Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Great Books of the Western World

The Order of St. John’s

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When I think back on my personal experience with the great books, as I did here the other day, I have to start with the six weeks that I spent as a high school junior at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. As I’ve discussed in greater detail before, I had applied to the Telluride Associate Summer Program on the advice of my guidance counselor. It was an impulsive decision, but I was accepted, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to call it one of the three or four most significant turning points in my entire life. I was more than primed for a program like this—I had just bought my own set of the Great Books of the Western World at a church book sale—and I left with my head full of the values embodied by the college, which still structures its curriculum around a similar notion of the Western Canon. Throughout the summer, I attended seminars with seventeen other bright teenagers, and as we worked our way from Plato’s Cratylus through Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, it all seemed somehow normal. I more or less assumed that this was how college would be, which wasn’t entirely true, although I did my best to replicate the experience. Looking back, in fact, I suspect that my time at St. John’s was more responsible than any other factor for allowing me to attend the college of my choice, and it certainly played a role in my decision to major in classics. But it’s only now that I can fully appreciate how much privilege went into each stage in that process. It came down to a series of choices, which I was able to make freely, and while I don’t think I always acted correctly, I’m amazed at how lucky I was, and how the elements of a liberal education itself managed to obscure that crucial point.

I’ve been thinking about this recently because of an article by Frank Bruni in the New York Times, who paid a visit to the sister campus of St. John’s College in Santa Fe. He opens with a description that certainly would have appealed to my adolescent self, although probably not to most other teenagers:

Have I got a college for you. For your first two years, your regimen includes ancient Greek. And I do mean Greek, the language, not Greece, the civilization, though you’ll also hang with Aristotle, Aeschylus, Thucydides and the rest of the gang. There’s no choice in the matter. There’s little choice, period…You have no major, only “the program,” an exploration of the Western canon that was implemented in 1937 and has barely changed…It’s an increasingly exotic and important holdout against so many developments in higher education—the stress on vocational training, the treatment of students as fickle consumers, the elevation of individualism over a shared heritage—that have gone too far. It’s a necessary tug back in the other direction.

More than twenty years after I spent the summer there, the basic pitch for the college doesn’t seem to have changed. Its fans still draw a pointed comparison between the curriculum at St. John’s and the supposedly more “consumerist” approach of most undergraduate programs, and it tends to define itself in sharp contrast to the touchy-feely world around it. “Let your collegiate peers elsewhere design their own majors and frolic with Kerouac,” Bruni writes. “For you it’s Kant.”

Yet it isn’t hard to turn this argument on its head, or to recognize that there’s a real sense in which St. John’s might be one of the most individualistic and consumerist colleges in the entire country. (The article itself is headlined “The Most Contrarian College in America,” while Bruni writes that he was drawn to it “out of respect for its orneriness.” And a school for ornery contrarians sounds pretty individualistic to me.) We can start with the obvious point that “the stress on vocational training” at other colleges is the result of economic anxiety at a time of rising tuitions and crippling student loans. There’s tremendous pressure to turn students away from the humanities, and it isn’t completely unjustified. The ability to major in classics or philosophy reflects a kind of privilege in itself, at least in the form of the absence of some of those pressures, and it isn’t always about money. For better or worse, reading the great books is just about the most individualistic gesture imaginable, and its supposed benefits—what the dean of the Santa Fe campus characterizes as the creation of “a more thoughtful, reflective, self-possessed and authentic citizen, lover, partner, parent and member of the global economy”—are obsessively focused on the self. The students at St. John’s may not have the chance to shop around for classes once they get there, but they made a vastly more important choice as a consumer long before they even arrived. A choice of college amounts to a lot of things, but it’s certainly an act with financial consequences. In many cases, it’s the largest purchase that any of us will ever make. The option of spending one’s college years reading Hobbes and Spinoza at considerable cost doesn’t even factor into the practical or economic universe of most families, and it would be ridiculous to claim otherwise.

