On Reading-Part V:The List
I have mixed feelings about lists. They can be useful personally, providing goals, intentions, reminders or direction. But there is a sort of laxity or laziness about writing lists that disturbs me. A list can be an excuse for not thinking, a shorthand that skips over troublesome details. It is much easier to make a list than to make an argument or explication. There is less risk as your thinking is hidden and unspoken. As such it does not need to be thorough or sound, and more easily avoids criticism or challenge. Yet having made objections to Bauer’s list I find it only fair venture a few selection of my own.
Much of the literary canon is well-established. It is reflected in lists by Bauer, Denby, Bloom, Adler or any college humanities curriculum. I don’t see much point of reiterating the list of Tolstoys and Austens common to them all. Instead I will only address those works that seem to be missing or at least what I see as missteps in those other lists. They fall into a handful of groups that we will look at over the next week or so.
1) Beyond the West-correcting our Eurocentric myopia
2) Decline of Classical languages-what we lost when we stopped learning Greek and Latin
3) Looking the other way-right author, wrong book
4) The art of exposition-it not just about reading fiction
5) Missing the forest for the trees-where we need to read the whole book not just excerpts
Before we get started (just in case)
Before I get started with those groups I need to mention one book that doesn’t fit into any group. Few people haven’t heard of it, but few people have read it. Montaigne’s remarkable book of Essays is on most of the lists but I think it gets forgotten. Or people read one or two of the essays and check it off their list. But it is really the most amazing book and should be better known and better read. It is a book that should be read early and often. It is worth revisiting many times throughout your life and you will often take away something completely different each time you read it.
- On Reading-Part II: Susan Wise Bauer’s The Well-Educated Mind, Part 1-The List (severalfourmany.wordpress.com)
- On Reading-Part III: Susan Wise Bauer’s The Well-Educated Mind, Part 2-The Plan (severalfourmany.wordpress.com)