Thursday, March 17, 2016

How I Chose the Books for the Plan – Part I

Every day this year, I feel nostalgia and wonder and a sense of accomplishment whenever I read or even when I just check my reading schedule. Astonishingly, my plan has worked; I’ve given myself the liberal education I wanted when I was a teenager. In the car the other day, Nancy and I were reading Alistar McGrath’s The Intellectual World of C. S. Lewis. Naturally the book referred to many works by the great Oxford don and Cambridge professor. But it also mentioned Lucretius and Milton, and I understood the comments. McGrath commented on the implicit influences of Augustine on Lewis’s thought and writing, and I could contribute examples off the top of my head. What I learned about Joyce, Lewis, modernism, and myself from McGrath’s comments about Ulysses wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t just read that classic last month.

Ten years ago, I looked forward with salivating anticipation and wondered what I would learn and what I would enjoy the most. Looking back now from the other end of the process, I wonder how I knew so well what books to read and when to schedule them. And I thought that my reflections might provide a few moments of interest or entertainment for other readers.
First, especially in light of the press that (self-styled) evangelical Christians are getting these days, I want to explain the conspicuous absence of a few items. If you look at the tab above marked “The List,” you might notice that Marx, Freud, and Darwin don’t show up. Some Christians from my generation or earlier generations write off the Unholy Trinity, judging them without first-hand evidence, but I’m not one of those Christians. I’ve read all the major works by those three, and I think Marx and Freud are brilliant, effective, and moving authors. Darwin doesn’t work for me, but it doesn’t have anything to do with any faith-motivated view I might or might not hold about the theory of evolution (and I can almost guarantee that my view is not what you think it is) and everything to do with the fact that the naturalist quite literally could not keep straight the difference between “descent” and “ascent.” In any case, Marx, Freud, and Darwin form an indispensable part of any reading list like mine; they aren’t here simply because I read them all in my first ten-year plan. I also didn’t feel the need to reread Huckleberry Finn or Jane Eyre or The Prince; their absence from my current plan says nothing about their undisputed place in the canon of classic literature. (At least I don’t dispute their place.)

But where did I get the hundreds of titles that found their way on to the list? My first source was the Britannica Great Books set. Mortimer Adler’s original ten-year plan for his Great Selection got me to every author in the set but left a lot of pages unturned. I wanted to read all the extant Greek plays, all of Plato, all of Plutarch, all of The City of God. Some authors I loved so much the first time, I wanted to enjoy them again: Herodotus, Lucretius, Montaigne, Boswell, and others. Other works, like the Iliad or Paradise Lost or Hamlet, simply need to be read over and over. I also checked contents of the expanded edition of the Britannica set, and I added Thomas Mann and others partly because of their place there.

More in the next couple of days.

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