Great Books & Penny Dreadfuls

Let's read great books together


Community Virtue

Professors Heather Erb and Steve Bertucci, tutors at Angelicum Academy, are engaging and persuasive exponents of “Great Books Education.” And just what is a Great Book? It is one of enduring significance and a lever, as it were, for the human enterprise. It is a tool that helps take us beyond what we now are to become more fully what we can be.

Taken together the Great Books make up a “canon.” Different programs have different canons, but not that different. There’s perhaps an 80% overlap of entries on their reading lists. Plus, a faculty meeting spent discussing candidates for the canon, however heated, is of far more value than a meeting spent discussing non-tenured laments, tenured misdemeanors, and administrative deceits. (That Mortimer Adler, perhaps the premier Great Book educator, never gave a “green light” for Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy remains a mystery.)

Both Erb and Bertucci emphasize the holistic character of Great Books education. They teach in a way that integrates the affective and the intellectual and with the final end of the human person in mind. That means that, yes, philosophy does indeed begin in wonder and that, yes, beauty will save the world. What love itself is comes to the fore in Great Books education, and Erb and Bertucci don’t shy away from calling such education an act of love. Nor did Plato!

This post, gentle reader, while it praises the Great Books, might best serve Great Books education by noting some of the problems it faces. One is the need to develop reading lists to include the sapiential traditions of the East. A second is the need to come to grips with increasingly inescapable questions about just what human nature is, especially in light of evolutionary challenges and technological explosions.

There is a third problem, as well, which I want to highlight, beginning with an analogy. We face a crisis of hyper-urbanization, with Mexico City being a prime example. Los Angeles is another. But, let’s be candid, most people are not interested in living in small towns or on family farms. Doing so requires more work and sacrifice than most of us want to deal with.

The analogy suggests another frank observation. Reading a Great Book is tough intellectual work, especially if one is to read in order to “chew and digest” the book. Writing such a book is even tougher. (Boethius wrote The Consolation of Philosophy in jail—though unlike Mark Van Doren, another friend of great books, he didn’t have to deal with dishonest TV quiz shows.)

So what are we to do?

Here’s a plan. We begin by forming intentional learning communities. In a dozen different settings we need to read great books together. The Angelicum Academy welcomes all, but reading the great books is a lifetime endeavor. Next, we read for fun. After all, we both wonder and play. Maybe that’s why G.K. Chesterton so admired “Penny Dreadfuls.” Of such he writes “the average man or boy writes daily in these great gaudy diaries of his soul, which we call Penny Dreadfuls, a plainer and better gospel than any of those iridescent ethical paradoxes that the fashionable change as often as their bonnets.” And, lastly, we denounce in the spirit of the  insight “Best of all is to light a candle and curse the darkness.”

Judith Krantz died last week, and for all I know she’s been in heaven ever since. God love her. But the sort of book she wrote is not a great book, nor is it a penny dreadful. (Modern fiction books cost a good deal more.) So as regards modern fiction, let us blow a loud and warning whistle.

That said, who’s up for Jane Austen?


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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