Tag Archives: Great Books

Upon Being Invited to Study the Great Books Online

Thanks for the invitation. I must say, having looked into facilitating my own Great Books curriculum at several times in the past, that the concept is neither unfamiliar to me, nor uninviting. However, my reason for declining at present has little to do with the scope of the program, but more with the medium. I have participated in a number of online study groups, interest groups, etc., over the past ten years, and have found that while they do promote a degree of intellectual stimulation, and do foster a sense of camaraderie among participants, they by their very nature limit the exchange of ideas because they have as their foundation a sense of anonymity. It is very easy to expound one’s ideas, and wax philosophic, in the vacuum of not having to look another person in the eye. It is gratifying, particularly to one’s ego, to have the group linger on a thread of your own creation for endless iterations. However, too often it seems that is where it ends. Having a cluster of pen-pals, so to speak, does not improve my opportunity to have intellectual (or otherwise stimulating) conversations in real life, with people that I encounter in the flesh on a daily basis. Without that level of personal contact, having an exchange of ideas to me is stale and flat.

I don’t say that this particular curriculum or this forum will lead to that end. For me, however, particularly since my own meaning of an educated liberal extends FAR beyond the narrow, and one might even say, self-destructive, confines of Western culture, that at this point in my life, your group is not for me. It smacks too much of knowledge for the sake of knowledge alone, as some kind of barometer by which one can compare one’s education to others and somehow feel more justified in holding opinions, and grasping the illusory reins of control over a life that to be understood must be tasted in the flesh, rather than by sucking the aged marrow from its volumes of bones.

That’s a long way of saying, thanks, but no thanks.

However, I wish you success in this venture, and again, appreciate the invitation.

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A Score of Reading

Based on an entry from my friend the juice, I’ve put together a few short lists, related to my earlier post on the College Board 101 Books Your Child Should be Reading.

In no particular order …

Ten Books I Wish I’d Never Read: (the second hardest category for me – after glad not to have read; because I’ve learned something from everything I’ve read – including some things I didn’t want to learn)

Masks of the Illuminati — Robert Anton Wilson
The Satanic Bible — Anton LaVey
Just As I Am — Billy Graham
Helter Skelter — Vincent Bugliosi
The 21 Lessons of Merlin — Douglas Monroe
Juliette — Marquis de Sade
The Siege of Troy: A Modern Retelling of the Iliad — Greg Tobin
Magick in Theory and Practice — Aleister Crowley
Circle of Stones — Anna Mae Waldo
Centennial — James Michener

Ten Books I’m Ashamed to Say I’ve Never Read:

Ariel — Sylvia Plath
Finnegans Wake — James Joyce
The Federalist Papers — Alexander Hamilton et al
Das Kapital — Karl Marx
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee — Dee Brown
In His Own Write — John Lennon
The Bonfire of the Vanities — Tom Wolfe
The Executioner’s Song — Norman Mailer
The Sun Also Rises — Ernest Hemingway
Les Miserables — Victor Hugo

Ten Books I’m Glad I’ve Never Read: (and this was the hardest one, because frankly there aren’t really any books that I would refuse to attempt to read)

Mein Kampf — Adolf Hitler
The Way Things Ought to Be — Rush Limbaugh
The Confesions of Aleister Crowley — Aleister Crowley
Teen Witch — Silver Ravenwolf
Fight Club — Chuck Palahniuk
Summa Theologica — St. Thomas Aquinas
Summer of My German Soldier — Bette Green
Warlock: A Novel of Ancient Egypt — Wilbur Smith
The World of Rod McKuen — Rod McKuen
Wilderness: The Lost Writings of Jim Morrison — Jim Morrison

Ten Books I’ve Started But Probably Will Never Finish:

Beezlebub’s Tales to His Grandson — G.I. Gurdjieff
Prometheus Rising — Robert Anton Wilson
The Decline of the Roman Empire, Vols. 2 and 3 — Edward Gibbon
Confessions of St. Augustine — St. Augustine
Walden, or Life in the Woods — Henry David Thoreau
The Republic — Plato
Critical Path — R. Buckminister Fuller
Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh — Vincent Van Gogh
Three Books of Occult Philosophy — Cornelius Agrippa
Faust — Johann Goethe

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College Board and the Great Books

Found this link at The Rage Diaries.

