How To Read and Recognize a Great Book

alex atkins bookshelf books“The method I should advise in reading great books is a simple one. I should try, first of all, not to be awed by their greatness. Then I should read without any other preparation than life has given me-I should open the pages and find out how much they mean to me. If I found my experience reflected in some parts of the book and not in others, I shouldn’t worry about those blind spots. They may be the fault of the book in those places-it may be out of date. But it is more prudent of me to suppose, what is just as likely, that my own experience is perhaps a little thin in the regions those parts of the book dealt with. To find out which is so, I should read the book a second time, and a third. Whether or not the repeated readings clear up the difficult pages, they will show me new meanings in the part I already understand.

When we encounter these dead spots in books sup­ posed to be masterpieces, and when we are humble enough to explain them by some insufficiency in ourselves, the impulse is to go for help to other books, to works of criticism. It is much more profitable to go directly to life. I won’t say that no aid can be had from other people; I couldn’t believe that and keep on teaching literature, or even write these papers. But the best teachers of literature, in my opinion, try to suggest the experience which such passages are designed to reflect; they remind their hearers of experience mislaid for the moment; they can only remind-they can’t impart it. We do as much for each other, far from classrooms, whenever your casual enthusiasms open my eyes to a beauty in art or in nature which I overlooked, but which I am ready to admire. Sometimes I ask a student in class to tell me the plot of the book we are about to discuss. I have never listened to an honest summary of that elementary sort without learning something new about the story; I have seen it now through another person’s life. In fact, there’s no better way to measure personality than to ask for the outline of a story you know well. But most of this experimenting we can do on ourselves. We can c1verhaul our experience, to find the material needed to understand the book; we can open our eyes to life about us, and find the material there. It is fatal to suppose the great writer was too wise or too profound for us ever to understand him; to think of art so is not to praise but to murder it, for the next step after that tribute will be neglect of the masterpiece.

It is advisable to sample as many of the great books as we can, for the first ones we come to may not be those which reflect us most completely. But once we have found our author, we have only to read him over and over, and after a while to read out from him, into the authors who seem kindred spirits. When the reader has found himself in two great authors, he is fairly launched.

But the books should be read over and over. Until have discovered that certain books grow with our maturing experience and other books do not, we have not learned how to distinguish a great book from a book.”

From The Delight of Great Books (1928) by John Erskine (1879-1951). Erskine was an English professor at Columbia University, where he developed the General Honors Course focused on the classics of Western literature, later becoming “Masterworks of Western Literature.” This course was later taught by Mark Van Doren and Mortimer Adler. Their work on teaching this course over many years inspired them to develop the Great Books of the Western World program and the Great Books Foundation. Years later, Mortimer Adler taught the course at the University of Chicago. Alder collaborated with Robert Hutchins, the president of the University of Chicago to develop The Great Books of the Western World. The set of books was first published as a 54-volume set in 1952 by Encyclopedia Britannica. The second edition published in 1960 contained 60 volumes. The criteria for inclusion in the Great Books set was threefold: (1) the book must be relevant to the present; (2) the book must be rewarding to read and re-read; (3) it must be part of the “great conversation about the great ideas.” At a publication event in 1952, Hutchins explained the value of the Great Books: “This is more than a set of books, and more than a liberal education. Great Books of the Western World is an act of piety. Here are the sources of our being. Here is our heritage. This is the West. This is its meaning for mankind.”

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