I started to write last week about how I decided the books that made their way to my list, and then I spent most of the time explaining the reason for books that didn’t make the list: a lot of books thought of as foundational to western civilization, I’d already read. On the other hand, I included many books on my list that don’t show up on any list of western Great Books. In short, the specific contents of my list shouldn’t serve as a model for anyone else trying to acquire a classical education or to read the classics.
But some of my sources could help you put together your own list. As I said last week, my first guide was the contents of the Britannica Great Books set. I wanted to complete many of the works or sets of works only touched upon in the ten-year plan that came with the set. Two other sources went a long way to filling out the picture: the curriculum of St. John’s College and the appendix of Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book. I don’t remember exactly what all I got from those two sources, but I know that Adler highly recommended Dedekind’s Theory of Numbers, which I’ll finally get to in just a few weeks.
But several other notions contributed heavily to the final form of my list. First, both Adler and St. John’s skimped on their attention to poetry, but how was I supposed to think I had read the classics without reading Shelley or Tennyson? Second, while Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, and Charles Dickens might — might! — find one book apiece on someone’s idea of a western canon, I love them all and wanted to read all I could. Third, wanting this project to have substantial Christian content, I included readings in the Church Fathers and in later Christian writers such as John of the Cross, Bonaventure, Calvin, Tolkien, Lewis, and Williams. Fourth, I wanted to read more about the American Civil War and the Presidents; maybe Catton and McCullough don’t write Great Books with a capital GB, but they pen lower-cased great books on great themes. Finally, I just love Patrick O’Brian and wanted to read all of his Aubrey-Maturin series.
I know I got ideas from more places; I worked on the list for years and tweaked it often. But it’s been a decade, and I just don’t remember now where I got all the ideas. I know that I’ve rarely been disappointed in the works I selected.
Every once in a great while, a friend tells me he or she has decided to follow my lead and plan out a schedule of stimulating reading for the next few years. As it happens, one wrote to me between the time I wrote the previous post and now. She’s long been staring at a set of classics she ordered years ago, and she’s decided to get started. It hardly matters exactly what her set includes. It will get her started on a path that will naturally branch and take her in unexpected directions. "It does not matter at what point you first break into the system of European poetry," Lewis says. "Only keep your ears open and your mouth shut and everything will lead you to everything else. Ogni parte ad ogni parte splende." And I promise her, the first time she comes across a reference to one of the books she’s read on her new adventure and knows what to make of it, she won’t want to stop.
So why are you still reading my blog? Get started!