On Reading-Part II: Susan Wise Bauer’s The Well-Educated Mind, Part 1-The List
I had heard about Susan Wise Bauer’s The Well-Educated Mind from participants in the Classical Literature Reading Challenge online. At first I was very excited. I have enjoyed this sort of book in the past. “How to Read” books are always good to get you to slow down and pay more careful attention to what you are reading. They are often full of tips and insight that inspire and delight. Bauer’s book reminded me of Denby’s Great Books that I had read several years ago and really loved. I was hoping this would be similar. Perhaps I was setting the bar too high.
I found the title a bit curious. She seems to suggest that all one needed to do to be educated was read some good literature. There is much more to being well-educated than reading good books. Also, her range of books is somewhat limited. There are no books on math or science. She looks to the idea of a Classical education. But even her humanities are limited. While “Literature” has complete chapters for Novels, Drama, Poetry and Memoir there are few classic texts of political science, and even less philosophy, both of which get placed in a rather too broadly interpreted category called “History.” One imagines her working title for that chapter was “Boring Stuff I don’t want to spend too much time on.”
I must admit her list of what constitutes a classical education is a bit odd. Odd lists are a good thing, otherwise we would have little to think or argue about. Odd lists give you new things to read, challenge accepted notions, expand your horizons, force you to think in a new way. Yet this list goes beyond odd.
She tries to be inclusive. Her selections are reasonably good with African-American writers, very good with women writers, and includes an occasional title from Asia, Australia and Hispanic America. There is an overwhelming emphasis on religious writers in the Christian tradition. At the same time, she is very weak on psychology, politics, history, philosophy and any writers who are critical or skeptical of supernatural religion.
An entire section is devoted to Bede’s the staid chronicle, A History of the English Church and People. Another section to St. Augustine’s interminable 1,100 page behemoth The City of God. I honestly can’t believe she read more that a few dozen pages of either of these works. I certainly cannot imagine what motivated her to choose Chuck Colson’s self-deceptive anti-confession Born Again, where he asserts that he did no wrong but Jesus forgave him anyway. Meanwhile Voltaire gets a mere parenthetical dependent clause and his delightful satire Candide not even a footnote.
Thomas Merton and C. S. Lewis each get their own sections while Freud shares a paragraph with Saint Paul. William James merits only the better part of an independent clause for inventing the term “stream of consciousness.” David Hume’s amusing and insightful Dialogues on Natural Religion are skipped over as are his other philosophical books and essays, some of the most cogent and readable works in the tradition. Instead we get volume five of The History of England. In a lifetime of reading Hume I have never even seen, let alone read, a copy of this book.
It feels more like the books were chosen because that is what Susan has read, as opposed to what is really worth reading. I think a better title might have been Eurocentric Multicultural Literature for Christian Women as this is what the book really succeeds at. I realize it sounds critical, but there is some advantage to this. If everyone approached the canon from the same perspective there would be little point in discussing it. The advantage of Bauer’s idiosyncratic approach is that it gets us to think about literature in a new way, revisit forgotten classics with a new perspective or stretch our sense of what constitutes literature. The appearance of Mary Rowlandson is a pleasant surprise. Margery Kemp and May Sarton expand the horizons of most readers. I have never heard of Richard Rodriguez or Jil Ker Conway who write about Latin American immigrants and rural Australia respectively.
Her inclusion of Hitler’s Mein Kampf led me to take another look at that notorious book. But I’m afraid it only served to reinforce how horrible it really is. And I don’t just mean that his ideas are repulsive. Even if Hitler were a saint, the book would still be an abomination. Mein Kampf is seven hundred pages of confused rambling, bad grammar, mixed metaphors, flawed logic and gross hyperbole. It is a veritable encyclopedia of bad prose style. I cannot imagine any but the most dedicated scholar of the Third Reich getting through more than a few hundred pages. It really makes one wonder if she actually read the books she recommends.
More importantly, for someone who claims to have read so many good books she seems surprisingly uninspired by them. There is something mechanical or automatic about her response to literature. Perhaps that is an issue with her three step program, the details of which were cut and pasted over and over in the course of 400 pages. Perhaps she was just trying to add filler to get a short article padded to book length.
In many ways she is the opposite of Harold Bloom. Bloom has so much to say about the books he reads that he is forced to abbreviate. His thoughts are suggested but not developed. Entire volumes are summarized in a single pregnant clause. He gives us glimpses and hints of great ideas but forgets to explain them. He leaves us with a six hundred page book full of ideas he has thought about, probably lectured on, but unfortunately, not written about. Susan Bauer has the opposite problem. Lacking ideas or inspiration we all too often get lists or summaries.
While her List is a bit odd, it does have some interesting recommendations mixed with some questionable ones–and really this is all part of the fun of the List. What is possibly more problematic is her Plan which we will look at tomorrow.
- When Reading History, Read Great Books (dianeravitch.net)
- Cavalcade of Classics Kick-off (imperfecthappiness.wordpress.com)