epic. They served two purposes, first they were chosen to fit correctly into the rhythmic pattern of the verse, thus providing a useful unit for opening or closing a line. Second, they served as memory devices of the bard reciting the poem. Examples include: bright Achilles, wily Odysseus, the strong-greaved Achaeans, windy Troy, Zeus the cloud-gatherer, etc.
Another element of Homeric style you will quickly notice is that 2-6 line sections describing standard actions and events (such as the offering of a sacrifice) are repeated word-for-word throughout the work. If you think about it, this makes a huge amount of sense given the oral nature of the work. Bards would have known these standard formulae (which may well have appeared in other poems as well) cold, and thus singing this section could easily be done by rote while thinking about what was to come. Also, it would have been particularly difficult to keep straight numerous small variations on a standard description. To the modern eye, however, it can seem a little odd.
Homeric description relies heavily on simile. Some of this you're doubtless familiar with. Simile can be as simple as someone running "like the wind" or attacking "like a savage beast". Here, however, you will often find extended similes which, rather than actually telling you much more about what is being described, serve as brief pieces of poetic showmanship. Thus, in book four when Meneleus is wounded, we read:
The bitter arrow was driven against the joining of the war belt
and passed clean through the war belt elaborately woven;
into the elaborately wrought corselet the shaft was driven
and the guard which we wore to protect his skin and keep the spears off,
which guarded him best, yet the arrow plunged even through this also
and with the very tip of its point it grazed the man's skin
and straightway from the cut there gushed a cloud of dark blood.
As when some Maionian woman or Karian with purple
colours ivory, to make it a cheek piece for horses;
it lies away in an inner room, and many a rider
longs to have it; but it is laid up to be a king's treasure,
two things, to be the beauty of the horse, the pride of horseman:
so, Menelaos, your shapely thighs were stained with the colour
of blood, and your legs also and the ankles beneath them.
(Iliad 4: 134-147, Lattimore trans.)
In some cases, these similes stand directly in contrast with the primary thing being described. In this section, the clash of battle is contrasted with a mountain scene, where a lone shepherd hears the distant sounds of a river in flood:
There the screaming and the shouts of triumph rose up together
of men killing and men killed, and the ground ran blood.
As when rivers in winter spate running down from the mountains
throw together at the meeting of streams the weight of their water
out of the great springs behind in the hollow of the stream-bed,
and far away in the mountains the shepherd hears their thunder;
such, from the coming together of men, was the shock and the shouting.
(Iliad 4: 450-456, Lattimore trans.)
As you read, try to notice these extended similes and appreciate them both as small scale poetic gems, and also as emphasis or counterpoint to the events which they are given in relation to.
Selecting an Edition
Homer's epics have been the subject of translations since other cultures first came in contact with the poems. There are, thus a great number of English translations available to choose from. Some of these -- most commonly available, those by George Chapman (verse), Alexander Pope (verse) and Samuel Butler (prose) -- are in the public domain and are available for free online. I would generally recommend against using one of these. None of these are as faithful to the original text and as transparent to the modern reader as the better modern translations.
Also, as a general principle, I think that Homer should be read in a verse translation. While the translators attempt to render the text into a modern English verse style may result in additional deviations from Homer's original meaning, I think that the verse structure was essential enough to the original experience of hearing or reading Homer that modern readers would do well also to encounter him in a verse format.
The Iliad of Homer, translated by Richard Lattimore
My personal favorite among the modern translations of the Iliad is that by Richard Lattimore. One of the premier classicists of the middle part of the 20th century, Lattimore renders Homer into six-beat lines of free verse. While Lattimore's text will not sound quite as familiar to the modern ear as that of some other translators, I think he hits the best possible balance between producing readable English and providing a strong feeling for what Homer's actual text is like.
The opening lines of Lattimore's translation read:
Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus' son Achilleus
and its devestation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,
hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls
of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting
of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished
since the time when first there stood in division of conflict
Atreus' son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus.
The Iliad, translated by Robert Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald's translation is at the other end of the spectrum from Lattimore's. Fitzgerald's lines are about half the length of Lattimore's, and this certainly helps to increase the feeling of driving pace and energy. He deviates farther from Homer's original meaning in places, but his grammatical structures are simpler and the translation is generally forceful and easy to read.
The Iliad, translated by Robert Fagles
Fagle's translation is, like Fitzgerald's, a more readable, modern verse translation. He does not deviate as far from Homer's meaning as does Fitzgerald, and his style might be described as a little more direct and less descriptive than Fitzgerald's.
Iliad, translated by Stanley Lombardo
Lombardo's translation is probably the most modern and hard driving of the translations currently available. It's probably best described by quoting it's first few lines:
Sing, Goddess, Achilles' rage,
Black and murderous, that cost the Greeks
Incalculable pain, pitched countless souls
Of heroes into Hades' dark,
And left their bodies to rot as feasts
For dogs and birds, as Zeus' will was done.
Begin with the clash between Agamemnon--
The Greek warlord--and godlike Achilles.
Some strongly approve of Lombardo's gritty, some have even said "street verse" style, however others consider his work too colloquial to capture the spirit of the original.