Why We Read
Today my 24-year-old son and I were digging a hole and talking philosophy...
which two activities go very well together I must say. He was telling me about a philosopher he'd read in college who wrote a fascinating paper on why the Bible isn't a myth (myths have a certain structure relating to conflict arising in a group, and the way the conflict is resolved involves finding a scapegoat figure--Oedipus is an example of this--but in the Bible the scapegoat figure is actually the one we sympathize with the most, etc.).
It struck me that of all the young adults in the world, the percentage who spend time thinking about the deep things in life is very small. And that's not their fault--they've mostly been through a school system which, starting in the early 1900's, began replacing classics with textbooks written by committees, and with modern literature meant to inculcate politically-correct views in the students.
The results of this change are apparent on college campuses throughout America, where students are unable to tolerate differing views from their own and throw tantrums like toddlers when conservatives come to speak on campus. It appears that they are so insecure about their ability to defend their point of view with ideas and logic that they must defend it with tears and rocks. The books they've read and the discussions they've had with teachers and professors have been "a mile wide and an inch deep," and under it all, they sense this.
This would not be the case if these young adults had read the classics, and been taught to analyze them, to ponder on them. In the classics the whole realm of human action and human nature is on display, and we quickly shed our chronological snobbery as we realize that "the more things change, the more they stay the same." Human nature hasn't changed in millenia (selfishness and envy mixed with compassion and empathy, the latter mostly expressed tribally), though progressives would have us believe we can become selfless under their direction in one election cycle.
Classics can center us, making us less susceptible to fads, hype, and blustering of all sorts. We can X-ray the speech of a political demagogue and get down to the level of truth: "Why is he saying this? What is he trying to make me feel? What does he want?" Never before have we lived in such a text- and video-heavy world, where we are the subject of near-constant badgering to "look at this" "believe this" "want this." We have to be prepared to step outside of our own minds, into the minds of others, and see what motivations they contain.
“One of the chief objects of education is to train flexibility of mind, to make a man quick to comprehend other points of view than his own. Obviously, no power is more necessary in dealing with men. To be able to discard for the moment his own opinions, and see the world through the eyes of other classes, races, or types, is as indispensable to the merchant as to the statesman; for men are hardly to be controlled or influenced unless they are understood. And yet no power is rarer. It is almost non-existent among uneducated people. A man who has not risen above the elementary school is hardly ever able to seize an attitude of mind at all different to his own;..he cannot perform the great feat for which our intellectual gymnasia train us, of being in two (or more) people’s skins at the same time.”
Sir Richard Winn Livingstone, “A Defense of Classical Education” 1917
Much has been written about the value of studying the classics, and you'll find classic book lists everywhere. But here's my definition of a classic, and my list of favorites:
A classic is a book that sheds light on the human condition, one which you can return to again and again, learning something new each time.
1 - Children’s Literature: Winnie the Pooh, The House at Pooh Corner, by A.A. Milne
Runners-up: The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norman Juster; The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis; Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White
2 - Ancient through Renaissance Literature: Paradise Lost, by John Milton
Runner-up: The Iliad, by Homer; Hamlet, by William Shakespeare
3 - Early Modern Literature: Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë
Runners-up: Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens, Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”; To Have and To Hold, by Mary Johnston; Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo
4 - Modern Literature: To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
Runner-up: The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis; The Chosen, by Chaim Potok; Dandelion Wine, by Ray Bradbury
5 - Fantasy: The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkein
Runner-up: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clark; Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength, by C. S. Lewis
6 - Biography: The Hiding Place, by Corrie Ten Boom
Runner-up: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, by himself; Bonhoeffoer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxas
7 - Economics/Political Science: The Second Treatise of Government, by John Locke
Runner-up: The Law, by Frederic Bastiat; Human Action, by Ludwig Von Mises; The Road to Serfdom, by Friedrich Hayek; Anything That’s Peaceful, by Leonard Read; The Five Thousand Year Leap, by Cleon Skousen
8 - History: Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, by Plutarch
Runner-up: The Persian Wars, by Herodotus; The Gulag Archipelago, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara
9 - Religion: The Scriptures and Jesus the Christ, by James E. Talmage
Runners-up: Unspoken Sermons, by George MacDonald; Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis; No Doubt About It, by Sheri Dew; Believing Christ and Following Christ, by Stephen Robinson
10 - Philosophy: Essays, by Sir Francis Bacon
Runner-up: Discourse on Method, by Rene Descartes; An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, by John Locke
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