Tag: Great Books

The Great Books

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.


HOMER: Iliad, Odyssey

AESCHYLUS: Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, EumenidesPrometheus Bound

SOPHOCLES: Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone, Philoctetes, Ajax

THUCYDIDES: Peloponnesian War

EURIPIDES: Hippolytus, Bacchae

HERODOTUS: Histories


PLATO: Meno, Gorgias, Republic, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Symposium, Parmenides, Theaetetus, Sophist, Timaeus, Phaedrus

ARISTOTLE: Physics, Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics, Poetics, Politics, On Generation and Corruption, Parts of Animals, Generation of Animals

EUCLID: Elements

LUCRETIUS: On the Nature of Things

PLUTARCH: Lycurgus, Solon

NICOMACHUS: Arithmetic

LAVOISIER: Elements of Chemistry

HARVEY: Motion of the Heart and Blood



THE BIBLE: New Testament

ARISTOTLE: De Anima, On Interpretation, Prior Analytics, Categories


VIRGIL: Aeneid

PLUTARCH: “Caesar,” “Cato the Younger,” “Antony,” “Brutus

EPICTETUS: Discourses, Manual


PTOLEMY: Almagest

PLOTINUS: The Enneads

AUGUSTINE: Confessions

MAIMONIDES: Guide for the Perplexed

ST. ANSELM: Proslogium

AQUINAS: Summa Theologica

DANTE: Divine Comedy

CHAUCER: Canterbury Tales

MACHIAVELLI: The Prince, Discourses

KEPLER: Epitome IV

RABELAIS: Gargantua and Pantagruel

PALESTRINA: Missa Papae Marcelli


VIETE: Introduction to the Analytical Art

BACON: Novum Organum

SHAKESPEARE: Richard II, Henry IV, The Tempest, As You Like It, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, King Lear, and Sonnets

DESCARTES: Geometry, Discourse on Method

PASCAL: Generation of Conic Sections

BACH: St. Matthew Passion, Inventions

HAYDN: Quartets

MOZART: Operas

BEETHOVEN: Third Symphony



STRAVINSKY: Symphony of Psalms


CERVANTES: Don Quixote

GALILEO: Two New Sciences

HOBBES: Leviathan

DESCARTES: Meditations, Rules for the Direction of the Mind

MILTON: Paradise Lost



PASCAL: Pensees

HUYGENS: Treatise on Light, On the Movement of Bodies by Impact

ELIOT: Middlemarch

SPINOZA: Theological-Political Treatise

LOCKE: Second Treatise of Government

RACINE: Phaedre

NEWTON: Principia Mathematica

KEPLER: Epitome IV

LEIBNIZ: Monadology, Discourse on Metaphysics, Essay On Dynamics, Philosophical Essays, Principles of Nature and Grace

SWIFT: Gulliver’s Travels

HUME: Treatise of Human Nature

ROUSSEAU: Social Contract, The Origin of Inequality

MOLIERE: Le Misanthrope

ADAM SMITH: Wealth of Nations

KANT: Critique of Pure Reason, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals

MOZART: Don Giovanni

JANE AUSTEN: Pride and Prejudice

DEDEKIND: “Essay on the Theory of Numbers
Articles of Confederation,” “Declaration of Independence,” “Constitution of the United States of America


TWAIN: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

WORDSWORTH: The Two Part Prelude of 1799



DARWIN: Origin of Species

HEGEL: Phenomenology of Mind, “Logic” (from the Encyclopedia)

LOBACHEVSKY: Theory of Parallels

TOCQUEVILLE: Democracy in America

KIERKEGAARD: Philosophical Fragments, Fear and Trembling

WAGNER: Tristan and Isolde

MARX: Capital, Political and Economic Manuscripts of 1844, The German Ideology

DOSTOEVSKI: Brothers Karamazov

TOLSTOY: War and Peace

MELVILLE: Benito Cereno

WILLIAM JAMES; Psychology, Briefer Course

NIETZSCHE: Beyond Good and Evil

FREUD: Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis

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.

Notes From Underground

Can you be too conscious?

