We all want to read more.
If reading older books is exponentially more beneficial for acquiring knowledge than reading newer things, then reading the great books is a good place to start.
These books build the foundation of knowledge.
One of the best places to find a list of the great books is St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland.
The interdisciplinary curriculum focuses on the foundational works of philosophy, literature, history, political science, theology, economics, music, mathematics, and the laboratory sciences.
Sounds like the type of education I didn’t get in school and I’m making up for now. At St. John’s, all classes are conducted seminar-style.
By engaging in these small seminar classes, students learn skills of critical analysis and cooperative inquiry. Students also refine their ability to think, write, and speak across all disciplines by writing substantial annual essays and defending them in oral examinations.
Many consider the curriculum an outrage. I wish it were more common.
In the New Yorker, former alum Salvatore Scibona writes, “The college’s curriculum was an outrage. No electives. Not a single book in the seminar list by a living author.” “However,” he continued,
no tests. No grades, unless you asked to see them. No textbooks—I was confused. In place of an astronomy manual, you would read Copernicus. No books about Aristotle, just Aristotle. Like, you would read book-books. The Great Books, so called, though I had never heard of most of them. It was akin to taking holy orders, but the school—St. John’s College—had been secular for three hundred years. In place of praying, you read.
The Great Books
I’m going to post the list in the order students encounter them: freshman, sophomore, junior and senior.
The first year is devoted to Greek authors and their pioneering understanding of the liberal arts; the second year contains books from the Roman, medieval, and Renaissance periods; the third year has books of the 17th and 18th centuries, most of which were written in modern languages; the fourth year brings the reading into the 19th and 20th centuries.
THUCYDIDES: Peloponnesian War
LUCRETIUS: On the Nature of Things
PLUTARCH: Lycurgus, Solon
LAVOISIER: Elements of Chemistry
HARVEY: Motion of the Heart and Blood
THE BIBLE: New Testament
EPICTETUS: Discourses, Manual
PLOTINUS: The Enneads
MAIMONIDES: Guide for the Perplexed
ST. ANSELM: Proslogium
AQUINAS: Summa Theologica
DANTE: Divine Comedy
CHAUCER: Canterbury Tales
KEPLER: Epitome IV
RABELAIS: Gargantua and Pantagruel
PALESTRINA: Missa Papae Marcelli
BACON: Novum Organum
DESCARTES: Geometry, Discourse on Method
PASCAL: Generation of Conic Sections
BEETHOVEN: Third Symphony
STRAVINSKY: Symphony of Psalms
CERVANTES: Don Quixote
GALILEO: Two New Sciences
MILTON: Paradise Lost
LA ROCHEFOUCAULD: Maximes
LA FONTAINE: Fables
HUYGENS: Treatise on Light, On the Movement of Bodies by Impact
SPINOZA: Theological-Political Treatise
NEWTON: Principia Mathematica
KEPLER: Epitome IV
SWIFT: Gulliver’s Travels
HUME: Treatise of Human Nature
MOLIERE: Le Misanthrope
ADAM SMITH: Wealth of Nations
MOZART: Don Giovanni
JANE AUSTEN: Pride and Prejudice
HAMILTON, JAY AND MADISON: The Federalist
WORDSWORTH: The Two Part Prelude of 1799
DARWIN: Origin of Species
LOBACHEVSKY: Theory of Parallels
TOCQUEVILLE: Democracy in America
WAGNER: Tristan and Isolde
DOSTOEVSKI: Brothers Karamazov
TOLSTOY: War and Peace
MELVILLE: Benito Cereno
WILLIAM JAMES; Psychology, Briefer Course
NIETZSCHE: Beyond Good and Evil
DUBOIS: The Souls of Black Folk
HUSSERL: Crisis of the European Sciences
HEIDEGGER: Basic Writings
EINSTEIN: Selected papers
CONRAD: Heart of Darkness
FAULKNER: Go Down Moses
FLAUBERT: Un Coeur Simple
WOOLF: Mrs. Dalloway
So here’s the deal. Pick a few books and start pecking away.