A miracle has occurred. I have finally finished The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had by Susan Wise Bauer. It probably took longer for me to read it than for Bauer to write it, publish it, and do the promotion. Part of the reason for that is that I took notes on the whole thing (more or less following the TWEM method). Taking thorough notes on one’s reading is more time- and energy-consuming than just reading, but I found I was able to retain and use what I read much better than if I had just read through from cover to cover. The information in the book on historical contexts, genres, and major works, subtly infiltrated my brain and I have found myself automatically making all sorts of connections and observations about the various arts that I am exposed to (from ballet to Monty Python) that I would have been oblivious to before. Although this may indicate that I was galactically ignorant about literature (which is no doubt true, and is only slightly less true now), I think it also reflects Bauer’s ability to boil things down to essentials and relate them in a way a beginner can understand. In other words, she knows her stuff and she’s a good teacher.
The reading method she presents is based on the “trivium,” the three-stage process of classical learning. The first stage, grammar, is learning the basics through memorization and repetition. The second stage is logic, which involves critical thinking, analysis, and evaluation. In the last stage, rhetoric, the reader draws on the first two stages to form and express opinions in speech and writing. Bauer follows this basic outline and poses questions (specific to each genre) to help readers along in the various stages.
Her suggestions for grammar stage reading involve recording basic information about the book and author, briefly summarizing (in sentence form) each chapter or section as one reads through the book, and giving the book (and even the chapters) your own title (and subtitle) that expresses your understanding of what the book is about. In the logic stage, one reads the work again, this time answering questions about the form and style of the work, and how this contributes to the work’s purpose. Finally, in the rhetoric stage, one answers (and, ideally, discusses with others) questions about the argument of the work and whether one agrees or disagrees with the author (or narrator).
Integral to this process is the keeping of a journal or notebook. For Bauer, a reading journal has three purposes: to record information (such as quotations or lists of characters or events); to appropriate knowledge by summarizing in one’s own words; and finally to record one’s thoughts and questions as one reflects on and evaluates the work in question. I filled up nearly half a moleskine with my own notes on TWEM, which is a bit excessive, but it was a form of practice for me. I found it especially difficult to summarize in complete sentences, but it forced me to make sure I really understood what I had read. Taking notes in point form may get things down on to paper but not necessarily into the brain.
A large proportion of the book is taken up by Bauer’s annotated lists of major works in each genre (novels, autobiography, history, drama, and poetry). As someone commented earlier on this blog, it is somewhat ironic that Bauer strongly urges readers not to read the introduction before reading a book (and recommends purchasing editions without introductions), lest it limit or shape their personal reactions to the book, but then she goes on to give her own summaries of the works in her reading lists. Taking her advice, I have for the most part ignored these.
There are also a couple of other general reading principles Bauer (among others) recommends. One is to buy inexpensive copies of the recommended books (such as Dover Thrift editions) so that one can mark them up without guilt. I’m not sure I agree with this, only because if I’m already keeping a reading journal, it makes no sense to mark and write in the book as well, forcing me to consult both places whenever I want to review my notes. It seems more sensible to me to do one or the other.
The other major principle is to read in chronological order, that is, the order in which the books were written. The main reason for reading chronologically is that it automatically gives you the context in which each book was written, because you have read what the author had read and been influenced by. This not only increases understanding but saves you having to go look up the historical, cultural, or intellectual context of a work. It also gives you a general sense of what Bauer calls the “rhetoric of ideas,” or the development of human ideas through history, which is the meta-narrative overarching all the great works of art. Studying this meta-narrative is for some the main goal of reading the great books. Bauer applies the principle of chronological reading within genres but applying this to a single author, or across genres, would, I think, result in interesting and equally valid meta-narratives.
What I found most helpful in The Well-Educated Mind was the historical context Bauer gave for each genre. As a result, before delving into those delicious Norton anthologies I blogged about a while back, I am going to hit the history books to find out just exactly what happened on this planet before I got here.