In his short 1864 book, Notes From Underground, Fyodor Dostoyevsky tells the story of a man who is “too conscious.” The man, whose name we never learn is so aware of his own thoughts and feelings as to cause him to be indecisive and overly self-critical. Add in his belief that societal expectations are shaping his actions and you have quite the memoir.

This acute sense of consciousness, he believes, sets him above his fellow man. The “normal man” is “stupid. . . . but perhaps the normal man should be stupid.” Unlike them, he’s never able to remove all doubt and act; he’s always questioning things whereas others question little and act easily. The “fruit“ of his acute consciousness causes “inertia,” a deliberate refusal to do anything, which he believes is more intelligent than uninformed activity.

The essence of all thinking and self-awareness

And all out of boredom, gentlemen, all out of boredom; I am crushed with tedium. After all, the direct, immediate, legitimate fruit of heightened consciousness is inertia, that is, the deliberate refusal to do anything. … all spontaneous people, men of action, are active because they are stupid and limited.

How is this to be explained? Like this: in consequence of their limitations they take immediate, but secondary, causes for primary ones, and thus they are more quickly and easily convinced than other people that they have found indisputable grounds for their action, and they are easy in their minds; and this, you know, is the main thing. After all, in order to act, one must be absolutely sure of oneself, no doubts must remain anywhere. But how am I, for example, to be sure of myself? Where are the primary causes on which I can take my stand, where are my foundations? Where am I to take them from? I practice thinking, and consequently each of my primary causes pulls along another, even more primary, in its wake, and so on ad infinitum. That is really the essence of all thinking and self-awareness. Perhaps this, once again, is a law of nature.

While the book is clearly intended as a deep literary work and, no doubt, people will spend semesters analyzing it, there are some obvious passages of pure brilliance dealing with a deep understanding of the world.

Like this one on bloodshed.

Have you ever noticed that he most refined shedders of blood have been almost always the most highly civilized gentlemen, to whom all the various Attilas and Stenka Razins could not have held a candle? –and if they are not so outstanding as Attila and Stenka Razin, it is because they are too often met with, too ordinary, too familiar. At least, if civilization has not made man more bloodthirsty, it has certainly made him viler in his thirst for blood than he was before. Before, he saw justice in bloodshed and massacred, if he had to, with quiet conscience; now, although we consider bloodshed an abomination, we engage in it more than ever. Which is worse? Decide for yourselves. They say that Cleopatra (excuse my taking an example from Roman history) liked to stick golden pins into the breasts of her slaves, and took pleasure in their screams and writhings. You will say that that was in barbarous times, comparatively speaking; that even today the times are barbarous because (again speaking comparatively) pins are still being thrust into people; and that even now man, although he has learnt to see more clearly than in the days of barbarism, is still far from having grown accustomed to acting as reason and science direct. but all the same you are quite sure that he will inevitably acquire the habit, when certain bad old habits have altogether passed away, and common sense and science have completely re-educated and normally direct human nature. You are convinced that then men will of their own accord cease to make mistakes and refuse, in spite of themselves, as it were, to make a difference between their volition and their normal interests. Furthermore, you say, science will teach men (although in my opinion a superfluity) that they have not, in fact, and never have had, either will or fancy, and are no more than a sort of piano keyboard or barrel-organ cylinder; and that the laws of nature still exist on the earth, so that whatever man does he does not of his own volition but, as really goes without saying, by the laws of nature. Consequently, these laws of nature have only to be discovered, and man will no longer be responsible for his actions, and it will become extremely easy for him to live his life. All human actions, of course, will then have to be worked out by those laws, mathematically, like a table of logarithms, and entered in the almanac; or better still, there will appear orthodox publications, something like our encyclopedic dictionaries, in which everything will be so accurately calculated and plotted that there will no longer be any individual deeds or adventures left in the world.

