New Springtime: A Journal of Faith, Culture & Society

Professor Stephen McInerney on why the “Great Books” should wait for
at least one more summer. [Australian Catholic Students Association]
A Case for the ‘Good’ Books ~ Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Editor’s note: Dr Stephen McInerney is Lecturer in Literature at Campion College in Sydney.  The Angelicum Great Books Program college credits are now accepted by Campion College.  Please see our website for more information on our relationship with Campion College Australia.

There is a great deal of talk in Liberal Arts Colleges about “The Great Books”, an expression that usually refers to the seminal works of Western Civilization, from Homer and Plato, through Dante and Shakespeare and beyond. The “Great Books Movement”, which sought to restore such works to the centre of the university curriculum, was
popularised by Mortimer Adler in the 1930s. In his work How to Read a Book, Adler, an academic at the University of Chicago, provided a tentative list of the works he considered to comprise the “Great Books”. This list has remained authoritative, with some additions,
to this day.

The appeal of the Great Books is that, in the words of one old professor, “they aim at an understanding of the permanent things”, such as love, the meaning of home, and the nature of the Good, the beautiful and the True. The Great Books, as Adler argues, were, with few exceptions, written with the general reader in mind. For this reason, the truths they contain are open and  available to anyone of good will and average intelligence. Moreover, if read carefully, with intensity and depth, they can even yield their secrets to a
student without the assistance of a lecturer!

Yet in the experience of many teachers of the Great Books, students
who encounter them for the first time are often daunted by the task
set before them, perhaps because of the length of some of the works;
or because of the apparent complexity of their arguments (in the
case of Plato’s Republic, for example), of their structure (Homer’s
Odyssey, for example) or of their language (the works of Chaucer and
Shakespeare here come to mind). The real reasons, however, may go
deeper.

In attempting to understand why intelligent young men and women were occasionally unable to grasp the significant human experiences treated by the Great Books, an American academic by the name of John Senior, who jointly founded and taught in a hugely successful Integrated Humanities Program based on the Great Books, concluded that a man cannot truly comprehend the 100 Great Books if he has not first had the soil of his imagination prepared and nourished by the thousand “good” books. Only in a mind enriched by the “good” books, Senior believed, can the significant experiences and truths of the “great” books take root and grow.

By the “good” books, Senior had in mind everything from the rhymes of Mother Goose, the Fables of Aesop and the Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, to works such as Treasure Island, The Wind in the
Willows and The Virginian. Senior recognised that just as in the spiritual life we must become as little children before we can enter the Kingdom of Heaven, so it is in the intellectual life.

The “heaven” of the Great Books, with its many mansions, is closed to those who have forgotten the joy of hearing a fairy tale told  over and over again, or who can no longer appreciate the charm, wit and bold human wisdom to be found in Aesop’s Fables. Senior called it the “restoration of innocence”, which he believed to be a necessary prerequisite (necessary but not sufficient), to the Restoration of Christian Culture (the title of his second collection of essays).

“Wait a minute, where is this going?” I can hear the bright and sophisticated young Catholic undergraduate asking, “Are you about to
suggest to us that we spend our summer holiday reading children’s literature?” The answer, in short, is “yes”, although most of the thousand good books were not written for children.

And so I offer you the following reading list, preferably to be
undertaken in this order. First, I recommend the reading of the
Fables of Aesop. These charming fables present, in miniature, most
of the great dilemmas we encounter in our daily lives. It is from
them that we derive many of our popular expressions, including “sour
grapes”, “the goose that laid the golden egg” and “the boy who cried
wolf”.

Second, I suggest you reacquaint yourselves with some of the great fairy tales, namely: “Hansel and Gretel”, “Little Red Riding Hood” also known as “Little Red Cap”), “Cinderella” (these three should be read in the versions of the Brothers Grimm) and “Jack and the Beanstalk” (the most famous of English fairy tales). “Nothing”, wrote the psychologist and critic Bruno Bettelheim, “can be as enriching and satisfying to child and adult alike as the folk fairytale”.

Finally, I recommend Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, a work I try to re-read each summer holiday. In its evocation of the English countryside, and its memorable depiction of the adventures of Mole, Rat, Badger and Toad, it is a true classic, one that washes away bitter sophistications and worldly cares.

Reading these works is like taking a long swim, drawn out through the afternoon, with the sunbeams playing on the tiles, and the smell of jasmine on a cool breeze. They are best enjoyed in company, read out aloud, or curled up on the couch with a gin and tonic or a glass of lemonade, with lots of crushed mint leaves.

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