Essay / Culture

What Makes for a Great Book?

Biola‘s Torrey Honors Institute is a great books program. Our students get their general education by reading and discussing the hundred or so greatest hits of western civ, and everybody who works here teaches that whole curriculum.

But the phrase “great books” doesn’t always instantly communicate what we mean. In common usage, when people use the phrase “great books,” they usually mean really, really good books. Example: “R. A. Torrey wrote a lot of great books!” Yes, he did; so did Agatha Christie. But we mean something more specific than that.

On the other hand, some people use the phrase “great books” to mean the 60-volume publishing project that Encyclopedia Britannica launched under the editorship of Mortimer Adler. Example: “Oh, you teach the great books? I own those!” But we mean something less specific than that.

What do we mean when we call our curriculum –which, by the way, changes incrementally– a great books curriculum? Remember that our project at Torrey is undergraduate general education designed to equip men and women in mind and character to make an impact on the world for the Lord Jesus Christ. And our pedagogy, or method of teaching, is Socratic discussion. Those two concerns dictate what kind of books we need to read. Here are eight criteria a book has to meet to make it into the curriculum.

1. The book has to speak from an important original setting. We want to study these works from a position inside their stream of influence, or (pardon my French German), wirkungsgeschichtliche, from within the history that they themselves have effected. As a result, we may have to rely on some background knowledge of the original time and place.

2. But a great book is one that is not trapped in its original setting. It has to be written in a way that constitutes it a living experience for readers today. Pedagogically, we approach these texts as living voices in the ever-present now, and we want to hear the author. Our class sessions are three-hour long discussions without an authoritative lecture. That only works if the lecture has already happened before class, and if the lecturer is the great book.

If the question “why does this book matter?” can only be answered by mental time travel (“It would have mattered to you if you were a fifteenth-century peasant in the rising middle class”), the you’ve already admitted that the book is not great in our sense. Maybe it used to be, but the glory has departed, and the book won’t discuss anymore.

A corollary is that we do not read these books for the sake of learning about other cultures; the intercultural education that we get from great books is a wonderful byproduct of the fact that we want to hear from the authors. I read and discuss Plato to learn from and with him. If I wanted to understand the culture of Periclean Athens, I would read the latest scholarly study of it, which is less partial, and has photographs. In a great books discussion, I want to hear Plato, not his culture (which he may be reflecting or refracting or creating, who knows?).

3. A great book is well crafted. Matthew Arnold said his goal was to study “the best which has been thought and said.” For us, the two have to go together. If somebody had a great idea but wrote about it badly, the idea is not a candidate for great books discussion. Look up the idea and learn it, but let’s not discuss it. We need to be able to lean on every sentence, and not have it suddenly give way and crumble beneath the weight of our analysis. Shoddy craftsmanship leads to terrible discussion: “Well, he said this, but maybe he meant something else.” This rules out several modern disciplines whose guild standards permit haphazard writing; it also rules out collections of tales from oral cultures, unless they were put into classic form by somebody trustworthy (not, generally, some later anthropologist from another culture).

4. A great book is one that provokes excellent discussion. It must be a book that causes you to say interesting things as soon as you start talking to each other about it. Some books are so encyclopedic and clear that there is just nothing to say about them except to repeat them (Aristotle runs this risk). Some books are true but bland (DeTocqueville). Some books establish categories so tangled that the first twenty sentences you say about them are crazy and confused (Montaigne). Some books are too funny to discuss (Don Quixote). The kind of book that works for Socratic pedagogy is the kind of book that practically discusses itself, and invites you to join. It fills your mind with apt words and fruitful categories. You say something about it, and you hear the sounds of wisdom coming from your own mouth.

5. A great book is inexhaustible, so no reading of it is the final reading, and no discussion ever runs it dry. You can never say you’re done with it except in a provisional sense. If you take a break and come back to it, you’ll find more in it. And the next group of students will pick it up and find it still full. Think you’re finished with Hamlet? Think again.

6. A great book is time-tested. People from multiple generations have had their hands on it, and have judged it to be worth passing along. It has outlived its original context, and been found useful to people in another age. This rules out recent books. Somebody might have written a truly great book (in our Socratic sense) yesterday, but we won’t know for another 50 to 100 years. If we admit Flannery O’Connor and CS Lewis to our curriculum, it’s with a little embarrassment, an admission that we’re just sentimentally attached to them, and that for all we know they might pass from usefulness before many more decades.

7. A great book is weird. It’s got angles, edges, textures, and stuff sticking out that you wouldn’t have predicted. Any editor would have smoothed those things out and made the book more normal. But if great books had editors, they were in on the conspiracy of oddity. Great books have idiosyncrasies; textbooks don’t. That’s why you learn from textbooks, but you don’t love them or quote them. In some fields, the most comprehensive textbooks are by entire teams of scholars, and are intentionally normed and edited to sound exactly like the way everybody talks. That kind of educational discourse has its place, but don’t try to run a Socratic discussion from it.

8. A great book is smarter than the best teacher, but within reach of the average student. Socratic tutors are not able to stand over the books in judgment of them, but know themselves to be introducing students to a mind that towers over all of them. The tutor may even feel a special burden of intimidation from the text, which the students don’t always feel, because the students see the obvious first hand-holds, and begin the climb. I know what it’s like to teach a book that I understand everything in. Teaching a great book is altogether different.

Finally, we can’t read every book that meets these criteria. The curriculum is not closed, or carved in stone. There are hundreds and hundreds of other books we could and should read. But we’ve only got four years with these students, and every book we add to the list requires us to subtract one.

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