So I've made it a goal to read the entire "Great Books" collection. For the entire list of authors and titles see this link.
So far I've read Homer, all the plays by Aeschylus and Sophocles. Instead of paying attention to the talks and lessons at church, I'm reading the Bible. Much more entertaining. ;)
I've read a lot of the titles on the list because of school. For example, I read most of the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles during my undergrad studies in Classics and Letters. But it's been nice re-reading them. Great stories and great lessons.
I'd encourage anybody to take this challenge up. I've found the benefits to be enormous.
The problem with this list is that the works themselves seem to be selected only on the basis of what is online. There are a dozen or so authors on the list with no works listed, which is evidence enough of elision. Is there any other standard for selecting what works are displayed? I am not sure that it makes sense to strive to read everything written by certain authors.
Also, here are what I would consider surprising/glaring omissions: Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemingway, Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald, practically everything by Faulkner, essentially anything not white/western European--I know very little of this but perhaps Sun Tzi, Confucius, Aphra Behn and Ralph Ellingson (still relatively western) to name a few.
I'm not saying these aren't all good books to read . . . I'm just not sure if they're the best or were selected with any real care, which means they probably don't have optimized payoff. Is it better to read all of Shakespeare, Aeschylus, Sophocles, etc. than to read the best 1-2 works of a much longer list of great authors? I think your perspective would benefit much more from the latter. I would prefer a sort of cultural/intellectual importance ranking within each author (hopelessly arbitrary, but better than nothing), so you could decide to read the top 3 of each author first, expand out to more authors, then come back later for the still very good but not necessarily as "relevant" items on the list.
Also, I'm curious as to how you're tackling the list. In the order it's written? If I were to read it, I would probably put it all in a computer and create a constrained random order so I didn't get tired of reading the same author's style for months on end. I'm not sure if that would help or hinder my retention of what I read . . .
Actually the Great Books list has been around since the 1930s. A few schools and universities base their entire curriculum around the Great Books. If you go to any public library, I'm sure you'll find a set of Great Books series. They sort of look like encyclopedias, but they contain the full text of every book on the list. That's what I'm using to read through the list.
I'd heard of the Great Books List before, but what you linked isn't the "official" Great Books List, which is probably what caused part of my concern over its seeming arbitrariness. The list you linked is described as follows:
"Note: This great books index is a personal interest project, and is not sponsored by or associated with the Encyclopaedia Britannica corporation. It is not the same list of authors and works that was included in the Great Books of the Western World. Nonetheless it has been suggested and inspired by the work of Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler, who were the editors of the 1952 edition of the GBWW. This index is at attempt to guide readers to available online editions of those and other great books."
As you can see, the list you linked is focused on books available for free online (stated by the compiler as one of the criteria for inclusion), which is not an intellectually meaningful distinction of what to read. The Wikipedia page also shied from including an "official" Great Books list, which is evidence of the overall problem with the project. The list (if "the list" still exists in any meaningful way) changes and is largely the product of personal taste, cultural bias and tradition.
Once again, as you say, it is still enormously beneficial to read them; I'm just not sure it's the best list one can decide to read. And again, I know also that it does not claim to be an exhaustive list of everything a person should read. I just feel that about 1/3 or more of the books on the list I would probably prioritize in the bottom half of my reading list.
Hopefully, someday I will have read nearly all the books on this list, but that will come about only by happenstance as I tackle books according to my own whimsical ordering. However, I will make sure to scrub this list soon for any books that I want immediately to add to my own list. So, definitely an appreciated resource; I am just always quick to express my doubts about any attempts to outline the Canon especially Western Canon, which seems to me a woefully deficient project. On that topic, you'll note from the Wikipedia page that the Great Books List only started including African Americans in 1989 and also expanded to more women and Hispanics. More troublesome aspects of Canon . . .
Anyway, enough nitpicking. Are you reading "Great Books of the Western World"? Which edition?
Also, after seeing mention of the included "10 year reading plan," I really have to compliment you on the manliness it takes to face such a daunting task. I've heard of 10 year financial plans and personal goals but never reading plans!
Thanks for putting up the official Brittanica list. That's the one I'm using. I can see what you're talking about now with the list I posted up. To be honest, I just googled "Great Books" saw that the list had the tragedies I've been reading and figured it was the same list.
And agree with the criticisms, too. But I'm still happy with the list the because it offers some structure and I think gives a solid foundation for future reading. And to be honest, I've read alot of the post modern stuff in high school and college. I also spent a few years reading Latin American and Spanish literature for my spanish minor. So I figure I should devote some time to the classics a bit.
