Recently, I waxed eloquent (turgid, you say?) on my attempts to read only Good Books to my children. I focused mainly on The Little Prince, which I consider to be a perfect book if there ever was one, but would like to say more about what criteria we might look for in other books to be able to identify them as “Good.”
We’ve all heard of the Great Books. Perhaps the most common list has been prepared by Mortimer Adler. If you just now took a glance you might agree that it is hardly a reading project to jump into unprepared. How in the world can a person profit from the writing of Aristotle and Plato without any prior formation in the culture that produced them? This is precisely the problem that John Senior identifies in The Death of Christian Culture.
In the essay appended to the end of the book entitled “A Thousand Good Books”, Senior writes,
The Great Books movement of the last generation has not failed as much as fizzled, not because of any defect in the books – ‘the best that has been thought and said,’ in Matthew Arnold’s phrase – but like good champagne in plastic bottles, they went flat.
The reason? It is because we are no longer schooled in a culture of virtue. Our education has no idea anymore beyond materialism and is content to teach our children functional skills alone. The children are cogs to be fit into an economic machine. Because of this, the imagination is discounted. Fairy tales are a waste of time when we can have our children instead reading functional texts about being successful in life, right? The problem, though, is that without a well formed imagination, a person will have difficulty in holding abstract concepts in the intellect. Senior elaborates when earlier in the book he writes,
Unless the mind achieves its perfection in the making of conceptual judgments, religion and philosophy cannot be understood…to put the intellect first, we must have restored the imagination.
Classical education, especially in the tradition of John Henry Cardinal Newman, understands this and so has as its idea friendship with God. A child is educated in order to know his true purpose in life, to find God, to know him, and to be happy with him forever. Education is aimed at making a person into a saint. The virtues are a mirror reflecting the divine essence and so take a central place in any good education. Gentlemanly behavior is encouraged. A bedrock of culture and tradition is cultivated. Newman’s idea has much in common with the medieval and the classical Greco-Roman cultures. When compared to modern education, the entire purpose is different.
Senior explains how recent developments in education have changed our ability to appreciate the Great Books,
To change the figure, the seeds are good but the cultural soil has been depleted; the seminal ideas of Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine and St. Thomas thrive only in an imaginative ground saturated with fables, fairy tales, stories, rhymes, and adventures: the thousand books of Grimm, Anderson, Stevenson, Dickens, Scott, Dumas and the rest.
We cannot simply retreat to Aquinas with no prior preparation and assume that all will be well. This would be your classic pearls-before-swine situation. For instance, I have many a time heatedly denounced certain books and musicians only to discover later that I simply was not ready for them yet. I am sure it was quite embarrassing. Our children reject food that we prepare for them all of the time because their little palates are not yet developed enough to realize that the grass-fed burger with caramelized onions, bleu cheese, and arugula we have served them is any way superior to a bag of fast food fries. It means more food for me and I like that, but still… let’s be generous, here.
The Great Books are like seeds falling in dead soil. They starve for lack of nutrients, having become for us the work of dead, white grandfathers and representing now only a stale tradition long since passed away. How can we amend the soil? Is it possible to cultivate our reading habits so that the Great Books may put forth living branches again? Senior writes,
Of course, the distinction between great and good is not absolute. Great implies a certain magnitude; one might say War and Peace and Les Miserables are great because of their length, or The Critique of Pure Reason because of its difficulty. Great books call for philosophical reflection; good books are popular, appealing especially to the imagination. But obviously some authors are both great and good, and their works may be read more than once from the different points of view – this is true of Shakespeare and Cervantes, for example.
As an armchair Thomist, I might attempt to stammer forth the explanation that the human intellect learns through the senses. In order for the intellect to do its job, our senses must first give it raw material to work with, ideally with an imagination full to the brim of wonder and beauty, heroism and virtue, adventure and adversity. These are the qualities we look for in Good Books. They cultivate the imagination so that the intellect has the building blocks necessary to interact with and appreciate the Great Books.
I pray that through the way I am teaching them to read, I am giving my children some idea that their true dignity is the soul, that life is a grand adventure, that they have been made to endure forever, and that true happiness is gathered up in the virtues, crowned by faith, hope, and charity. In such a way is a saint made.
Here is an online resource already gathering up the list that John Senior put together of 1000 Good Books divided by grade level. He admits that there are certain to be oversights and the actual list is sure to be far more expansive. This is an excellent starting point, though.