It’s Great Books Monday, and this week we begin reading the granddaddy of them all. Get ready for the author widely regarded as the fountainhead of the Western literary tradition!
- The Odyssey of Homer, Books I-IV (GBWW Vol. 3, pp. 307-350)
- The “Gettysburg Address” by Abraham Lincoln (GGB Vol. 6, pp. 759)
- “Of Death” by Francis Bacon (GGB Vol. 10, pp. 348-349)
- “Beyond the Googol” by Edward Kasner and James Newman (GGB Vol. 9, pp. 137-162; Chapter 2 of Mathematics and the Imagination; this link does not contain the entire chapter, but I couldn’t find the full text anywhere online)
- “The Eruption of Vesuvius” by Pliny the Younger (GGB Vol. 6, pp. 264-270)
- On Old Age by Cicero (GGB Vol. 10, pp. 317-343)
This week we begin the first work that will take us several weeks to read. Rather than make the entire week’s reading from the Odyssey (a course of action that still wouldn’t get us through the poem in one go), we’ll divide it into smaller sections and read it over six weeks while continuing to read in other genres at the same time. I hope that works for everyone.
- “Mowgli’s Brothers” by Rudyard Kipling: Somehow I got through childhood without ever reading The Jungle Book, in which this story appears. “Mowgli’s Brothers” is quite different from the Disney-fied rendition many of us know. At bottom, this is about man’s superiority over animals in the natural order of things. Mowgli wishes to remain with the animals, but they will not let him; their fear of him leads them to hate him. He has to “grow up” and assert his dominance to save himself. The day after I read this story, I started my oldest son on The Jungle Book.
- “Learning the River” by Mark Twain: I remember reading much of Life on the Mississippi for Dr. Haynie’s class on frontier history back in college, but I certainly didn’t appreciate it then the way I did this time. I think it’s because I never really “got” the humor of Twain’s style until I was in my late 20s. I laughed out loud at several passages last week while still marveling at the descriptions of riverboat life. Twain’s self-deprecation and his larger-than-life characterizations kept me riveted. The anecdote about the sleepwalking pilot was absolutely hilarious.
- “On Being the Right Size” by J.B.S. Haldane: So much information packed into so few pages! Now I understand why insects can fall off skyscrapers without being hurt while a horse falling from the same height will “splash” upon hitting the ground. And I’ll never have to worry that military experiments will create gargantuan versions of common animals to terrorize the countryside like in all those 1950s movies. This is good stuff.
- “Contentment” by Plutarch: Plutarch says, in essence, to make lemonade when life gives you lemons and to count your blessings. He makes you realize these aren’t just platitudes. And then there’s the cultivation of virtue: “No costly mansion, no mass of gold, no pride of race, no grandeur of office, no charm or force of eloquence can bestow upon life so clear skied a serenity as a soul purged of evil deeds and thoughts which keeps as a fountain of life a character imperturbable and untainted.”
- “Fingerprints” by Tobias Dantzig: Is our base-ten counting system a “physiological accident”? It’s a plausible theory, but I wonder if there might be another workable hypothesis; so many explanations of this sort by scientists are really “Just-So” stories. Nevertheless, this was an engaging selection that encouraged me to reflect on the methods of understanding number that we take for granted.
- Apology by Plato: So you’ve just been convicted of trumped-up charges on the basis of flimsy evidence, and you’re facing the sentencing committee that will determine whether you live or die. Do you have the gumption to suggest that your “punishment” should be a medal and a government pension to allow you to retire in style? Me, neither. You have to admire Socrates here, although I do remember one Montgomery-area public official a few years ago who, at a community symposium we hosted on this work, expressed the opinion that Socrates got what was coming to him. The haters of philosophy are still with us!
[This post is part of my seven-year plan to read through the Gateway to the Great Books and Great Books of the Western World sets. The original post describing the plan is here.]