Sunday, July 26, 2009

great books of western civilization

Say, Plato, read any good books lately.
We've been overwhelmed by teaching, work and the usual contrivances, and no doubt you've given up hope for us like some 17th century sailor lost at sea. I am here to proclaim we are here, and we have been keeping up with our friends on the web when we have been able to. It is difficult for me to keep the Shelf dusted, let alone post anything, while in the middle of teaching. And yet it was an experience with a student and a list I've seen going around on Facebook that has inspired today's post.

Why no, Mrs. Johnson, I don't think those romance novels with Fabio on the cover should be considered literature.Now I know what you are thinking: "JC - since when have you succumbed to the subtle wiles of Facebook. Well that's neither here nor there, but should you be a regular pal of the Shelf and are on Facebook as well- send me a line in my email and we can arrange to "friend" one another. That and puppies should warm the cackles of your heart. Well, at least the puppies will.

Back to my tale- I happen to be teaching a World Mythologies course at the moment, and after one such class a student and I had a discussion on the Greeks and their influence on the development of the West. Having only been recently introduced to "classical" education, the student wondered about how far the influence went, and what really composed a "classical education." Being no slouch in that department, we talked about what, up until the 1960s and 70s, constituted study in the classics and why they are important to understanding our own history and culture. She then asked about what one may have had to read, which lead to talking about books in general.

Shortly after that I ran across a "Have you read these Great Books" list on Facebook. You've seen all of the "great books" lists here and there, including a BBC list going around Facebook. And there are many of them published by Time Magazine, Newsweek, CNN and every other purveyor of information on the interwebs. Be honest...have you looked at these lists and thought to yourself, "That's a classic?" or "I've never heard of that." or "That book just came out last year, and was terrible!"

I've thought much the same, and I might add, thought I and my friends could come up with a more comprehensive list. Since so many of you out there (and my Facebook friends) are avid readers, I thought it would be cool to poll everyone and gather the information to compile our own "Great Books" list and later publish it here and you would be welcome to send it far and wide. Like other lists, I expect to have debate and many who agree and disagree with it. The twist, obviously, is that everyone here will have had a chance to have their say and contribute.

The idea is simply thus: I have decided to make two lists, a Nonfiction (History, philosophy, biography, science, nature, etc) and a Fiction list of 100 books each. What I need from you is a series of suggestions. I will make a set of beginning suggestions below to get the ball rolling (and get some of the more obvious picks out of the way). Please comment on this note below with some of your own suggestions and maybe, even briefly, your reasoning as to why it should be on the list. You can suggest 1 or 10 or 20! I ask only for certain criteria, just to make it easier to compile the list and keep it to 100 each:
Ah, yes, a book, a pipe, a jug of wine and long as you are quiet so I can read.
1. The lists will focus on books of Western Civilization- or of great influence on Western Civilization. While I have read several works by Asian authors and on Asian Civilization, I think that might be a rare thing- and truly deserving of it's own list. This way, our list will be more readily identifiable to everyone.

2. Please include the title, the author and which list it should be included on; while many may recognize the book, I just want to be sure.

3. I would ask that perhaps we avoid books from the last 10 years or so- unless you can make an emphatic case to me and others that it deserves to be there. Books, like many other things, reveal their quality with age. What may be hot now, because of a movie or Book club, may really not stand the test of time 10 years from now.

4. Consider books from all age levels- and if an author, like for example Shakespeare or even Dr. Seuss has multiple works that should be included, I think maybe "The works of..." would suffice in order to include a wider range of authors and material on the list. However, I believe that should be the case only in more obvious or exceptional cases.

5. I think it will be easier to define entry by author- so if there are two essential books by that author- they can be included for that one entry (what do you think?)Or we can list "The Works" as mentioned above.

This is an uncomfortable way to read a Choose Your Own Adventure book.You can offer your suggestion in one of several ways: the most obvious is for you to add your suggestions in the comment thread for this post. The other is for you to email me at with your suggestions. This post will stay up for a last a week to garner as many suggestions as possible. The other method is perhaps a little unconventional. DO you have a friend who you know could suggest some great books? You are welcome to email or link to this post of course, but consider a post of your own that links back to this one, to gather more suggestions from your circle of readers. Then you can forward a list of those suggestions to me, link back to them or email them.

That's pretty much it! I will then compile the lists from all of the suggestions after a certain period of time and if they number over 100 each I will present the complete list and ask everyone to maybe vote on what to take out to pare it down to 100- just for a manageable list. If it the list ends up being 110- or something close like that- maybe I will have everyone vote on which of the 10 or so should be honorable mentions. I will also add suggestions garnered from Facebook as this will be link to, or posted there as well.

Once both of the lists are complete, I will present a separate post for each list, Great Books: NonFiction & Great Books: Fiction and publish them here for you to check off, sound off on, or share. Contributors, and those who posted for the cause as well, will be welcome to publish the list (with at least a link to the original) on their own sites for further discussion.

So send me your suggestions!

Here are a few of mine to get things started (I have many more- but I want to hear from you!):

Plutarch: Lives
Herodotus: The History (father of history)
Thucydides: The History of the Peloponnesian War
Stephan Ambrose: Citizen Soldiers, Undaunted Courage
Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy in America
David Hackett Fischer: Paul Revere's Ride
Plato: The Republic
Rousseau: The Social Contract
John Locke: Of Civil Government and other works
Machiavelli: The Prince and Other Writings
Thomas Paine: Common Sense and Other Writings
Jay, Madison & Hamilton: The Federalist Papers
F. A. Hayek: The Road to Serfdom
Adam Smith: The Wealth of Nations
Benjamin Franklin: Autobiography
Frederick Douglass: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Fiction: Seriously, you don't have to take his word for it. He said so. I heard him.
Homer: The Iliad and The Odyssey
Dr. Seuss: The works
Shakespeare: The works
John Milton: Paradise Lost
Jonathon Swift: Gulliver's Travels and A Modest Proposal
Edgar Allan Poe: The Works
Herman Melville: Moby Dick
Arthur Conan Doyle: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Geoffrey Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales
George Orwell: Animal Farm

Stumped for suggestions or is that title on the tip of your tongue? Or are you merely looking for ideas?
Here are a few websites you might find interesting, and as a bonus, several of them have the text of some of the books reprinted online (if you like reading that way- I prefer the actual book in my hands):
Access The Great Books Online (lots of text online)
The Great Books and Classics (lots of text online)
How Now, Great Books
The Great Books of Western Civilization

When making a sugggestion or thinking of one, consider this: what would you want your children to read, what influenced you, and what deserves to be on everyone's bookshelf. Now is the time to make your voice heard and no longer have the haughty "know it alls" tell you what constitutes a great book or not.

Now don't delay! Comment below and give me your suggestions today!

Oh, I know it's a penny here and a penny there, but look at me. I worked myself up from nothing to a state of extreme poverty.

Of course, you don't have to take my word for it.

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