Apparently the College Board (you know, the folks that gave us the SAT and ACT) has put together a list of 101 Great Books recommended to be read by those entering freshman year college. Well, it’s actually 101 novels, 19 miscellaneous (uncategorized and non-Fictional works), and various works by 15 identified poets.

On a whim, I evaluated my own performance, reading-wise:

Novels:   71 of 101 (70%)
Miscellaneous:   14 of 19 (74%)
Poetry:    11 of 15 (73%)

Now, as I recall, the 70% range is either a C or D. That’s not good. And even if any of the identified works I actually still own, 21 years out of high school, that still doesn’t put me on the College Board’s “Dean’s List”, does it?

But they have a short list (I guess, if you’re only going to read a LITTLE). On that one, I got 9 out of 10 (90%). A solid B, by my reckoning. Not much room for error on a 10 item quiz, is there?

Of course, there are many, many, MANY authors and poets not represented here that I consider essential reading. But this is the College Board, after all. You can’t expect them to be TOO avante garde, can you? Standardized reading lists and standardized tests go hand in hand. If you want to pass their tests, you have to read their books. Or pretend to have done so, or at least have slept with the Cliff Notes under your pillow.

But that brings up an important point. While a great many of these books I actually read in high school, I would not have had room to complete anywhere near the entire list considering my other reading. Who does the College Board suggest that I should have given up in order to accomplish their curricula? Allen Ginsberg? ee cummings? Krishnamurti? Julius Caesar? Ken Kesey? Rimbaud? Baudelaire? Henry Miller? And what if was more interested in reading “The Idiot” than “Crime and Punishment”? Do I get a point off for that one? It’s strange the authors they include, versus deliberately seem to exclude. Dickens is nowhere to be found. Jack London likewise. Ambrose Bierce — how would I have survived high school without the “Devil’s Dictionary” I ask you …

Fortunately, my reading requirements are not dictated by the College Board’s vision of an educated and well-read young person. But I worry about my step-daughter, who is a high school senior (almost) looking at colleges. I know for a fact that she’s not interested in reading most of this stuff. And neither are any of her friends. Sadly, reading is not one of her great pleasures. So it goes with this generation. I’m almost surprised that the College Board doesn’t require some kind of minimum television show exposure. That seems more appropriate.

Anyhow…

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My Blunderbuss versus the Western Can(n)on

So here’s the beef:

Having effectively (unless suddenly the possesor of a winning Powerball ticket) pissed away my opportunities to pursue formal education, I find myself often wondering what exactly I might have been forced to study had I attended a major university and undergone matriculation towards a degree in say, English. As a result, I find myself (much like W.B. Yeats) scrambling after knowledge from a myriad of sources. And not so much to falsely claim the title of a scholar, nor to compare myself in any public way to a degreed individual of any kind, I have been looking for lists of required texts, reading lists, or curriculum that encompasses the range of knowledge I would like to have – or would like to share with someone with the benefit of college education.

The blunderbuss seems like a very apt metaphor for my education to date – a wide barrel with not a lot of focused output that can be filled with ANYTHING, from ballshot to nails to pieces of scrap iron. Not a weapon of much accuracy, but deadly useful, particularly at close quarters, and especially if one is interested in deterring nuisances (LOL). As a comparison, the Western Canon (or “Great Books”), often used to describe those works of literature, science, philosophy and history that shaped and directed Occidental thought, is more like a streamlined, hard-shelled, compact ball projectile piercing the veil that is Western Culture.

So I traipse off across the Net hoping to find a plethora of lists for undergraduates and so on that would give a person like myself an idea of what I SHOULD have been exposed to in order to call myself well-educated. And frankly, other than the “Rutgers Reading List”, and a lot of “one from column A, two from column B, a minimum of three selections from 45 – 55 AD, etc.” I have not been able to find any sort of concrete agenda for study. Is it that universities are afraid that their competitors will “steal” their lists? That they’re afraid people will just read these books on their own, and forgo the expense that represents their salaries, their atheletic stadia, their ivy-covered walls and yew-tree lined walkways? Or what?

I understand that there is a great deal of contention out there regarding what one “should study”. And I also understand that most of the “intellectual community” (HA) feel that debate on this subject is best held within their hallowed halls, without the intrusion of some ignorant, unread, unwashed interlopers trying to muck up their glory road to tenure. But how about a little help?

Bah.

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