Throw your book list away. Concentrate instead on reading well, reading correctly, understanding what the author has to say, so that he can do his work on you. If you will do that, it will not matter how many books you read, or frankly, even which ones you read.  You’ll be able to get a great education at your own pace, in the context of everything else you’re doing with your life, if you will only learn to read correctly.

This week I am working on my biennial reaccreditation with IEW. As one requirement of the reaccreditation process, IEW instructors must fulfill six hours of continuing education. One option for the CE hours is to listen to and summarize six hours of audio recordings, which are available for download on IEW’s site. I am always energized and inspired by the lectures I choose!

One of the recordings I chose this week is actually a class I attended at the 2010 Writing Educator’s Symposium. I attended WES as a presenter but also as a student, and was privileged to hear and speak with Andrew Pudewa (founder and director of IEW), Dr. James B. Webster (creator of the IEW method), and Adam Andrews. Adam and his wife Missy are the founders of CenterForLit, the method I use for literary analysis in our units on writing about literature.

Adam Andrews’ class that day, “Asking the Right Questions,” was primarily about using CenterForLit’s Socratic method, a comprehensive list of literature questions to help people of every age, from preschoolers through adults, think about stories. I love literature and I was already using the CenterForLit method when I attended his class, so that part was nothing new to me. What I did gain, however, was permission to not be driven to “do” a list of literature so I could just “check off the boxes” in our homeschool reading list.

At the time, I had just finished a year with my youngest child, Grant, in which we had attempted Worldview Academy’s Great Books list for Ancient Literature. Apparently, their website devoted to the Great Books no longer exists, but seems to have been replaced by Worldview at the Abbey’s reading plan, which seems more focused and doable.

Grant and I greatly enjoyed the reading and discussion, eventually arriving in the schedule at Plato’s Republic. Somehow, I realized that if we were going to reap any worthy results from the famous book, we needed to take as much time as necessary instead of whizzing through it as scheduled. Grant was only in the tenth grade and not overly fond of books in the first place, so I knew I couldn’t just give it to him to read on his own. So we settled into Republic for the long haul. We took turns reading aloud to each other, stopping to discuss every page, sometimes even just paragraphs or sentences. Some parts we found to be bizarre, some parts we found to be uncannily aligned with Eternal Truth, but all parts we found to be fascinating. In the meanwhile, we totally wrecked our Great Books schedule.

That day in Adam’s class, I was ambivalent. I felt Grant and I had spent our time well, yet I also felt vaguely guilty. We didn’t “do” the whole list. But during class that day, I heard this:

Education is not a book list. We think if we can just get our kids from the beginning of this Great Books list to the end, then they will be educated and we will have done our duty by them. But the problem, of course, is they can read all of the Great Books on all of the Great Books lists and not arrive at the other end with anything like an education. On the other hand, they can read a very small subset of those books, or different books altogether, and arrive with a great education.

Then he told us about Missy’s discussion with her beloved former English professor about a book list for their first child entering high school. Expecting a pages-long list of book recommendations that would insure that her son would be truly educated, Missy was shocked and bewildered when the professor gave her this list:

The Bible
Something by St. Augustine, such as City of God or Confessions
John Milton’s Paradise Lost
The Gift of Fire by Richard Mitchell, on a philosophy of education

When Missy challenged him about the adequacy of such a short list, this was his reply:

That’s all he needs. Education is not a book list. Education is not about what you read, or how many you read. It’s about how well you read. It’s about whether you are ready for the Great Books of the Western tradition to do their proper work on your soul. And if you’re ready, it only takes one. You only need one to get you ready for life. Throw your book list away. Concentrate instead on reading well, reading correctly, understanding what the author has to say, so that he can do his work on you. If you will do that, it will not matter how many books you read, or frankly, even which ones you read.  You’ll be able to get a great education at your own pace, in the context of everything else you’re doing with your life, if you will only learn to read correctly.

So at the end of class I stood in line to receive absolution for “not doing the whole list.” And, of course, Adam told me that it was better to have read Republic well and made it our own than to have skimmed the surface of a whole list of books so we could say we “did” it.

The Great Books are meant to be savored, contemplated, discussed, even reread. If we blast through them so we can say we “did” it, we will never experience their greatness and beauty. I know of some curriculums that have students ripping through two classics per month, every month. That’s barely enough time to superficially read, let alone contemplate and discuss, a Great Book. Lists may be used as a guide for books that are worth reading, but they should never be used as a task master. That misses the point.

A good rule of thumb is one Great Book every month or even every two months, depending on the length and complexity. By spending at least a month, there is time to read well, discuss using the Socratic questions, and write an essay or two using some of the questions as prompts. By that time, the author will have begun to “do his work on you” and the book will be yours, permanently.

Looking back, I cherish that time we spent in Republic as one of my favorite memories of our homeschool days. Not only was the time an immersive experience of a truly great book, it was a turning point in how we approached and enjoyed literature and history. Today, I hope to encourage you to listen to Adam and receive the freedom to read well, learn, and enjoy great literature with your children.

Leave a Reply