Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Working my way through the Classics

     While I am an avid reader and have some literature training in my background, I am not what I would consider well-read in the classics.  Pretty  much anything written before the 1900's is out of my realm of experience.

I am determined to change that!

     About a year ago I read a wonderful book entitled How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler.  If you haven't heard of it, this isn't a typical high-school level book on how to read for meaning or learning how to "read between the lines".  It is an eloquent monologue on the importance of reading for understanding, how to read different types of books (from Pythagoras to Aquinas to Swift) and how to incorporate all of that information into a usable base of knowledge from which to approach any thought-provoking problem.

     Having read How to Read a Book, I cannot escape the notion of reading all the "Great Books".  Why are they called that?  Because Adler coined the term and then edited the first edition of a series of broad-ranging texts from the earliest manuscripts until the middle of the 20th century.

     Michael Owen.  He is the other reason my curiosity was peaked and my determination solidified.  Mike is both a friend and a colleague at PIU.  He not only went through a Great Books program in college but he used the wisdom he gained from that to marry his wife, my friend Samantha (see, education is useful in real life if you use it right).  We have had some fascinating discussions and he has brought some really interesting insights to bear that have been directly influenced from the reading, discussion, and learning he'd gleaned from going through these timeless works.

     So, now I have the tools and the determination so I've had to decide where to start.  Yikes!  There's so much to choose from, how do I decide?  Well, I went through my bookcase at home (o.k. one of about a million bookcases we have, what can I say?) and found quite a few classics that we have been given or collected through the years.  So, I picked one I am familiar with but not published too far in the past to be incomprehensible (I hope). I also chose a satirical book being an avid fan of that type of humor. What did I choose?

     So, being steeped in colloquial and idiomatic American English, I thought this would be a refreshing start into my journey through the classics.  The language is familiar enough that I don't feel I have to decipher it to get the meaning and the plot style is still very similar to books published today.  Also, I am a fan of historical romance novels (you may gag but it won't change my opinion) so some of the English history of that time is familiar (romance writers really do their research despite what you may think). 

     The first thing I noticed, is that there is no dialogue written.  It is all recalled from the narrator's experience and he does not give voice to individual conversations choosing, instead, to filter all things through his own recollection--we are left to decide how accurate each of these recollections may be.  With some modern books being more dialogue than description, this is an interesting change.

     Now as to the story, I am 1/3 of the way through the travels and Gulliver has just left the island of Lilliput.  I have seen one or two film adaptations of this story (although not the most recent Jack Black version) and this is the most often depicted part of the story.  I am pleased to say that I have enjoyed the story much more than the movie versions because the medium of video has to rely on visual experiential scenes to tell the story (this is not to say that film doesn't have impact or is inferior, I am just stating that they are different mediums and it can be difficult to transfer from one to the other).  The text is much more cerebral and the irony of reading about the absurdities of court life as seen from an outsiders point of view is very funny but also poignant because the charades and dramas are what were real life for many people.

     Now, I don't want to spoil the story or give away plot points but I do want to encourage those of you who haven't attempted to explore the classics to give them a try.  I'll chronicle some of my observations of Gulliver's Travels while I read through it, and maybe you can read it at the same time and see if you agree or disagree with what I say.  After Gulliver, I'm not sure where I'll venture.  Maybe Darwin because, believe it or not even after a Bachelor's degree in Biology, I still haven't read On the Origin of Species which I believe as an instructor is a sad lack in my earlier education.  What do you think?  Comment with suggestions for my next classic or email me.


  1. We are a not-for-profit educational organization, founded by Mortimer Adler and we have recently made an exciting discovery--three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos--lively discussing the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

    Three hours with Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, lively discussing the art of reading, on one DVD. A must for libraries and classroom teaching the art of reading.

    I cannot exaggerate how instructive these programs are--we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

    Please go here to see a clip and learn more:


    ISBN: 978-1-61535-311-8

    Thank you,

    Max Weismann

    1. That is spectacular! Thank you so much for sharing this with me. I am looking into it for my library here and even for my home library to share it with my children as we return to homeschooling. I will also pass this information within my circle of colleagues and professional acquaintances.