Two Books Forward, Three Books Back

Jessica, leader of the Great Books Reading Partnership, asked me a great question yesterday. Her group recently finished Adler and Van Doren’s classic, How to Read a Book(review), and is now working through Susan Wise Bauer’s The Well-Educated Mind(review), in preparation for reading the great books. Her question was whether I, who have recently read both these books as well, and for the same reason, had settled on a particular reading method. The answer, I’m afraid, is that I’m still working on it.

The problem with reading, as most readers know, is that books lead to more books, and not linearly but geometrically. Yes, The Well-Educated Mind and How to Read a Book are excellent (and complementary), but the more I explore the skills of reading, the more excellent books I find on the subject. My initial assumption that those two books would tell me everything I need to know about reading the classics has proven to be a bit naïve, a symptom of my INTJ desire for simplicity, completeness, and order.

I’m not sure how I first found out about The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric by Sister Miriam Joseph (who studied with Mortimer Adler in the mid-1930’s). This book is like reading boot-camp—back to basics, no frills, lots of rules and regulations. I am currently struggling through the obstacle course that is the grammar (and linguistics) section. You see, I never formally learned English grammar in school because I took French Immersion, and so words like “predicate” and “pronomial” are new to me. It’s fascinating to look under the hood of language and see all the parts and how they’re connected, but it’s bewildering at first. My reward for submitting to the good Sister’s discipline will be her last chapter on reading and writing, where I will get her learned perspective on literature. (Incidentally, she also wrote a book on Shakespeare’s use of language, which I plan to read when I get to the Bard. See how the books multiply?)

It was by loitering on W.W. Norton’s website that I found the Norton Introduction to Literature, a text plus anthology that teaches the arts of reading and writing about literature, and includes scores of texts to practice on. Old hat for English majors, I’m sure, but for me it is new and interesting. I have half a mind to wait until I finish this monster to start my serious reading program, but I don’t think I can wait that long. My run-up has already been far too prolonged, and I probably have enough of a base to get started. (Trying hard not to be a perfectionist here…)

But wait, there’s more! Virginia Woolf kindly suggested to me the idea of seeking out literary criticism by great authors. A bit of googling brought me right back to Norton, this time to the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Great. Another 2400 pages of stuff I never knew existed but has now become essential to my education. Where will it end? The mountain top doesn’t seem to be getting any closer, despite all my climbing. Perhaps it’s time I took a break from climbing and started to enjoy the scenery that this is all supposedly about. Dare I start The Epic of Gilgamesh right now? Am I ready? Where’s Yoda when you need him!

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5 comments on “Two Books Forward, Three Books Back

  1. Stefanie says:

    It never ends Sylvia, it never ends. The mountain of reading is higher than Everest, higher than K2, and we wouldn't want it any other way! 🙂

  2. Sylvia says:

    True, but at least the mountain of *classic* reading is finite. Homer isn't writing any more epics! I wasn't counting on the long trek to base camp, though.

  3. Andrew says:

    Using the same analogy – what works are at the summit?

  4. Sylvia says:

    I'm taking Adler's great books list as the backbone of my reading program, plus some non-Western literature. That should keep me out of trouble for a decade or so.
    Actually I think the mountain is made of books; the summit is where I'll be when I finish them all. That's when I'll notice the other mountains…

  5. Books, glorious books. And they do never end and we wouldn't want it any other way, as Stefanie said. I try to inspire my students with a love of learning and especially the value of really good books. So much of what you mentioned is so dear to my heart. Glad I came upon your site.

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