‘Then,’ (this is all of you speaking, ‘a new political economy will come into existence, all complete, and also calculated with mathematical accuracy, so that all problems will vanish in the twinkling of an eye, simply because all possible answers to them will have been supplied. Then the Palace of Crystal will arise. Then…’ Well, in short, the golden age will come again. of course it is quite impossible (here I am speaking myself) to guarantee that it won’t be terribly boring then (because what can one do if everything has been plotted out and tabulated?), but on the other hand everything will be eminently sensible. Of course, boredom leads to every possible kind of ingenuity. After all, it is out of boredom that golden pins get stuck into people, but all this would not matter. What is bad (again this is me speaking) is that for all I know people may then find pleasure even in golden pins. Man, after all, is stupid, phenomenally stupid. That is to say, although he is not in the least stupid, he is so ungrateful that it is useless to expect anything else from him. Really I shall not be in the least surprised if, for example, in the midst of the future universal good sense, some gentleman with an ignoble, or rather a derisive and reactionary air, springs up suddenly out of nowhere, puts his arms akimbo and says to all of us, ‘Come on, gentlemen, why shouldn’t we get rid of all this calm reasonableness with one kick, just so as to send all these logarithms to the devil and be able to live our own lives at our own sweet will?’ That wouldn’t matter either, but what is really mortifying is that he would certainly find followers: that’s the way men are made. And all this for the most frivolous of reasons, hardly worth mentioning, one would think: namely that a man, whoever he is, always and everywhere likes to act as he chooses, and not at all according to the dictates of reason and self-interest; it is indeed possible, and sometimes positively imperative (in my view), to act directly contrary to one’s own best interests. One’s own free and unfettered volition, one’s own caprice, however wild, one’s own fancy, inflamed sometimes to the point of madness–that is the one best and greatest good, which is never taken into consideration because it will not fit into any classification, and the omission of which always sends all systems and theories to the devil. Where did all the sages get the idea that a man’s desires must be normal and virtuous? Why did they imagine that he must inevitably will what is reasonable and profitable? What a man needs is simply and solely independent volition, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead. Well, but the devil only knows what volition.

Can you consciously desire something harmful and stupid?

…there is one case, and only one, when a man can consciously and purposely desire for himself what is positively harmful and stupid, even the very height of stupidity, and that is when he claims the right to desire even the height of stupidity and not be bound by the obligation of wanting only what is sensible. After all, this height of stupidity, this whim, may be for us, gentlemen, the greatest benefit on earth, especially in some cases.

And this one on history and reason.

In short, anything can be said of world history, anything conceivable even the most disordered imagination. There is only one thing that you can’t say – that it had anything to do with reason.

The law of humanity

Gentlemen, I am tormented by questions; answer them for me. You, for instance, want to cure men of their old habits and reform their will in accordance with science and good sense. But how do you know, not only that it is possible, but also that it is desirable to reform man in that way? And what leads you to the conclusion that man’s inclinations need reforming? In short, how do you know that such a reformation will be a benefit to man? And to go to the root of the matter, why are you so positively convinced that not to act against his real normal interests guaranteed by the conclusions of reason and arithmetic is certainly always advantageous for man and must always be a law for mankind? So far, you know, this is only your supposition. It may be the law of logic, but not the law of humanity.


And why are you so firmly, so triumphantly, convinced that only the normal and the positive–in other words, only what is conducive to welfare–is for the advantage of man? Is not reason in error as regards advantage? Does not man, perhaps, love something besides well-being? Perhaps he is just as fond of suffering? Perhaps suffering is just as great a benefit to him as well-being? Man is sometimes extraordinarily, passionately, in love with suffering, and that is a fact. There is no need to appeal to universal history to prove that; only ask yourself, if you are a man and have lived at all. As far as my personal opinion is concerned, to care only for well-being seems to me positively ill-bred. Whether it’s good or bad, it is sometimes very pleasant, too, to smash things. I hold no brief for suffering nor for well-being either.

Are you a slave?

… you have to admit that you’ve been a slave from the start. Yes, a slave! You give yourself and your own will up completely. And afterwards, if you want to break those chains, it will be too late; the shackles will get strong and stronger. Those damnable chains.

I prefer the paperback but you can find a free version online.

Pride and Prejudice Turns 200

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. — Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice

Today is the 200th anniversary of the publication of one of the most loved—and hated—books in the English language, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The book has spawned film adaptations, zombie parodies, and even naughty updates.

