THE GREAT BOOKS MOVEMENT: A Return to the Classics
by Patrick S. J. Carmack
The Great Books Movement, being a movement or change, begins one place and ends another. The movement is not physical, but intellectual, and, hopefully, volitional (involving the will) as well. Further, the experience of those in the Great Books movement is that the change involved is most often much for the better, in fact remarkably so. Following are four of the basic opening questions, and answers, upon which the Great Books Movement was based. OPENING QUESTIONS Why a “books” movement? Because reading is good for the mind: it requires individuals to acquire basic intellectual skills; the art of reading; the art of speaking about what is read; the art of thinking about what is read and discussed. Beyond that, reading books increases the opportunity for the mind to gain a little insight, understanding, and wisdom. Reading, and discussion of what is read, provides conditions favorable for the acquisition of these favorable mental qualities.
If there is some purpose of the things we do will not knowledge of it have a great influence on life? Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what we should? If so, we must try, in outline at least, to determine what it is.” – Aristotle
Why great books? Because greatness means excellence – the highest and best materials on which the human mind can work in order to gain insight, understanding, and wisdom. Obviously, inferior materials lessen the opportunity for such gains, to the point – with poor to bad materials – that nothing is gained and much may be lost. No one can any longer read all books, or even most books, but only a very tiny percentage of the total number of books. Therefore, to maximize the gains to be made from reading, the best should be read – the great books.
Contact with writers of genius procures us the immediate advantage of lifting us to a higher plane; by their superiority alone they confer a benefit on us even before teaching us anything….they accustom us to the air of the mountaintops….In that world of lofty thought the face of truth seems to be unveiled; beauty shines forth…” The Intellectual Life, A.G. Sertillanges, O.P.
Will reading make one good, or at least better? No, at least not directly, but it can be a great help to that end. Goodness in that sense is a quality of the will, not of the mind. However, as Aristotle noted, above, if having some understanding and wisdom is of some advantage to a man, then reading the great books can improve the mind and so help a man in the pursuit of happiness and in the performance of his duties. But merely reading, even the great books, does not make better men. However, it does provide the best opportunity for the improvement of the mind, and if that opportunity is taken, and other factors cooperate (including a good will), the result may be a better man and a better society.
If then the power of speech is a gift as great as any that can be named,-if the origin of language is by many philosophers even considered to be nothing short of divine,-if by means of words the secrets of the heart are brought to light, pain of soul is relieved, hidden grief is carried off, sympathy conveyed, counsel imparted, experience recorded and wisdom perpetuated,-if by great authors the many are drawn into unity, national character is fixed, a people speaks, the past and the future, the East and the West are brought into communication with each other,-if such men are, in a word, the spokesmen and prophets of the human family,-it will not answer to make light of Literature or to neglect its study; rather we may be sure that, in proportion as we master it in whatever language, and imbibe its spirit, we shall ourselves become in our own measure the ministers of like benefits to others, be they many or few, be they in the obscurer or the more distinguished walks of life,- who are united to us by social ties, and are within the sphere of our personal influence.” – Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman
Having established some of the great importance and value of reading great books (and the limitations thereof), we now are faced with the fourth question mentioned above: What criteria ought to be used to select the greatest books to read? The answer to this question sets us on our course to look at the Great Books Movement, which began when one man – John Erskine – having arrived at some semblance of the conclusions cited above, in answer to the first three questions, had to grapple with that fourth question. greatbooksrareThe first answer is that there are many answers – men have disagreed in compiling lists of the greatest books. In the 19th century Oxford and Cambridge Universities each put together classics courses and so short lists of classics, but no comprehensive list as such. At the end of that century , also in England, Sir John Lubbock published his list of “the 100 best books.” In 1901 Charles M. Gayley compiled a list of great books for his course of that name at Berkeley. In 1910 Charles W. Eliot, President of Harvard, edited an extensive list of great books entitled The Harvard Classics which became known as “Dr. Eliot’s five-foot shelf of books.” This was a marvelous collection and is still in print. However, as the description implies, it was merely Dr. Eliot’s personal list (as Sir John’s was his), and so lacked any kind of broader consensus regarding his selections. Other lists compiled by individuals or various publishing houses (e.g. the Modern Library series, the Everyman’s Library series, Oxford Press series of World Classics, Penguin Classics, Book-of-the-Month Club) suffer from the same defect (as well as commercial considerations). Indeed, the great books movement originally suffered from that very same defect, resulting in more personal bias influencing the list than was reasonably avoidable or desirable. This was later minimized with the expansion of the movement.
The relevant course at Columbia University in New York first taught by John Erskine, a musician, author and literature prof, who specialized in Elizabethan literature, was originally titled General Honors and the books he assembled were called the “Classics of Western Civilization.” Erskine’s first list was simply his own list of 52 books. Had it gone no farther, the movement would never have taken off – at least from there. But Erskine combined his list of classics with a discussion group approach – now commonly called a Socratic discussion group (or Socratic seminar or tutorial). He had his students read one classic a week and then meet once a week for a two-hour discussion sitting round a large oval table. When it began in 1921, there was only one discussion group, which Erskine conducted by himself (he was a soloist on piano as well, at the NY Philharmonic). To catch the flavor of his course, here are two bits of advice about reading the classics which Erskine penned and must have spoken, in substance, in that class as well:
The fact that a book is famous is enough to scare off some people who, if they had the courage to open the pages, would find there delight and profit. We make the mistake of fearing that the immortal things of art must be approached through special studies and disciplines, and we comfort ourselves on the principle of sour grapes, by deciding that even if we were prepared to read the classics, we should find them dull. But one explanation of any long fame is that it is deserved, and the men who wrote these books would have been horrified if they had known that you and I might think of them only as matter for school and college courses. They wrote to be read by the general public, and they assumed in their readers an experience of life and an interest in human nature, nothing more. . .