In other words, every student at St. John’s exercised his or her power in the academic marketplace when it mattered most. By comparison, the ability to tailor one’s class schedule seems like a fairly minor form of consumerism—which doesn’t detract from the quality of the product, which is excellent, as it should be at such prices. (Bruni notes approvingly that the college recently cut its annual tuition from $52,000 to $35,000, which I applaud, although it doesn’t change my underlying point.) But it’s difficult to separate the value of such an education from the existing qualities required for a high schooler to choose it in the first place. It’s hard for me to imagine a freshman at St. John’s who wasn’t intelligent, motivated, and individualistic, none of which would suffer from four years of immersion in the classics. They’re already lucky, which is a lesson that the great books won’t teach on their own. The Great Conversation tends to take place within a circle of authors who have been chosen for their resemblance to one another, or for how well they fit into a cultural narrative imposed on them after the fact, as Robert Maynard Hutchins writes in the introduction to Great Books of the Western World: “The set is almost self-selected, in the sense that one book leads to another, amplifying, modifying, or contradicting it.” And that’s fine. But it means that you rarely see these authors marveling over their own special status, which they take for granted. For a canon that consists entirely of books written by white men, there’s remarkably little discussion of privilege, because they live in it like fish in water—which is as good an argument for diversity as any I can imagine. The students at St. John’s may ask these hard questions about themselves, but if they do, it’s despite what they read, not because of it. Believe me, I should know.

Written by nevalalee

September 20, 2018 at 9:02 am

Reading the rocks

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“[Our] ignorance of planetary history undermines any claims we may make to modernity,” the geologist Marcia Bjornerud writes in her new book Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World. In an excerpt that appeared last week on Nautilus, Bjornerud makes a case for geology as a way of seeing that I find poetic and compelling:

Early in an introductory geology course, one begins to understand that rocks are not nouns but verbs—visible evidence of processes: a volcanic eruption, the accretion of a coral reef, the growth of a mountain belt. Everywhere one looks, rocks bear witness to events that unfolded over long stretches of time. Little by little, over more than two centuries, the local stories told by rocks in all parts of the world have been stitched together into a great global tapestry—the geologic timescale. This “map” of Deep Time represents one of the great intellectual achievements of humanity, arduously constructed by stratigraphers, paleontologists, geochemists, and geochronologists from many cultures and faiths. It is still a work in progress to which details are constantly being added and finer and finer calibrations being made.

This is a lovely passage in itself, but I was equally struck by how it resembles the arguments that are often advanced in defense of the great books. One of that movement’s favorite talking points is the notion of “The Great Conversation,” or the idea that canonical books and authors aren’t dead or antiquated, but engaged in a vital dialogue between themselves and the present. And its defenders frequently make their case in terms much like those that Bjornerud employs. In the book The Great Conversation, which serves as the opening volume of Great Books of the Western World, the educator Robert Maynard Hutchins writes: “This set of books is offered in no antiquarian spirit. We have not seen our task as that of taking tourists on a visit to ancient ruins or to the quaint productions of primitive peoples.” And the justifications presented for the two fields are similar as well. As Bjornerud’s subtitle indicates, she suggests that a greater awareness of geologic timescales can serve as a way for us to address the problems of our own era, while Hutchins uses language that has a contemporary ring:

We are as concerned as anybody else at the headlong plunge into the abyss that Western civilization seems to be taking. We believe that the voices that may recall the West to sanity are those which have taken part in the Great Conversation. We want them to be heard again not because we want to go back to antiquity, or the Middle Ages, or the Renaissance, or the Eighteenth Century. We are quite aware that we do not live in any time but the present, and, distressing as the present is, we would not care to live in any other time if we could.

