Thursday, March 07, 2013

The Joy of Reading Great Books, Part IV

Years ago, I came across this meaty article. I tried to relocate it (the former link is now broken), finally found it, and reposted it here divided into five parts due to its length

Enjoy and tell me your favorite quotes

Part 1 is here.
Part 2 is here.
Part 3 is here. 


The Joy of Reading Great Books
by Kathleen Nielson

What Should We Read?

Was Mark Twain right that a classic is a book that people praise and don’t read? What makes what we would call a classic? I have spoken of literature as the artful shaping of human experience in words. Well, then, who is to decide what is artful, and what kind of shaping of what kind of experience is great? In one sense, I don’t need to address this question, because wise people through the centuries have made judgments on it, and I am willing to trust such judgments. I will not choose to take time, even though people these days call for it, debating whether Dante or Milton or Shakespeare or T.S. Eliot should be called great. One argument for attending a Christian liberal arts college, by the way, is that it may well form part of the steadily decreasing number of institutions of higher education which still teach an accepted body of classic works that have shaped our civilization and our world. Many Christian colleges do this is because they have not generally rejected the truths of Scripture—truths that rear their heads so explicitly in much of the history of Western world literature.

Read works that people you respect, both dead and alive, would call great. Talk to your thinking and reading friends. Look up trustworthy books that recommend good books (5). Make a list. Always carry a book. It’s not a complex matter to get started. As you read the books which have lasted through the centuries, you will gradually begin to understand the importance of artistry and style; the way style is inseparable from content; the complex, universal human experience and truths great works get at; and the transforming effect of reading and rereading a worthy work. These are some of the basic qualities of great literature.

Of course, our lists of great works constantly adjust and stretch, to embrace the discovery not only of contemporary great writers but also of past writers previously overlooked. As Roger Lundin explains, literature deals with a host of individual classics, not with a fixed canon of sacred works. Only one collection of books is a canon for Christians. So, as we see women and minority writers emerging in literature anthologies, we should be open. Lundin for one does not seem worried that "Longfellow, Lowell, and Whittier are out, and Phyllis Wheatly, Frederick Douglass, and Toni Morrison are in (6)."

Part 5 tomorrow.  


(5) For a start, see Veith’s Appendix: "A Reading List."

(6) "The Classic Are Not the Canon," Cowan and Guinness, p. 26. See also his chapter in Literature Through the Eyes of Faith: "The Value and Limits of Reading the Classics," pp. 103 – 116.

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