Friday, April 13, 2007

To Be Read: Books for a real education

Hugh Hewitt had a fascinating discussion with David Allen White, Shakespeare teacher at the Naval Acadamey, and John Mark Reynolds, professor of philosophy at Biola University on his show a few days back.
HH: A few days ago, I was riding around with my intern, who is an enrollee at the Torrey Honors program at Biola University, and we were talking about what he was reading and not reading. And it occurred to me that most young college students are absolutely lost. They lack a program like Torrey, they lack a teacher like David Allen White, to tell them what they ought to read, at least when they’re freshmen or sophomores. And so I conspired with David Allen White, professor extraordinaire at the United States Naval Academy, where he’s been teaching Shakespeare and other matters to the mid-shipmen for more than a quarter century, and John Mark Reynolds, professor of philosophy at Biola University, and the head of the Torrey Honors program there, to put together a reading list, and it’s the top 30 books that every one of you ought to have read, and certainly freshmen and sophomores ought to have read. Here’s my plan. Take one a week for the next 30 weeks, or one a week during your year in college, you’ll be at least partially educated. Professor White, Professor John Mark Reynolds, welcome to you both. I’m going to lead off with you, Professor White. Since we’re going to be pressed for time, I’m going to ask you to just spit out your top ten, and I’m going to do the same with John Mark Reynolds, and then we’ll go back and compare and contrast.

Now this is the cat's meow for me. Not only do I love to read, but I have taken time to do my best to aquaint myself with the Classics. Even if I do not understand all the levels of meaning; I have, at least, gotten the baseline. I've read The Divine Comedy a couple of times and had the privilege of discussing it with a US Poet Laureate. It was the funnest, most mentally stimulating thing I'd done in a long while. Hugh says reflecting on the interview:
I thought it was a very interesting conversation, but I was unprepared for the volume of mail requesting the list from across the country. We talk show hosts tend to forget that America is full of very bright, very curious people who at least occasionally want to step back and look up.

I am tempted to ask today's guests, Mark Steyn and James Lileks, how many of the 40-odd titles thrown out by the good professors they have read. But I am afraid it would be another exercise in humility for your host, who, sad to say, didn't even recognize Boethius' The Consolation of Philosophy.

Well, Hugh, I'd read most of the books on the list and heard of them all but I have yet to read Boethius and I imagine I am in good company.

The List:
1. The Bible
2. Shakespeare

I remember the Bible studies I slogged through as a middle schooler, then enjoyed as a highschooler. I studied out of a King James Version, then later a New King james Version, and a little Bible study prepares your mind to grasp complex language and images and lays a referential groundwork for some much other literature it is indespensible. If you know the basic story of David and Goliath than the laguage is less daunting and if you can grasp David and Goliath:
Now the Philistines gathered together their armies to battle, and were gathered together at Shochoh, which belongeth to Judah, and pitched between Shochoh and Azekah, in Ephesdammim.
2And Saul and the men of Israel were gathered together, and pitched by the valley of Elah, and set the battle in array against the Philistines.
3And the Philistines stood on a mountain on the one side, and Israel stood on a mountain on the other side: and there was a valley between them.
4And there went out a champion out of the camp of the Philistines, named Goliath, of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span.
5And he had an helmet of brass upon his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail; and the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of brass.
6And he had greaves of brass upon his legs, and a target of brass between his shoulders.
7And the staff of his spear was like a weaver's beam; and his spear's head weighed six hundred shekels of iron: and one bearing a shield went before him.
8And he stood and cried unto the armies of Israel, and said unto them, Why are ye come out to set your battle in array? am not I a Philistine, and ye servants to Saul? choose you a man for you, and let him come down to me.
9If he be able to fight with me, and to kill me, then will we be your servants: but if I prevail against him, and kill him, then shall ye be our servants, and serve us.
10And the Philistine said, I defy the armies of Israel this day; give me a man, that we may fight together.
Suddenly the Iliad is looking pretty lingustically tame:
"Achilles, loved of heaven, you bid me tell you about the anger of
King Apollo, I will therefore do so; but consider first and swear
that you will stand by me heartily in word and deed, for I know that
I shall offend one who rules the Argives with might, to whom all the
Achaeans are in subjection. A plain man cannot stand against the anger
of a king, who if he swallow his displeasure now, will yet nurse revenge
till he has wreaked it. Consider, therefore, whether or no you will
protect me."