“We want the voices of the Great Conversation to be heard again because we think they may help us to learn to live better now,” Hutchins concludes. Bjornerud sounds much the same when she speaks on behalf of geology, sounding a dire warning against “temporal illiteracy,” which leads us to ignore our own impact on environmental processes in the present. In both cases, a seemingly static body of knowledge is reimagined as timely and urgent. I’ve spent much of my life in service to this notion, in one way or another, and I badly want to believe it. Yet I sometimes have my doubts. The great books have been central to my thinking for decades, and their proponents tend to praise their role in building cultural and civic awareness, but the truth isn’t quite that simple. As Harold Bloom memorably points out in The Western Canon: “Reading the very best writers—let us say Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy—is not going to make us better citizens.” And a few pages later, he makes a case that strikes me as more convincing than anything that Hutchins says:

The silliest way to defend the Western Canon is to insist that it incarnates all of the seven deadly moral virtues that make up our supposed range of normative values and democratic principles. This is palpably untrue…The West’s greatest writers are subversive of all values, both ours and their own…If we read the Western Canon in order to form our social, political, or personal moral values, I firmly believe we will become monsters of selfishness and exploitation. To read in the service of any ideology is not, in my judgment, to read at all.

And while I’m certainly sympathetic to Bjornerud’s argument, I suspect that the same might hold true if we turn to geology for lessons about time. Good science, like great literature, is morally neutral, and we run into trouble when we ask it to stand for anything but itself. (Bjornerud notes in passing that many geologists are employed by petroleum companies, which doesn’t help her case that access to knowledge about the “deep, rich, grand geologic story” of our planet will lead to a better sense of environmental stewardship.) And this line of argument has a way of highlighting a field’s supposed relevance at the moments when it seems most endangered. The humanities have long fought against the possibility, as Bloom dryly puts it, that “our English and other literature departments [will] shrink to the dimensions of our current Classics departments,” and Bjornerud is equally concerned for geology:

Lowly geology has never achieved the glossy prestige of the other sciences. It has no Nobel Prize, no high school Advanced Placement courses, and a public persona that is musty and dull. This of course rankles geologists, but it also has serious consequences for society…The perceived value of a science profoundly influences the funding it receives.

When a field seems threatened, it’s tempting to make it seem urgently necessary. I’ve done plenty of this sort of thing myself, and I hope that it works. In the end, though, I have a feeling that Bjornerud’s “timefulness” has exactly the same practical value as the virtue that Bloom attributes to books, which is priceless enough: “All that the Western Canon can bring one is the proper use of one’s own solitude, that solitude whose final form is one’s confrontation with one’s own mortality.”

The good life

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St. John's College

Seventeen years—or exactly half of my lifetime—ago, I spent six weeks at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, as a high school junior in the Telluride Associate Summer Program. It was structured around daily seminars and an extensive reading list in language and literature, with selections ranging from Plato’s Cratylus to Jane Austen’s Emma to Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. The books themselves were often wonderful, but for me, and I suspect for most of the seventeen other students who found themselves there that summer, they were really just an excuse to take part in what felt like an act of sustained intellectual liberation. We were all smart kids from a wide variety of backgrounds, but what I remember most clearly from that summer is the hunger we shared to talk about everything under the sun, especially what we saw as life’s big subjects: philosophy, religion, art, the question of what it meant to be a complete human being. And like most teenagers, we were convinced that we had figured out many of the answers already, if only we had the chance to put them into practice.

In short, it was an intense, highly idealized version of what we thought college would be, and if some of our subsequent experiences at college itself failed to live up to those expectations, it’s only because Telluride set a very high bar. At the time, I was in a perfect position to be influenced by St. John’s and the philosophy of education it afforded: I’d just picked up my own set of the Great Books of the Western World, which remain at the heart of the school’s curriculum even today, and I was primed for a life spent in the company of great authors and ideas. Ultimately, when the summer was over, I decided to apply to college elsewhere, mostly because I sensed that I’d be happier carving out a liberal arts education for myself in the heart of a larger university, and I still think it was the right choice. It’s one thing to bury yourself in Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas in a tiny school where everyone else is doing the same thing, and quite another to stick to your guns when you’re surrounded by students who, for perfectly good reasons, came to college for other experiences.

