Ready to Start Reading the Great Books?

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to read the following selections from the Gateway to the Great Books series (and the internet) this week:

  1. The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent” by John Erskine (Vol. 10, pp. 5-13)
  2. How Should One Read a Book?” by Virginia Woolf (Vol. 5, pp. 5-14)
  3. Of the Study of History” by David Hume (Vol. 7, pp. 89-92)
  4. The Two Drovers” by Sir Walter Scott (Vol. 2, pp. 182-205)
  5. The Three Hermits” by Leo Tolstoy (Vol. 3, pp. 700-706)
  6. Mathematics, the Mirror of Civilization” by Lancelot Hogben (Vol. 9, pp. 3-23; originally Chapter 1 of Mathematics for the Million)

I will post roughly 100 pages of reading each week. Counting this week, we have fifty-one weeks remaining in 2011, and a bit under 5,000 pages to read, so that pace will get us through the entire series by the end of the year. If we’re lucky, I’ll keep finding the selections online for you as I have this week. According to the series editors, this week’s selections are all suitable for seventh- and eighth-grade students, so I hope no one will find them too taxing.

Last week, as promised, I read Volume I of the Gateway series. More than two thirds of the book is reference material, so I only had a bit over 100 pages of introductory essays to read. Much of this material overlaps with The Great Conversation (which I reviewed last week) and How to Read a Book (summarized on this site here, here, here, and here) so instead of a full summary, which would be repetitious, I’ll just point out a couple of highlights.

As in the Great Books of the Western World series, the Gateway editors have divided their selections into four categories: Imaginative Literature (including critical essays); Man and Society (history and the social sciences); Natural Science and Mathematics; and Philosophy and Theology. The editors devote a section of the introduction to each of these categories, explaining why they believe all are necessary to a liberal education.

I’ll note specifically the defense of the natural sciences, which are often slighted by “men of letters.” (Natural science rated a full chapter in The Great Conversation, but I did not comment on it last week.) The editors condemn both scientism (the belief that the scientific method is the only path to true knowledge) and the dismissing of the history of science (a mistake even scientists make). By reading and understanding the great works of the history of science, which are usually written in ordinary language, we gain an understanding of how scientific advances take place. We also learn what the limits of true science are. In an age where scientists are often viewed as priestly figures who deliver authoritative pronouncements from on high, this knowledge is extremely useful for ordinary citizens.

One other point that bears mentioning (also made in The Great Conversation) is that the Great Books include numerous perspectives and points of view. I can already tell that there will be many authors in these series with whom I will disagree. However, part of being an educated person is learning how to wrestle with the arguments you believe to be wrong.

As we go through the set, I will attempt to select readings from multiple genres each week. If you don’t have time to read all the selections, pick the one or two that most interest you and that you have not read before.

And if you can’t contain yourself until next Monday, by all means post your comments on this week’s readings below. Now go forth and enlighten yourself!

[This post was originally published on this site’s parent blog, The Western Tradition.]

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About Dr. J

I am Professor of Humanities at Faulkner University, where I chair the Department of Humanities and direct online M.A. and Ph.D. programs based on the Great Books of Western Civilization. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy and a member of the faculty at Liberty Classroom.
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6 Responses to Ready to Start Reading the Great Books?

  1. Vicki says:

    I discovered your blog today, via Tom Woods, and am delighted! I’ve been hosting a monthly book group for Catholic ladies for the past 25 years. At the very least your plan will provide us with suggestions for further reading, but I expect to derive much pleasure and intellectual stimulation from your endeavor. Bravo! And thanks!

    • Dr. J says:

      25 years? Now that’s dedication! Suddenly my seven-year plan doesn’t seem that ambitious.

      Thanks for your comments, and I hope your group will benefit from the blog!

  2. Pedro says:

    Just dropped here also by Tom Woods’ link while searching recommendations on what to study. I’m curious about one thing, Dr Jewell: how did you choose the reading order and planned the project, based on any specific criterion?

    Looking forward to get started! See you at the ending line (with some years of delay)

    • Dr. J says:

      Welcome to the site, Pedro! For the early stages of the plan, I relied to some extent on the graded reading plan in the appendix of Volume 1 of the “Gateway to the Great Books” series. I also tried to estimate how much from each genre of writing I ought to read each week to smooth things out over the seven-year period. Beyond that, it’s all cafeteria style.

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