If you’re reading the Great Books along with me, are you starting to look at the world in a slightly different way?
I think I am, even though I already work with some of these texts as part of my job. Several of the selections over the last three weeks have really fired my imagination, and I’m having new ideas all the time. I am encountering new authors and new perspectives, and in some cases I’m learning a great deal in areas outside my expertise (particularly the sciences). I’ve also been able to have some great conversations with colleagues and other folks growing out of these readings. It seems like almost every time I finish a selection, I think, “I should ask _________ about this and see what he thinks.”
- “The Killers” by Ernest Hemingway: How annoying it must be to stick your neck out for what’s right, but to no effect. In this story the lives of several people are put at risk because of some guy who can’t be bothered to get out of bed. The other really annoying thing in this story is the speech patterns of the hitmen, who seem to have but one brain between them. I now understand where those gangster caricatures in the Looney Tunes cartoons come from.
- “Letter to Horace Greeley” by Abraham Lincoln: Let me get this off my chest: Mortimer Adler is a Lincoln-olater, and I’m not. There are at least eight or ten selections in the Gateway series either by or about Lincoln, a bit of an imbalance compared to what we have from other presidents in the set. OK, now that I’ve said that, I do think this is an important document. If nothing else, it helps demonstrate the complexity of the Civil War and undermine the cartoon version of history that so many of us were taught in grade school.
- “The Making of Americans” by Jean de Crevecoeur: If you ever wondered where the “melting pot” notion of America came from, look no further. I was fascinated by the section where he dumps on frontiersmen in contrast to his praising of the salt-of-the-earth yeomen. What would this agrarian have to say about post-industrial America, I wonder?
- “Of Persons One Would Wish to Have Seen” by William Hazlitt: This essay is a one-stop shop for references to famous people of the early modern era. I didn’t recognize all the names, and I’m a specialist in the period. But what may have been more interesting was the reasoning the conversationalists offered for their choices: don’t pick a guy whose writings tell you all you need to know about him. One man picks Judas Iscariot and defends his choice by saying he wanted to try to understand how someone could eat with Jesus and then go out and betray him. If you could choose any two figures from history to meet in the flesh, who would they be?
- “Michael Faraday” by John Tyndall: I knew almost nothing about Faraday before reading this; the extent of his accomplishments is remarkable. I especially liked the part where he was making history in his youth by separating liquid chlorine from water for the first time, and an older scientist came in, assumed the oily substance in the beaker was dirty water, chewed him out, and caused an explosion by tampering with the experiment. Those wacky scientists!
- The Enchiridion of Epictetus: Does anyone talk a better game on self-control than the Stoics? It’s no wonder the early Christians liked them so much. There is more food for thought in these twenty pages than in some 300-page “self-help” books I’ve read. If you read only one selection from last week’s picks, make it this one.
Much more to come . . . make some time to read this week!
[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.]