Great Books of the Western World, First Edition

Yet I’m still haunted by my six weeks there, which shaped me in ways that I’m only starting to appreciate now, when that summer lies at the midpoint of my life. These days, I see it less as a transformative moment in itself than as the first in a series of lucky breaks or decisions that led me to where I am now. On my return home, I kept reading the great books—although my resolution to get through all fifty-four volumes before I graduated from high school went unfulfilled, which was probably for the best. In college, I majored in classics, which came pretty close to that ideal of an intellectual sanctuary embedded within an international university with a lot of other things on its mind. (That was true, at least, of my undergraduate experience; it’s a little different when you try to make a career of it, and despite occasional regrets, I’m glad I escaped with just a bachelor’s degree.) Ever since, I’ve kept a little corner of my mind reserved for St. John’s and the life it exemplified, even as the years have taken me in other directions. And I still intend to get to Plotinus and Lavoisier one of these days.

Of course, I’m still left with the question of what it means to be a complete human being, and I don’t think I’m any closer to the answer than I was at seventeen. If there’s one thing I’ve learned since Telluride, though, it’s that books and ideas get you only part of the way there, and, if anything, can serve as a distraction from more difficult problems. I discovered early on that the solutions to life’s dilemmas aren’t particularly complicated: simplicity, detachment, and perspective get you ninety percent of the way, a lesson we find clearly stated in Socrates, Jesus, and most worthwhile thinkers since. Understanding this on the page and putting it into practice are two very different things, however, and a philosophical precept only comes alive after it’s been learned through hard experience. That means wrong turns, bad choices, and long stretches of life in which those basic principles have been buried or forgotten. A full life consists of alternating periods of neglect and rediscovery; otherwise, it hardens into its own kind of dogmatism. But it helps if you have a touchstone, like those six weeks at St. John’s were for me, that reminds you of what ought to matter.

Written by nevalalee

July 1, 2014 at 9:26 am

Books do furnish a life

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The dollar bin at the Strand Bookstore

When I was growing up in Castro Valley, California, one of the high points of any year was our annual library book sale. My local library was located conveniently across the street from my church, so on one magical weekend, I’d enter the parish hall to find row after row of folding tables stacked with discards and donations. In many ways, it was my first real taste of the joys of browsing: there wasn’t a good used bookstore in town, and I was still a few years away from taking the train up to Berkeley to dive into the stacks at Moe’s and Shakespeare and Company. Instead, I found countless treasures on those tables, and because each book cost just a few dollars, it encouraged exploration, risk, and serendipitous discoveries. Best of all was the final day, in which enterprising buyers could fill a shopping bag of books—a whole bag!—for just a couple of bucks. If you’re a certain kind of book lover, you know that this can be the best feeling in the world, and I still occasionally have dreams at night of making a similar haul at the perfect used bookshop.

Over time, though, the books I picked up were slowly dispersed, usually by a series of moves, so that only a few have followed me from California to Chicago. (Looking around my shelves now, the only books I can positively identify as having come from one of those sales are Dean Koontz’s Writing Popular Fiction and my complete set of Great Books of the Western World, which certainly counts as my greatest find—I vividly remember camping out in a corner to guard the volumes until the time came to drag them away.) It’s a cycle that has recurred repeatedly through my life, as I stumble across a new source of abundant cheap books, buy scores of them in a series of impulsive trips, then find myself faced with some hard choices at my next move. Over the course of seven years in New York, I probably spent several thousand dollars at the Strand, much of it in the legendary dollar bin, and when I moved, I donated twelve boxes to Goodwill, coming to maybe five hundred books that had briefly enriched my life before moving on. As Buckminster Fuller wrote about his own body:

I am not a thing—a noun. At eighty-five, I have taken in over a thousand tons of air, food, and water, which temporarily became my flesh and which progressively disassociated from me. You and I seem to be verbs—evolutionary processes.