Most definitely. I doubt there is a book on there that isn't worth reading. When you make it through that list, it will be an amazing accomplishment. I just don't think I could dedicate the estimated ten years straight to those books, and I don't think I read fast enough to try to read other books at the same time as tackling that.
I would be very interested to see your thoughts as you work your way through the authors--what unique lessons/perspective that author brought to the table as well as how you see that author in relation to those you've already read. It would also be interesting to hear which of the works by a given author you connected with most strongly. If it's one of their works that isn't as well known, that would be a very persuasive recommendation, since you will have far more perspective when you're done with each than most other random people taking a shot at their own list of classics.
All things in moderation, postmodernism included. As I said, the Canon is full of great works, but it's foolish to regard it as the authoritative list of great works. It would be an equal travesty to have someone graduate with an English degree who had read all of the Greek and British classics but read no Toomer, Morrison, Ellison, etc. I mean, can you really argue that Canon is white-male-centric? Obviously much of that is because until recently, women and minorities were largely deprived the privilege of writing, but there is plenty of great literature by women and minorities over the last 300 years, so it makes no sense to neglect it. Anyway, the problems with canon are compounded by the problems of randomness, personal taste, and public tastemaking (see Mlodinow's The Drunkard's Walk for detail). It's crazy to say that the Canon is anything but arbitrary. There are undoubtedly many, many works of equal caliber from the same time periods--even extant works--that are left out of the canon simply because they were unlucky enough to never achieve public awareness.
Oh, also, most "Literature" grads of which you speak are probably English literature grads, so you'll have to forgive them for not reading the classics of other languages as part of their studies. A large part of a university education is specialization.
I think the book club is a good idea--I believe there is a defunct book club in this group. The problems would be selecting a book that few people had read and that everyone was interested in reading and reading at a rate with which everyone could keep up. I think the Great Books List would be a damn good resource for selecting the books, though, because of the wealth of books most people have likely not tackled.
"I refuse to let English literature graduates off the hook for their ignorance of classic work from other languages." If you're talking about Graduate students, then I completely agree with you. It is an utter joke to give someone a Master's or Ph.D. in any western literature specialization if they don't have a thorough understanding of the classical works and culture that inform so much of our literature. But if you're talking about undergrads . . . well, most people leave college without receiving an actual education, and college curricula are really neither long nor stringent enough to correct that.
"There is work that is good in some absolute sense, and work that is utter crap." I try to avoid thinking in absolutes as much as possible. I attempt to be intellectually open to everything, which doesn't mean that I accept everything, just that I will give it as fair a chance as I can. I think that attitude helps in coming closer to what may be considered "absolute truth" of any subject. And, I'm not saying that The Iliad shouldn't be a part of literary canon, but by the time you get to Tristram Shandy, you're getting pretty subjective. I think it's hard to argue that there isn't at least 20% of any "authoritative" list of literature that could just as well be replaced by other great works not on the list.
"I would gladly sacrifice all of the literature of the past two centuries in order to preserve the Iliad." What, and lose the The Da Vinci Code?
In seriousness, though, that frightens me greatly, especially because you would be erasing the vast majority of the fruition of non-white-male literature. However, if you have read The Iliad in ancient Greek, you have come close enough to the text to really determine its value to you. If not . . . well, you have made a hell of a bold statement.
Awesome, Will. I'm looking forward to getting to the Koran. Destiny Disrupted sounds very interesting. I'll have to check it out.
The Federalist Papers are actually very interesting to read. I've read them several times while in law school. You'll quickly discover the debate over state's rights/federal powers has been with us since before the country founded and will probably be with us forever. Good times.
Hey Brett, I've been reading the Great Books as well. I am currently on Vol. 8, Aristotle. After reading this thread, I feel compelled to state that the reason the works are included in the Encyclopedia Britannica's list are because of the influence the authors and the works had upon Western Civilization. I plan on having my children read the Great Books when they are older. When they finish reading these, they will have a broader exposure to critical works than a graduate student at a decent university. I can't wait till I can discuss these books with them.
While I'm posting, though a bit off topic, a mentor of mine once gave a great piece of advice for encouraging my kids to read. Everytime they read a book and submit a report (based on their age and ability), I put $10 into a savings account for them. When they graduate from high school, they get the account to use as they see fit. Currently, my oldest daughter (10) has about $1200, and is a voracious reader. My youngest, (7) is doing well in her own right with $600. Each is currently reading above grade level and has all "A"s in school.
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