Friday, July 24, 2015

Letter to my niblings: a gift of great books

Dear Matthew, Anne & Daniel

You are probably a bit disappointed with the gift you received from me this Christmas. Maybe you were expecting candy, perhaps toys. But you need not worry: on this holiday season I'm giving you what may very well be the very best material gift you'll ever receive. It is better than playthings and sweets I assure you. Can you imagine that?

Well, let's see. What you have here are a set of tomes, ten in all, labeled "Gateway to the Great Books". One may be apprehensive about receiving books, of all things, and pictureless ones at that. However, these books are quite different. By themselves, they are full of wonders. They consist of a collection of short pieces that relate to storytelling, man and society, science and philosophy. You already love storytelling, what grownups call literature,  and within the pages here you'll find some of the very best, some of which you'll want to read over and over again. You also have a family (a lovely one at that), friends and attend school, which means you already belong to groups that are larger than yourself. The volumes colored blue, deal with these and with even bigger groups. Now, man has been called an animal that asks questions. You also ask questions, we all do pretty much all the time. Some of these questions relate to why things are as they are in nature. Science is at it's heart the search for answers in this area. The volumes coded green, show how persons have sought to answer and explain them, from where we stand in the Universe (take a look at Kees Boeke's Cosmic View),  to how bugs (!) behave (Fabre, the Sacred Beetle), to what is what really happens when a candle burns (Faraday, Chemical History of a Candle). Math, which is closely related to science, is not a boring school subject, and in fact can be quite delightful. You use Google daily, do you know where that name came from? Or how big a number can get? Finally, there are other questions that cannot be answered, for all its worth, by science.  How should one behave? How do we know things? What is one's purpose? These, and more, are explored in the last volume. In a sense, we're all philosophers (lets grow a beard!)

These books not only great by themselves, but are planned as an entryway to even greater books that are out there. You already know about some of them: remember Achilles and the  war of Troy (The Iliad)? Have you ever heard of Romeo and Juliet (Shakespeare)? Perhaps you've heard of a certain knight that once fought against windmills (Don Quixote).

Starting now, this books will let you make a better use of your greatest asset which is your mind. They'll also help you place things throughout your life in perspective, and strengthen your will and study habits, which in turn will pave the way in school, and to whatever goals you set for yourselves as members of society.

All these is set before you, if you'll only read them.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Gateway to the Great Books reviewed

In my first excitement over the Great Books I found that there was a companion set and got my dad to order it for me. Somewhere during the second year reading programme of the Gateway to the Great Books I made the jump to the Great Books proper. Taking a look at the former after some years I see that I've been missing some great reading and decided to retake them.

Gateway to the Great Books (GGB) is a 10 volume set that serves as an entryway to Great Books of the Western World (GB).  It was prepared the same editors of the GB and lives within the same philosophical vein. In contrast to the GB flagship set, this one focuses on shorter works by a more diverse group of authors.

As with GB, GGB are divided and color coded into a) imaginative literature and critical essays (tomes 2-5); b) Man and Society (tomes 6-7); c) Science and Mathematics (tomes 8- 9) and d) Philosophy and Theology (tome 10). The covers have a nice texturized feel and the pages themselves are whiter than GB's cream colored.

The first volume contains the introduction to the set, the Syntopicon to the set and a reading plan. The intro is written by Adler, and here, once again rehashes his reading Methodology (of which we talked in the last post). This time, however, he puts it forth in a more polished clearer straightforward fashion. I would still recommend getting How to Read a Book if one intends to take him up on it, nevertheless. Unlike the one in the GB, the syntopicon here radiates each work to the Great Ideas and to related works both in the GB and the GGB.  The reading plan is structured according to difficulty and it is suggested to be taken from 7/8 grade to College Sophomore and covers the entirety of the works in the set.

As taken from its introduction, serving as a gateway  is GGB's only stated purpose. It is not too far off to think of the works in GGB as those that didn't quite make it into the bigger set. Nonetheless, that being so, doesn't make any of them second-rate in absolute terms.  The works are delightful to read  for the most part. I find that there a bit few, say the United Nations Charter or moderately demanding like Sweetness and Light (took me 3-4 tries to get traction), but, as said, these are by far the exceptions and still enriching. There are times when one feels the joy of learning; this set is a surefire way to get that feeling at any time without the heaviness of complexity. Many of the included works are not as readily available as those from the GB, so once again one ends ahead by having all of them in one place.

As with the GB the pieces in the GGB are mostly devoid of footnotes or clarifying explanations. Some editor's guidance is provided however before each work along with some pointers. Unlike the GB, in the GGB allow themselves to offer selections over complete works when appropriate. For instance, in the very first work, Robinson Crusoe, the editors abridge the novel by letting go scenes, such as Crusoe's stay in Brazil, that don't relate as closely to the Great Ideas. Prescott's History of the Conquest of Mexico centers on a single episode.

Taken as a duo, both sets interplay well as is evidenced by the Syntopicons.  Now then, both  don't really need each other other as the two can live a meaningful independent existence.

If one's gung-ho with Adler's method, this is the set to get. The brevity of the pieces, ease and greatness allow, and some level demand, the method to be tried. One can always move up to the GB when one feels she has gained sufficient proficiency in the art. Maybe one's still uncertain about this great book reading idea or project, and doesn't want to commit all the way in just yet. GGB solves this allowing the reader to dip her toe in them. Best part (best? all aspects with this set appear to be top notch) is that complete sets can be get dirt cheap at Ebay for well under $100 and not infrequently under $50. Go for it, I guarantee it'll be the best book purchase you'll ever make.