The Newberry Library Book Fair

A library, I’ve found, is a sort of organic being of its own, growing along with its user, taking in raw materials, retaining some while getting rid of others, and progressing ever closer to an ideal shape that changes, like the body, over time. It’s even more accurate to see a library as the result of a kind of editorial process. The bags of books I picked up when I was in my teens were like a first draft, ragged, messy, but a source of essential clay for the work to come. More drafts followed with every change of address, with the books that no longer spoke to me—or whose purpose had been filled in providing a few happy hours of browsing—standing aside to make room for others. A library moves asymptotically, like a novel, toward its finished form, and in the end, it starts to look like a portrait of the author. To mix analogies, it’s like a sculpture, or a collage, that finds its shape both through accretion and removal. I never could have assembled the library I have now through first principles: it’s the product of time, shifting interests, the urge in my programming to buy more books, and the constraints imposed by mobility and shelving. And although the result may puzzle others, to me, it feels like home.

Not surprisingly, I’ve become increasingly picky, even eccentric, when it comes to the books I buy. Over the last few weeks, I’ve gone to a number of book sales—at the Printers Row Lit Fest and the Open Books store in Chicago—that previously would have left me with several bags to bring home. Instead, I’ve emerged after hours of browsing with a handful of books whose titles bewilder even me: Hidden Images, Design With Climate, The Divining Rod, Ship Models. If I’m drawn increasingly to odd little books, it’s due in part to the fact that I’ve already filled up the shelves in my office, so I tend to favor books that I don’t think I’ll be able to find at my local library. Really, though, it’s because the books I buy now are devoted to filling existing gaps, like a draft of a novel in which the choices I can make are influenced by a long train of earlier decisions. It’s starting to feel like my life’s work, and I treat it accordingly. Every now and then, I’ll cast an eye over my shelves, and if a book doesn’t make me actively happy to see it there, off it goes. Each one that remains carries a reside of meaning or history, if only by capturing a memory of a day spent deep in the stacks. And unlike my other works, it won’t ever be complete, because on the day it’s finished, I will be, too.

Written by nevalalee

June 23, 2014 at 9:24 am

Books as furniture

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The author's library

I’ve always been fascinated by the prospect of buying books by the foot. The Strand, my favorite bookstore in New York, offers a number of packages for consumers looking to furnish a library as quickly as possible, ranging from four hundred dollars per foot for antique leather editions to slightly less for cookbooks, art books, or legal volumes. The intended purchasers seem to be theatrical designers or, more often, interior decorators furnishing a different kind of set, a stage on which clients can buy the appearance of being voracious readers without going through the trouble of acquiring books one by one. And although it’s generally more economical—if less efficient—for me to get my books at retail, rather than wholesale, I’ve occasionally been tempted to order a few yards of reading material, just to see what serendipitous finds I’d discover there.

Recently, I read a post on Apartment Therapy in defense of organizing books by color, which seems to be an ongoing trend in interior design, or at least on home decorating blogs. It’s controversial, I think, because displaying a shelf of blue, red, or yellow books emphasizes their decorative function to an extent that makes us uncomfortable: not only have these books been judged by their covers, but even the words on the spine aren’t particularly important. The article makes some good points—it can be helpful for visual thinkers, it allows us to appreciate books for their visual qualities as well as for their content—but it won’t stop many serious readers from having a visceral negative reaction. For many of us, it parades the use of books as furniture a little too blatantly: it just doesn’t feel like a working library, however often the owner might pull a favorite green or teal volume from the shelf. And the idea of choosing books solely because of how they’ll look seems disrespectful to the authors whose life’s work they represent.

The author's library

Yet when I consider it more rationally, my instinctive response seems a little overblown. I’ll often organize books by size, for instance, on the theory that a row of bindings of the same height looks better than an irregular skyline of mismatched volumes. And while I’ve never bought a book solely because of how it would look in my collection, I can’t rule out that this might be a subconscious factor in some purchases. I doubt I’ll ever make it all the way through William Vollmann’s unabridged seven-volume version of Rising Up and Rising Down, but I look at it with pleasure every day. The Great Books of the Western World set, which has followed me to every dorm room, apartment, and house since college, was originally acquired because I really intended to read all those books, but these days, it tends to serve the function for which many of its original buyers probably intended it—as a classy decorative note in an office or study. (The same thing, alas, seems to be happening with my Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and even my Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.)

