I recently moved to Tampa from Manhattan and—among other things—joined OLLI. Everyone I know seems to be taking or teaching courses there—the joint’s jumping. I particularly look forward to some of the Great Books courses…well, sort of…
This ambivalence dates back to my undergraduate days at the University of Chicago in the early 60’s. I was a little too young for college then (as many people are, of course). I should have waited 50 or so years—thank heavens for organizations like OLLI.
The concept of the Great Books was deeply embedded in the culture of the U. of C. (still is, I’m sure)—a legacy of former president Robert Hutchins. Maybe it was the term that was so unnerving: GREAT BOOKS. Taught by GREAT TEACHERS. Meant for GREAT STUDENTS. One was followed everywhere by the ghosts of the past whispering into your ear, “Be Smarter,” and I imagined them carving an inscription in Latin above the front entrance of the library, for people like me: Stultissime, non es dignus ut intres in hanc aulam illustrissimam. (Translation: You are not worthy to enter this hallowed hall, you dummy.)
When I was downsizing in preparation for my move to Tampa, I came across a book that sent a shudder through me, just as it had when I first read it: How to Read a Book (1940) by Mortimer J. Adler, who was a champion along with Hutchins of the Great Books.
“You should read a non-fiction book three ways simultaneously” says Adler (and if I muddle his argument, who can blame me?). “The first is structural or analytic; the second, interpretative or synthetic; the third, critical or evaluative.”
“Now there is one further complication,” he continues, as if he hasn’t piled enough on the plate already. “Not only must you read a book three ways (and at the beginning that may mean three times), but you must also be able to read two or more books in relation to one another in order to read any one of them well.”
But that means—yikes!—you also have to read at least two or three other books three times, and for each two or three new books you read three times, you also need to understand each in terms of another two or three other books that you must read three times too….
The concept of the Great Books has drawn criticism since its inception—for one thing, there were mostly dead white guys in the original list—and it’s been revisited and revised dozens of times over the decades. But the basic message remains the same: Put down that Danielle Steel novel, square your shoulders, and tackle something WORTHWHILE.
Inspired by my new membership in OLLI, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at an Adler list. The books he selected have appeared on many an academic curriculum over time, but it’s seeing them all laid out as a giant “to-do” list that makes a person blanch, especially when coming across entries like: “Archimedes–works,” “Aristotle—works,” “Honoré Balzac—works,” “Horace–works,” “John Milton– works,” “Ovid works,” “Shakespeare—works.”
One thing you soon notice is that these Great Books writers really like a big theme to gnaw on: New Essays on Human Understanding by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge by George Berkeley, and An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding by David Hume.
And “being” is big, as in: Of Being and Essence by St. Thomas Aquinas, The Realms of Being by George Santayana, Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre…I’m already starting to break out in a sweat…
Even the names of the noteworthy authors we’re woefully ignorant about are often forbidding—mighty and thundering: Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzshe, Jean-Jaques Rousseau, William Makepeace Thackery, Alfred North Whitehead….
Familiarity with these august figures, moreover, carries ever- expanding responsibilities. You must know not only what Edward Gibbon has to say about the fall of the Roman Empire, but also what Lytton Strachey has to say about Gibbon. To complete the works of Virgil only means you’re ready for Upon Some Verses of Virgil by Montaigne. And after finishing Livy’s History of Rome, you’re now prepared to embark on Machiavelli’s Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy.
As you work your way through the list, you’re bound to spot a few essays and books you’ve actually read, which makes you fleetingly feel good about yourself— Plato’s dialogs (well, some of them anyway) and Homer’s Iliad (although maybe that was the Cliff Notes version) and The History of the Peloponnesian War.
But wait a minute: what the hell is this? Introduction to Arithmetic by Nicomachus of Gerasa…Geometry by Rene Descartes…The Hypotheses of Geometry by Bernhard Riemann…A Treatise on Universal Algebra by Alfred North Whitehead. I didn’t know we’d have to read math books!
The names of the books and authors start to merge and blur after a while. Enchiridion by Epictetus, or was that Epictetus by Enchiridion? Letter to Herodotus by Epicurus, or was that Letter to Epicurus by Herodotus?
A philosophy professor once asked me a question about Emanuel Kant’s Critique Of Pure Reason, and I gave a detailed answer.
“You just repeated my question,” he said. “Now, why don’t you try to answer it.” Whatever you did wasn’t enough.
But now I’m older and wiser, and, after lots of therapy, I think I’m finally up to the challenge of: A GREAT BOOKS COURSE. Empty bravado? Time will tell.
A final note: To fully comprehend and appreciate the many dimensions of this essay, please return to the beginning and read it again. And again. And again….
Robert Strozier’s fiction and non-fiction works have appeared in many publications including Atlantic, Esquire, The New Times Magazine, and The NYT Book Review. He’s had plays produced in NYC, and a musical he wrote (book and lyrics) has had five concert readings (theressomethingineedtotellyou.com). He also helped launch five national magazines, and then served as Editor-in-Chief of two and a senior editor at the others.