Majoring in the humanities was probably the best academic decision I ever made. I have always enjoyed reading, but what I soon found was that reading great books well doesn’t just entertain us or teach us useful facts. It helps us rely less on ourselves—with all of our faults and blind spots—by listening to and engaging the minds of others through their written works.
In other words, reading the great books helps realign ourselves with the wisdom of the ages, rather than the spirit of the age. As Russell Kirk often argued, what modern society requires is to reclaim “the moral imagination”—“that power of ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and momentary events,” and “aspires to … right order in the soul and … the commonwealth.” And, “To the unalterable in human existence, humane letters are a great guide.”
Of course, true knowledge and true wisdom, comes only from above (Jam 3:17-18) and is revealed fully in Christ (Col 2:13) and in his word (1Co 2:6-16). But to grasp the difference between the wisdom of Man and the wisdom of God, it helps to understand something of them both. Ancient wisdom, then, serves as a good introduction into what God has revealed more explicitly in his word (which is just one reason why preachers should read good literature).
It was Mortimer Adler who first introduced me to the skills required to read well. One of the assigned readings in my first humanities course was his 1972 classic, How to Read a Book. In its pages Adler not only tells you how to do this well, he also gathers the experience of the ages in his list of 137 Great Writers and their greatest works.
But as Adler would also warn us, no list is the “end all, be all” of any education. Instead, I am reminded of the elegy offered by Fadiman and Major in The New Lifetime Reading Plan. By reading great books well, we begin “to fill our minds, slowly, gradually, under no compulsion, with what some of the greatest writers have thought, felt, and imagined” (xix). Of course, even this is merely a beginning:
Even after we have shared these thoughts, feelings, and images, we will still have much to learn: We all die uneducated. But at least we will not feel quite so lost, so bewildered. We will have disenthralled ourselves from the merely contemporary. We will understand something—not much, but something—of our position in space and time. We will know how we have emerged from our long human history. . . . Just as important, we will have acquired models of high thought and feeling. (Fadiman & Major xix-xx)
The question then becomes, Which list to use? I have some experience with three, but each is quite different from the others, often expressing the interests and views of its compiler. So Adler’s list reflects his extensive background in philosophy and Western civilization, and essentially stops with what had been recognized as ‘great’ by 1972. Clifton and Fadiman, Harold Bloom and Leland Ryken help immensely by adding many non-Western or newer works, but they are lighter on nonfiction than Adler’s (in fact, Ryken only includes two!).
Not surprisingly, however, some books make it onto three or even all four lists. And though I don’t think we should make too much of this (building a canon within the canon), these commonly-received works give us a good starting point for our literary endeavors. And though the resulting list is much shorter than the one thousand works recommended when these three lists are compiled, it still represents a substantive goal: fifty-three authors and over one hundred individual works.
Next week, Lord willing, we’ll see what the resulting list looks like. Until then, check out Russell Kirk’s lecture, “The Moral Imagination,” which is still one of the best introductions to the ethical function of literature I’ve ever read. For the even braver soul, read slowly through Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, especially chapter 10, “The Virtues of Heroic Societies.”