If you’ve followed along with the reading schedule posted here for the last two months, congratulations are in order. You’ve already read over 700 pages of world-class literature and, no doubt, have expanded your horizons by considering questions and problems outside your normal routine. Even if you have read only one or two selections from the list of Great Books linked here, I hope you’ve enjoyed the experience and are interested in continuing the program as you are able.
Here are the selections for the coming week:
- The Odyssey of Homer, Books V-VIII (GBWW Vol. 3, pp. 350-383)
- The Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776) (GGB Vol. 6, pp. 415-417)
- “A Call to Patriots–December 23, 1776” by Thomas Paine (GGB Vol. 6, pp. 461-468; Crisis Papers number 1)
- Cosmic View by Kees Boeke (GGB Vol. 8, pp. 600-644; the link takes you to the first page of the book’s text, and you can proceed from there)
- “To the Reader” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, p. 49)
- “Montaigne; or, the Skeptic” by Ralph Waldo Emerson (GGB Vol. 10, pp. 546-562)
As you can see, we have some material this week that is grouped a bit more intentionally than the selections of previous weeks: two documents from the American War of Independence and two documents by or about Montaigne, of whom we’ll be seeing much more in the future.
- The Odyssey of Homer, Books I-IV: By the end of Book IV, most first-time readers of the Odyssey are wondering, “Where’s Odysseus?” Have patience! Odysseus’s non-appearance to this point is not just a narrative tease; it allows Homer to demonstrate what a mess things are in Ithaca because of his absence. By the end of this section, you are supposed to think, “All those suitors need to die.” Not only are they violating the culture’s sacred rules of hospitality, they’re also plotting the murder of Telemachos and openly saying they’ll kill Odysseus if he shows up at his own house.
- The “Gettysburg Address” by Abraham Lincoln: Has there ever been more ink spilled over fewer words than these? I find it ironic that the war allegedly fought to preserve “government of the people, by the people, for the people” resulted in a military dictatorship.
- “Of Death” by Francis Bacon: “There is no passion in the mind of man so weak but that it mates and masters the fear of death.” Is that true? I’m going to have to think about that some more. I like how Bacon wraps things up by stating that one’s goal should be to have lived in such way as to be able to pray the Nunc dimittis.
- “Beyond the Googol” by Edward Kasner and James Newman: This chapter of Kasner and Newman’s book was more difficult than “New Names for Old,” which we read a couple of weeks ago. After trying to conceptualize the infinite, I felt as though my head would explode. But I think I finally got the central thrust of the chapter that when dealing with the infinite, “the whole is no greater than some of its parts.”
- “The Eruption of Vesuvius” by Pliny the Younger: Let me tell you, if I get caught anywhere near a volcanic eruption, I’m not going to sit down in the courtyard and read Livy like Pliny did. At least he confessed he was afraid; he actually thought the world was ending. If you had seen the sun blotted out during the day, I guess you might think the same.
- On Old Age by Cicero: Note to self: read this again on my 50th birthday. Cicero makes growing old seem like something to look forward to. In particular, I thought the section on the nearness of death pretty thought-provoking. The idea that the old already have what the young hope for, viz., a long life, is pretty powerful. The part about the old being less tempted to stupidity resulting from the influence of the passions was good, too.
One of the great things for me in organizing this project is that every week I look at hundreds of the greatest literary works in the history of humanity and wonder which few I’ll pick out to read over the next seven days. It’s like a pass to the best buffet in town, and I have to resist the temptation to gorge. I hope all of you are enjoying the diet thus far.
[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.]