Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Heavy reading

A Christmas gift I did not expect was my dad's 1952 edition of The Great Books of the Western World, a set of 54 volumes published by the Encyclopedia Britannica in collaboration with the University of Chicago. The books come with a reading plan, and their quaint purpose is to expose everyday folks to the likes of Plato, Kant, Gibbon and so forth.

I like the set because it reminds me of my undergraduate reading, about which I am sentimental. The designers of the U of C's core curriculum had the very same Great Books impulse as the set's editors, and there is substantial overlap. Thanks to my college instructors I can already check Thucydides off the list, and Milton and Boswell. And Freud, in spades: sometimes it seemed as though every college class the U of C offered involved reading Freud, which was appropriate given the famously repressed sexuality of Chicago undergrads.

Other of the Great authors I read in high school--Shakespeare, of course, and Sophocles. Still others I caught up with in graduate school: Hobbes, Machiavelli, Locke, Hume, Smith. And some I've never read at all--would you believe Homer?

Of course, I can't say that I've already begun devouring the Iliad (which, anyway, I seem to own already, in multiple editions). So are these books useful? Certainly I've enjoyed the introductory essays on the virtues of liberal education, and there's something weirdly comforting about having all these texts in one place.

But I'm also slightly wary: the very idea of Great Books is, of course, a controversial one. More than that, I worry that I run the risk of smugness. It's one thing, after all, to own a copy of Plutarch's Lives, quite another actually to read it.

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