Sheila Heti, writing in the Globe, commemorates the anniversary by reading Pride and Prejudice for the first time.

[T]he plot revolves around the efforts of the Bennets, a relatively well-off rural family, to marry off their five daughters, the only way then to secure their futures. By this time, we have a good idea of the characters of the Bennets and of their daughters, especially Elizabeth and Jane.

The Bennets admire their wealthy new neighbour, Mr. Bingley, and praise him for his attentions to Jane, but are sore over the aristocratic, snobbish treatment of their younger daughter, Elizabeth.

Seeing the world differently because of Austen

I know from writing fiction that we don’t see the world and record it; we invent a world from the one we inhabit – which has few innate characteristics of its own. But it was impossible to deny the patterns Jane Austen painted, everywhere I looked. Did she hold the master key to the truth?

Or perhaps this is the gift of the greatest artists: Their vision is so fascinating that when you’re not in their book (or painting, or film) you still want to be there, so you look at everything through their eyes – the same way we look through the eyes of the person we most love.

Austen’s vision is just so convincing that I may be encountering my world differently; am seeing it through her eyes.

Commenting on the appeal of Jane Austen, Sarah Marian Seltzer writes:

From its very first pages, this novel engages not merely with love, sex, family and money, but with the notion of reading—how we read each other, how we read art, and how pathetically encumbered by our own egos we are in both endeavors.

Have you ever looked differently at a job prospect or a acquaintance after you found out how they felt about you, knowledge that swung your own feelings violently one way or the other? If so, you’re probably human, and Jane Austen knew you well.

Still curious? Throwing out the latest best-seller on your nightstand and replacing it with Pride and Prejudice is not the stupidest thing you can do today.


The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

A lot of people think that reading, especially critical reading, is on the decline. The thinking goes that we spend too much time distracted on devices. And when we turn the devices off long enough to read a book, we read the intellectual equivalent of junk food.

Author Alan Jacobs takes the opposite point of view in The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. He argues that not only is reading alive and well in America, but we suffer from confidence issues: we wonder whether we read well, with proper focus and attentiveness, and with genuine discernment.

Jacobs’ message is simple. “Read what gives you delight, and do so without shame, whether it be Stephen King or the King James Version of the Bible.”

Jacobs’ book is in contrast to the “more methodical and directive approach of Mortimer Adler’s classic on how to read intelligently.

So this is what I say to my petitioners: For heaven’s sake, don’t turn reading into the intellectual equivalent of eating organic greens, or (shifting the metaphor slightly) some fearfully disciplined appointment with an elliptical trainer of the mind in which you count words or pages the way some people fix their attention on the “calories burned” readout—some assiduous and taxing exercise that allows you to look back on your conquest of Middlemarch with grim satisfaction. How depressing. This kind of thing is not reading at all, but what C. S. Lewis once called “cosmical and ethical hygiene.”

Great Books

On Great books, Jacobs writes:

Read what gives you delight—at least most of the time—and do so without shame. And even if you are that rare sort of person who is delighted chiefly by what some people call Great Books, don’t make them your steady intellectual diet, any more than you would eat at the most elegant of restaurants every day. It would be too much. Great books are great in part because of what they ask of their readers: they are not readily encountered, easily assessed.

He is not alone in that thinking. The poet W. H. Auden once wrote:

When one thinks of the attention that a great poem demands, there is something frivolous about the notion of spending every day with one. Masterpieces should be kept for High Holidays of the Spirit—for our own personal Christmases and Easters, not for any old Wednesday.

The Pleasure of Books

What should you do if you’re reading a book that fails to delight you?

For if this particular book is not giving me pleasure now, it may give me pleasure later, if I allow it to do so. Maybe it’s just starting slowly but will pick up speed; maybe I haven’t fully grasped the idiom it’s working in but eventually will figure it out; maybe the problem is not with the book but with my own powers of concentration because I slept fitfully last night. …

Many maybes. But in any case, I have to decide whether to persevere, and for a long time my default position was to continue. Indeed, I was twenty years old before I failed to finish a book I had started: it was The Recognitions, a novel by William Gaddis, and I gave up, after an extended period of moral paralysis, at page 666. That day I grieved, feeling that I had been forced from some noble pedestal; but I work up the next morning with my soul singing. After all, though I would never get back the hours I had devoted to those 666 pages, the hours I would have spent ploughing through the remaining four hundred were mine to spend as I could. I had been granted time as a pure and sweet gift.