But above all, I get a visceral pleasure from looking at the books in my library that can’t be explained by utility alone. Books are furniture, but they’re also the best furniture there is: when I’m sitting among my books, I feel more human, more alive, and more content. Of course, that’s mostly because my bookshelf is also a tangible autobiography. Every book I own represents a choice, or a moment in my life; I can often remember when and where each one was bought, or the interests it reflected at the time. As a result, my library is a reflection of my brain—a way for me to set up a desk and reading chair in my own skull—and it means more to me than it can to anyone else, which is something you can’t buy by the foot. As Thoreau said:

Not that all architectural ornament is to be neglected even in the rudest periods; but let our houses first be lined with beauty, where they come in contact with our lives, like the tenement of the shellfish, and not overlaid with it.

And even if you buy a book for the sake of its color, if there are readers in the house, they’ll find it. So there’s no shame in buying books as furniture—it’s the best way there is to cover a wall.

The writer’s toolbox

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Last week, I wrote about my enduring fascination with the Great Books of the Western World, having been mildly obsessed with this set ever since first encountering its fifty-four volumes in my high school library. What I didn’t really talk about is how this collection, and the idea of canons and reading lists in general, is intimately tied up with my identity as a writer. I’ve always known that I wanted to be a novelist, and as a result, I spent many years thinking about what a writer’s education ought to look like. What it involved, as best as I could determine, was writing as much as possible; carefully studying one’s own language, and perhaps a few others; exploring a variety of narrative art beyond the printed page, especially film and theater; traveling and seeking out other kinds of life experience; and reading as widely as possible. In my adult life, I’ve often fallen short of these high standards, but I’ve done the best I could. And as far as reading was concerned, even at the age of seventeen, it seemed clear to me that the great books were far from the worst place to start.

So was I right? Reading the great books, as Harold Bloom has pointed out, won’t make us better citizens, but will it make us better writers? The evidence, in my own experience, is mixed: if I’ve learned anything since high school, it’s that an aspiring author will learn more from writing and revising one mediocre novel than reading a semester’s worth of the world’s classics. But if reading great books doesn’t make us better writers, it’s hard to think of anything else that will. As I’ve said before, writing is such a ridiculously competitive activity that a writer has to seek out sources of incremental advantage wherever possible, and it’s hard not to suspect that we might benefit from reading Moby-Dick or Middlemarch or Anna Karenina, even if it’s tricky to pin down why. Consciously or not, most of a writer’s life is spent acquiring the skills that he or she needs to produce good work, and in the great books, we have what looks like a very enticing toolbox, even if it’s up to the individual writer to put these tools to use.

This might be why writers tend to at least be cautiously respectful of the idea of great books. These days, we don’t hear much about the culture wars, perhaps because pundits on both the right and left are worried about being tagged as elitists. It’s worth pointing out, however, that of all the attacks that the great books have sustained over the years, very few have come from professional writers. The reason, I suspect, is that while writers know that there’s something inherently ridiculous about canons and reading lists, they also can’t afford to ignore them, at least not entirely. For most people, reading Virgil or Milton feels nice and virtuous, but it’s hard to see how useful it is, compared to, say, electrical engineering or wood shop. It’s only for the writer that the apparently contradictory goals of liberal education and vocational training are essentially the same. For a novelist who is serious about acquiring the tools that he or she needs, four years at St. John’s College is as practical as a certificate from DeVry.

So am I telling you to read the great books? Not necessarily. A reader who plows dutifully through all fifty-four volumes in the Great Books set may turn out to be a good writer, but is more likely to end up a drudge. Most novelists are more like the fox than the hedgehog; their education is accurate, but unsystematic, with lots of wrong turns and diverting detours. True talent will take inspiration from any source: great careers have been nourished by comic books, television, and the movies, and speaking for myself, I’ve been more inspired by the works of Kubrick, Powell and Pressburger, and the like than by most of the authors I read in Latin and Greek. That said, if you’re not sure where to start, it certainly can’t hurt to begin with a reading list: even as your education takes you farther afield, Tom Jones and Tristram Shandy will always be waiting. In the end, the balance between high art and pop culture, and the canonical and the unsung, is one that every writer needs to discover on his or her own, and the fully equipped toolbox will have room for both.

