Update on Great Books Reading Program

It’s over a month since I began the new commitment to a 5-year plan in reading the Great Books. I have since read all the works of Aeschylus and Sophocles, Augustine’s Confessions and On Christian Doctrine. Still looming are Augustine’s massive The City of God, the plays of Aristophanes and Euripedes (of which there are more than the other two playwrights – a total of 30 more plays to be read, compared to the 14 I’ve read so far), and the massive, massive The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Gibbon, which I guess will take me at least 1.5 months to read. According to the tripartite schedule, I have five months for the spring term – up until the end of May to finish the above works. 1.5 months have elapsed so far, and I think we’re just barely on schedule.
My rough target for the remainder of the term is as follows: 1.5 months for Gibbon, 1 month for Augustine and 1 month for the Greek plays. It’s difficult since I’m finding less and less time to read, with the physics courses finally revving up fully, and I’m also spending more time in lab and reading physics papers and other books. But it’s manageable with a little discipline.
What I’ve noticed is that writing a blog post about the books takes at least as much time as reading the work itself (especially in the case of Greek plays). This is regrettable, but difficult to compromise on because in my experience so far, the blog posts have been crucial to retaining any sort of “message” or “moral” from the stuff I’m reading. I’ll try to keep the posts shorter and focusing on one or two points (as I did in the last post on Augustine) instead of being a broad overview.

Speed vs. Comprehension

The difficulty of balancing speed and deeper comprehension and reflection has led me to reflect on the basic aim for the project: what am I trying to achieve here? It seems that if I go through with the whole plan, assuming I keep cross-referencing with my older posts to make sure I still remember them, I’ll attain a broad but superficial understanding of the entire corpus of Western thought. This, in itself, is not a laughable matter. I doubt that even a very studious and diligent student at St. John’s, Shimer, Thomas Acquinas, Columbia’s Core or any other Great Books-based curriculum will remember anything more than that after the fact. The advantage of having a broad knowledge of the entire GBWW is that you can easily compare different perspectives and “see the Great Conversation” through the ages.
But even the ability to have a broad overview in itself doesn’t mean much, other than being able to showoff at parties. No, in line with my Renaissance goal, the point of doing this is to attain literacy, specifically the ability to engage and think like a humanist alongside with my training in thinking like a scientist or mathematician. In my vision, a “Renaissance state of mind” is one in which the individual is capable of effortlessly switching between these two modes of thinking, achieving some sort of “full stimulation” of the mind – an internal satisfaction at having exercised the mind to its fullest extent.
It may all be just personal bias, but I did experience the drawbacks of focusing on just one mode of thinking – the scientific mode. This occurred in my last semester at Amherst, when I took an English course for the first time. The course was simply titled Shakespeare, taught by Anton Bosman. At that point I had focused fully on physics and math courses. I also did a lot of music and composition, but musical scholarship is closer to scholarship in classical Greek or economics – often technical and dry analysis, very similar to science. In contrast, literature focuses squarely on the human, at its core fluid and irreducible. Instead of particles, equations, tonalities, or prepositions, we talk about metaphor, character, morals (messages), feelings. These were all incredibly refreshing to me, activating a part of my mind that had laid dormant for years since high school. That Shakespeare course completely made my last semester at Amherst.
Replicating that feeling again, perhaps even pushing it even more forward is the goal of this project. To achieve this, I envision writing longer, more serious essays at certain points in this journey, that will gradually develop my mind so as to approximate this “Renaissance state.”

Coming Next: The City of God

Next up in the reading program is The City of God. This is the first immense work to be read, and Augustine’s most influential intellectual work; and as such I will regularly update observations as I go through it. I’ll try to restrain myself from writing full-length treatises on each argument that I encounter, but only short comments and reflections.

2 thoughts on “Update on Great Books Reading Program”

    1. Hey Tomal, nice to see you here! (Your blog posts on your musical journeys are extremely fascinating btw.) Regarding my Great Books progress, I did complete all of the goals outlined in this post: I read all the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripedes, and Aristophanes (44 plays total), Augustine’s City of God, On Christian Doctrine, and Confessions, and the entire, unabridged version of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (all ~3000 pages of it). I even wrote blog posts summarizing the readings and my responses to it (you can see them all here: http://www.danielang.net/great-books-reading-progress/). My plan then was to continue the Great Books reading project by reading Plutarch’s Lives next, but unfortunately I found the style really dry and got stuck on Alexander the Great’s life. This was about a year ago and I’ve basically put the project on hold.
      Although I did the blog posts to force me to understand and somewhat retain the readings, I found that they’re not enough for long-term comprehension. I can barely remember the plot lines of the 44 Greek plays I read (except for certain favorite ones, which I read more than once), and while I remember reading Gibbon to be such an engaging experience (his prose is incredibly beautiful and witty), I only remember certain major points that he made about Rome’s history. The rest is lost to me as a haze in my mind – it’s basically a shopping list of Roman emperors from the 2nd century to the 16th. I think to truly become “proficient” with the content of a collection of books I would need to engage with it more regularly, reading it more than once or even twice. Even better would be to regularly engage this as part of a wider intellectual context, for example through regular discussion. So basically I found that bare facts don’t mean much – it’s the relationships between them that count.
      For now I’m more focused on reading based on more specific goals (e.g. becoming proficient with the main issues in philosophy of science). That being said I think the goal of reading all of the Great Books is a worthy one, and if you’re interested to try it out, I would encourage you to do so! (It doesn’t even have to be the Western canon – my super long term goal is to do a similar thing for major works from the East as well). In fact, do document your progress somewhere – if I have the time, I could possibly follow along and we can have discussions on readings, which helps retention and understanding even more.

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