Reading Guides

On How to read a book and similar guides, Jacobs writes:

And one of the primary reasons I am so suspicious of How to Read a Book and similar guides is that they promise to help us offload accountability for our reading: they say, implicitly, that self-knowledge and discernment aren’t needful because experts can take care of that for us.

For more on the subject, I highly recommend reading The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction in conjunction with How to Read a Book. Those of you interested in better understanding how technology affects reading—Jacobs is a fan of the Kindle—should add The Shallows, and Cognitive Surplus to this list. Make no mistake, these books won’t agree with one another, but they will expose you to different points of view.

Why Read the Classics?

Italo Calvino argues that we should dedicate part of our adult life to re-reading the classics that shaped us as children.

In fact, reading in youth can be rather unfruitful, owing to impatience, distraction, inexperience with the product’s “instructions for use,” and inexperience in life itself. Books read then can be (possibly at one and the same time) formative, in the sense that they give a form to future experiences, providing models, terms of comparison, schemes for classification, scales of value, exemplars of beauty—all things that continue to operate even if the book read in one’s youth is almost or totally forgotten. If we reread the book at a mature age we are likely to rediscover these constants, which by this time are part of our inner mechanisms, but whose origins we have long forgotten. A literary work can succeed in making us forget it as such, but it leaves its seed in us. The definition we can give is therefore this:

Why read the classics rather than concentrate on books that enable us to understand our own times more deeply?

We can, of course, imagine some blessed soul who devotes his reading time exclusively to Lucretius, Lucian, Montaigne, Erasmus, Quevedo, Marlowe, the Discourse on Method, Wilhelm Meister, Coleridge, Ruskin, Proust, and Valéry, with a few forays in the direction of Murasaki or the Icelandic sagas. And all this without having to write reviews of the latest publications, or papers to compete for a university chair, or articles for magazines on tight deadlines. To keep up such a diet without any contamination, this blessed soul would have to abstain from reading the newspapers, and never be tempted by the latest novel or sociological investigation. But we have to see how far such rigor would be either justified or profitable. The latest news may well be banal or mortifying, but it nonetheless remains a point at which to stand and look both backward and forward. To be able to read the classics you have to know “from where” you are reading them; otherwise both the book and the reader will be lost in a timeless cloud. This, then, is the reason why the greatest “yield” from reading the classics will be obtained by someone who knows how to alternate them with the proper dose of current affairs. And this does not necessarily imply a state of imperturbable inner calm. It can also be the fruit of nervous impatience, of a huffing-and-puffing discontent of mind.

What is a classic?

A classic is something that tends to relegate the concerns of the moment to the status of background noise, but at the same time this background noise is something we cannot do without.

The Best Of The Worst About The Best

What happens if you take Time magazine’s list of the 100 best novels from 1923 to the present and look at some of the ‘best’ one-star reviews posted on Amazon.com?

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961)
“Obviously, a lot people were smoking a lot of weed in the ’60s to think this thing is worth reading.”

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951)
“So many other good books … don’t waste your time on this one. J.D. Salinger went into hiding because he was embarrassed.”

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
“It grieves me deeply that we Americans should take as our classic a book that is no more than a lengthy description of the doings of fops.”

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (1954)
“The book is not readable because of the overuse of adverbs.”

1984 by George Orwell (1948)
“Don’t listen to anyone who tries to distinguish between “serious” works of literature like this one and allegedly “lesser” novels. The distinction is entirely illusory, because no novels are “better” than any others, and the concept of a “great novel” is an intellectual hoax. This book isn’t as good as Harry Potter in MY opinion, and no one can refute me. Tastes are relative!”

Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller (1934)
“This book is one of the worst books I have ever read. I got to about page 3-4.”

Read the rest.