3. Plato's Republic and Dialogues
4. The Iliad
5. The Divine Comedy (I would add The Figure of Beatrice as a fantastic commentary)
6. Cervantes Don Quixote
7. Dickens' David Copperfield (I have not read this. Dickens suffers from a wordiness I can not get past - even for a Victorian writer. He was paid by the word and it shows at times in his circumlocutions.)
8. Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov
9. Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (Another I have not read.)
10. Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago (A trauma to read but riveting and essential to understanding the dangers we have faced.)
11. The Odyssey
12. Aristotle's Ethics
13. Oedipus Rex
14. Augustine’s Confessions
15. Second Treatise on Government by Locke
16. Virgil’s Aeneid
17. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address & Second Inaugeral Address
18. Johnson's Birth of the Modern
19. Declaration of Independence/Constitution of the United States
20. Federalist Papers
21. Democracy In America
22. Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith (This I have actually read once apon a time. It is much better to read P.J. O'Roark having read Adam Smith, one feels a certain superiority as well as commiseration)
23. Communist Manifesto
24. Origin of Species (David Allen White disagrees with this but I agree with JMReynolds. One must expose themselves fully to Darwin's reasoning and conclusions before deciding that a good deal of what he said was dangerous bunkum - like Eugenics.)
25. On The Genealogy of Morals
26. Civilization And Its Discontents (and if you must read Freud you must read the antidote:)
27. C.S. Lewis’ Abolition of Man (For a wonderful comparison of Freud and Lewis I heartily recommend: The Question of God: CS Lewis & Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life by Armond Nicholi. Nicholi teaches a class at Harvard, I think, and this volume has grown from his classes there. I would also recommend Mere Christianity)
28. Aeschylus’ Oresteia (Thank goodness for Penguin Classics. I plunked down only a quarter for this treasure)
29. Aquinas’ Summa Theologica
30. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (My favorite fiction book of all time. From the show:
DAW....I’m going to include one of my favorites, everybody who wants to be married has to read it, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

HH: Oh, that’s a disaster for the men listening here.

DAW: No, no, no. It’s a great book, and boy, they can learn something about being a man. She had a better sense of manhood than most men in our time…

HH: Can we watch the movie instead, David Allen White?

DAW: No, you’ve got to read it. The sentences are exquisite, and the wisdom of this woman is profound.

Austen is a treasure trove of morals and manners relating to the obligations and duties you owe in relationships. She glorifies love but tempers it with wisdom and humor, extolls honor but balances it with realism about it's sometimes uncomfortable effects.
31. Immortal Poems of the English Language (I worried that had yet to get to Donne but this volume covers it and Shelley too, if you like that sort of thing. I dislike Shelley but it is far from universal.)
32. Moby Dick (Suffers the same issue as Dickens but the themes are phenomenal)
33. Canterbury Tales
34. The Prince
35. The Faeire Queene (CS Lewis lauded Spenser. I have not read it. Jasper Fforde (I know he's no Lewis) calls Feaire Queene one of the deadliest dull books of all time and uses it to kill off one of his characters. This is also the man who roasts James Joyce in a few well chosen words, he would most likley be at home with JMR and DAW.)
36. Song of Roland (another buy from penguin classics for a quarter. Glorious!)
37. Through the Looking Glass
38. Alice in Wonderland
39. Paradise Lost
40. Boethius, the Consolation of Philosophy (I have not read this. Must put in the To Be Read Pile)
41. Cicero on Friendship and on Duties
42. Hobbes’ Leviathan (I have actively avoided Hobbes. When the word is a synonym for unrestrained, selfish barbarism you tend to avoid the work that coined the term. I know it is a critique of such a state of being. I still avoid it.)
43. Calvin’s Institutes (One cannot now seperate Calvin and Hobbes)
44. Anna Karenina
45. War And Peace (labored through this in 9th grade. If you read Tolstoy read the above or his Children's stories)
46. The Collected Poems of T.S. Elliot

The gentlemen go on to include a few books they read not only for edification but pure pleasure and so I will include a few of mine here: Perelandra and Till We Have Faces by CS. Lewis. I think nearly every philosophy Lewis later expounds upon are encompassed in one of those two books. Reason, Mercy, Forgiveness, Sin, Pain, Sacrifice, and Creation are all addressed in their relationships to God and they are cracking good reads.

Three Men in a Boat farce deserves a place among the great pantheon of literature and Jerome K. Jerome's sublime comedy beats out PG Wodehouse because I can not think of a single Wodehouse which sums up his cannon.

On the Shores of Silver Lakeby Laura Ingalls Wilder. Little House? Great Literature? I often mention To Kill a Mockingbird as a Great American novel and have been remiss in mentioning Laura Ingalls Wilder's bedrock lit. Silver Lake recounts the turning points in Laura's life with spare, telling prose. Her sister's blindness causes her to sublimate her desires for the good of her family, her last season of unworried childhood with a wild cousin, her first glimspe of her future husband. In a few sentances the course of Laura's life and her motivations are explored, her understanding of adulthood and the American citizen's contract with God and Government is explored.

There are scads more but I think it's a good list to start on.

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