Written by nevalalee

January 24, 2012 at 11:01 am

Me and the Great Books

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It’s no exaggeration to say that one of the most exciting moments of my life occurred at a church book sale in my hometown of Castro Valley, California, when I bought a set of the Great Books of the Western World for only thirty-five dollars. At the age of seventeen, I’d long been fascinated by the Great Books set in my high school library, with their uniform spines and the names of their authors enticingly lettered in gold: Homer, Lucretius, Plotinus, Augustine, not to mention Fourier, Faraday and two volumes of Gibbon. (Later, upon reviewing my own set, I noticed that the volumes for Darwin and Marx were missing, an omission that I note here without comment.) I’d always been a sucker for canons and reading lists, so I rashly vowed, in a column published in my high school newspaper, to read all fifty-four volumes in the two years before graduation. And indeed, for a while, I may have been the only high school junior in the country who was furtively reading Gibbon behind a textbook in calculus class.

More recently, it has become fashionable, in such books as Alex Beam’s A Great Idea at the Time, to dismiss the Great Books project as an inexplicable manifestation of mid-fifties middlebrow Americana. Certainly the set, with its rather prissy air of righteousness, is easy to mock, and there’s no denying the various ways in which it falls short: the complete lack of women; the poor translations of such authors as Virgil and Goethe, chosen mostly because they were in the public domain; the omission of such obvious choices as Martin Luther or Voltaire; the somewhat uninviting format, with its small type and double columns. (“It’s like reading the Bible!” one of my high school friends exclaimed.) There’s the curious Syntopicon, a compendium of what co-editor Mortimer J. Adler deemed to be the greatest ideas in history, from Angel to World, with its comically exhaustive subsections and page references to each of the set’s authors. And there’s the unfortunate fact, over which the editors had little control, that the sets were mostly hawked by traveling encyclopedia salesmen to families that probably never had much of an inclination to read Epictetus or Huygens.

All of these criticisms are fair enough. Yet when I look at my own set of the Great Books, which I recently had shipped from my parents’ garage to my new house in Oak Park, I’m struck above all else by the grandeur of the enterprise. Perhaps it’s because the idea of a publisher printing any set of fifty-four hardcover books, much less a collection like this, seems increasingly laughable these days. Or because the books themselves, now that the political and social circumstances of their origins have fallen away, seem nothing less than beautiful. Speaking from my own experience, I can say what while these books, in practice, may have seemed daunting to a casual reader, this is less important than what they promised to me in high school, and what they still promise today: a gateway into a world of ideas accessible to anyone with the patience to enter. It’s true that in many homes and libraries, these books may have been nothing but furniture, but for all their flaws, it’s hard for me to see them as anything less than what their editors meant them to be: a treasure hoard for the serious reader.

Needless to say, I didn’t end up reading all fifty-four volumes in the two years before I graduated. But over time, the Great Books, in their supposedly unreadable volumes, provided me with my first—and in some cases only—encounters with books and authors like Dante, Sophocles, Herodotus, Marcus Aurelius, Machiavelli, Montaigne, Gilbert’s On the Loadstone, William Harvey’s De Motu Cordis, Gulliver’s Travels, Tom Jones, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, and Moby-Dick. (I still haven’t read all of Gibbon.) More importantly, the books set me on a path that eventually led to a summer program at St. John’s College, one of the few liberal arts institutions that still put the great books at the core of their curriculum, and ultimately to majoring in Classics. My experience has taught me that while the great books, in any form, have their limitations as the heart of one’s education, I haven’t found anything better. And now that these books are back in my life, I’m looking forward to discovering their riches again—as soon as I find Darwin and Marx.

Written by nevalalee

January 20, 2012 at 10:42 am

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