The Great Books Reader: Excerpts and Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western CivilizationWritten by John Mark Reynolds, ed Reviewed By Douglas Wilson
This book is an anthology of excerpts from many of the great books, from Homer to Calvin, and then from Calvin to Chesterton. The volume is edited by John Mark Reynolds, who appropriately begins with a reasonable defense of this (“indefensible”) collection of appetizers to the classics. Why do something like that?
One of the obvious answers, of course, is to whet the appetite for more. That is what appetizers do. With the resurgence of pedagogical interest in the great books, many parents and teachers have had to scramble to catch up. They are trying to provide the kind of education that few of us actually received, and in playing catch up like this, introductory volumes such as this one can be an enormous help. They are a help, of course, as a stop-gap measure until the classics being reintroduced into the curriculum can be read in their entirety, and more thoroughly. But even after that catch-up phase, a book like this, with its helpful commentary and accompanying essays, can provide a resource after the fact.
I am very pleased with the selections. Reynolds briefly introduces each one, and then right after the selection follows a short essay on the piece from various writers and thinkers. One curiosity is that only one of the selections (the one from Anna Karenina) has two essays following it, and all the others have just one. Perhaps this is just a way of tipping the hat to the prolixity of the Russians.
All the classical writers are treated with an appropriate dignity and respect (including Darwin and Marx), but not in a way that interferes with pointing out the clear problems. The only time I tripped over the gentlemanliness was when Nietzsche is given a pass for some of the consequences of his follies (p. 610). Even though he was one of the few philosophers who could write an interesting sentence, his house on the river of Western thought really was responsible for a lot of the gunk downstream.
Some of the selections are obvious because they would necessarily be required in any great books compendium (e.g., Homer, Virgil, Plato), and some of the selections are off the beaten path but clearly good choices (e.g., Chesterton, Calvin, Wesley). Calvin is at the center of theological history, for example, but for some reason he has been strangely neglected in “history of Western thought” programs. The famous University of Chicago Great Books collection, for example, leaves him out, a decision that left me aghast. Reynolds doesn’t make that mistake.
One of the book’s few weaknesses—albeit an understandable one—concerns the datedness of some of the translations. The translation of Dante’s Inferno is Longfellow’s (1867); Ormsby translated Don Quixote in 1885; and the translation of Newton, presumably out of the Latin, was done by Andrew Motte in 1729. When someone sets about to assemble a book like this, copyright owners of contemporary translations really ought to be less proprietary and territorial than they are, and they should think of this as free advertising instead of some form of nefarious encroachment. A rising tide floats all the boats. But quaint translations in a book you can actually use are far better than contemporary translations in a non-existent book. If the book serves its purpose and encourages people to start reading the classics more seriously, they can move on to more current translations at the appropriate time.
Another advantage to reading selections from numerous books side-by-side like this is that it makes it harder to fall into the idea that the Great Conversation (as Mortimer Adler called it) was somehow free of disagreement and debate. While the great questions are constant (“Who are we? Where are we going? How should we behave on the way?”), the answers can vary wildly. In a volume like this, the differences of emphasis and/or perspective are clear.
But also, at the same time, another fact emerges. With the selections chosen by a Christian, it is striking that the overwhelming number of writers included here were also Christians. But this was not because of an untoward bias on the part of Reynolds—the names on this list clearly belong there (e.g., Pascal, Dostoevsky, Spenser, Milton). There are a total of twenty-nine writers represented here. The first four were pagans (Homer, Plato, Aristotle, and Virgil), and then a long line of Christians starts. There is a brief hiccup with Newton because of his problems with Arianism; and I personally don’t know where de Tocqueville stood, but he was certainly friendly to the Christian faith. That leaves Marx, Darwin, and Nietzsche. Out of a list of twenty-nine, we have seven non-believers and two question marks. It turns out that the Christian faith is not an enemy of a life of the mind. Why would we be against a great books program when we wrote most of them?
John Mark Reynolds was founder of the Torrey Honors Institute, the Great Books program for Biola University, and has recently become Provost of Houston Baptist University. In putting this book together, he has provided classical and Christian educators with a good service. There are a lot of classical Christian schools and homeschools that should make a point of having this book on the premises.
Moscow, Idaho, USA