The Grail Code 
Which books are “great”?

I promised I’d spend some time talking about what books are really “great,” so I’ll do that now. But first, a few warnings.

1. Not everyone agrees on what books are “great,” because—obviously—not everyone agrees on what makes a “great” book.

2. Some books that are almost certainly “great” don’t fit well in some versions of a great-books education. A book must be not only great, but also discussable.

3. The books actually matter less than the method. This is the most startling fact about the “great books” method of learning: it really doesn’t depend nearly as much as you’d think on the greatness of the books. It depends much more on the method of approaching the books and learning from them.

4. Different books are appropriate for different ages. Second-graders are probably not ready for Einstein yet. (Although my six-year-old son has recently been captivated by string theory and M-theory, which has taught me not to make too many assumptions about what a child is ready for.)

Having said all that, I’ll venture a definition of a “great book”: A great book is a book we keep coming back to. We may not even like it, but we can’t escape it. It has become part of our shared cultural heritage, and even people who haven’t read the book have somehow absorbed something about it.

Lots of people hate Moby Dick, for example, and curse the literature professors who made them read it. But it’s always there on the reading lists. You can’t get away from it, because in the end it’s always worth thinking about, even if you hated it. And even if you haven’t read it, you still know about it. Animated cartoons aimed at children (I’m talking about you, SpongeBob) are quite willing to parody Captain Ahab’s obsessive pursuit of the great white whale—and the children know what’s going on.

Another example we might mention is the romances of the Holy Grail, especially the Walter Map version. We couldn’t giggle over our periodic lists of holy-grails-of if everybody hadn’t absorbed some notion of the Holy Grail, though almost always without reading the romances.

No two people will make exactly the same list of great books, and the lists will change over time. I’m sure many people thought The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was a shoo-in for “great book” status, but who reads it now? (Robert Benchley gets credit as the lonely voice who called it right: “Of course it is possible for a man to write a great book from which no one would quote. That is probably happening all the time. But it is because no one has read it. Here we have an author [Vicente Blasco Ibáñez] whose vogue in this country, according to statistics, is equal to that of any writer of novels in the world. And as soon as his publicity department stops functioning, I should like to lay a little bet that he will not be heard of again.”)

But, on the whole, the lists will be remarkably similar, and they’ll be more similar the farther back in time we go. The colder the author is in his grave, the more sure we can be that the book is really “great.”

Homer, the Bible, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Shakespeare, Galileo, Descartes, Newton, Rousseau, Marx, Einstein, just to name a few—these will always be on lists of great books, because they changed the course of human thought forever. It doesn’t matter if you love Luther and hate Calvin, or love Calvin and hate Luther, or hate both, or love both because you have a strangely split and warped personality: their ideas are just too big and important to ignore.

So much for determining which books are great; that leaves us with the problem of which great books are suitable. The answer varies widely according to the subject and according to the target audience.

For high-school or college students learning geometry, for example, Euclid is the obvious and only choice. For biology, you’ll want to start with Aristotle and work up through Harvey and into more modern writers; similarly, for physics, Aristotle through Galileo and Newton up to Einstein and beyond.

The assumption, of course, is that you’ll be using some variant of the great-books method to teach every subject. Many students will be lucky to get a literature class taught that way.

For young children, some of the best things to read are in the Bible. Jesus’ parables are perfect. They’re short, but infinitely thought-provoking. The best discussion I ever saw in a Sunday-school class was on the parable of the workmen in the vineyard, in which the employer pays the last to arrive as much as he pays the ones who worked all day. “That’s not fair!” multiple children shouted at once. Well, why not? Didn’t the first to arrive agree on the payment? And so the discussion goes. Our ordinary assumptions are questioned and our complacency offended right away, which is exactly what Jesus intended. Before you know it, an hour has gone by, and everyone—not least the teacher—has met new ideas and thought new thoughts.

Little fables like Aesop’s are also good for young children. Even The Cat in the Hat is worth talking about—or perhaps I should say especially The Cat in the Hat, with its slightly frightening moral ambiguity. It even ends with a perfect opening question for a discussion.

Experiment often shows which books are good for discussions and which aren’t. Some books that are first-rate just never seem to lead to good discussions.

Finally, there’s the cultural question, which is tricky. St. John’s and some other great-books schools follow mainly the western traditionnot because no one outside the West ever wrote anything worthwhile, but because the readings build one upon another. It can be very hard to approach books that come from a tradition completely outside our own without some serious training in the languages and culture of that tradition. The Graduate Institute at St. John’s offers an Eastern Classics program that includes tutorials in either Sanskrit or Chinese, just as the regular undergraduate program includes tutorials in ancient Greek and French.

Anyway, why should I come up with a list when other people have done it already? Here are some lists you can look at and argue about:

The St. John’s College reading list. This reading list was first put together in the 1930s. It changes a bit every so often, and it’s not always quite identical on the two campuses (one in Annapolis, the other in Santa Fe). But it’s been remarkably stable over the years. It’s actually hard to find another list of “great books” that isn’t at least influenced by this one.

The Britannica Great Books series. If it bears a strong resemblance to the St. John’s list, that’s no accident: the Britannica list was heavily influenced by the St. John’s list.

Thomas Aquinas College has a program modeled after the one at St. John’s, but leaning more toward Catholic Christian writers.

The three lists above all have common roots. Here are some lists that are more or less independent of that tradition:

The Harvard Classics. The famous “Five-Foot Shelf” was a serious attempt to gather every important work in one set and sell them all to the upwardly-mobile as decorative accessories for the well-furnished parlor. Even today it’s not hard to find old copies of the Harvard Classics that have obviously never been read. But it was a good list, and you can read them all on line. It also has the advantage of having been compiled before the St. John’s list, which makes it unusually independent.

The Western Canon, by Alan Bloom. Not really as independent as all that, since Bloom was good friends with some of the tutors at St. John’s and was well aware of the St. John’s list. But his list is interesting and long.

Malaspina Great Books is a very long table of books, each entry with information under five categories: birth, death, period, category, and woman. (The “woman” column contains either “yes” or “no,” as appropriate. Some stunning revelations here. Who knew that “George Eliot” was a woman? I had always assumed he was just a cross-dresser. And the implication of the table that a man is in some way a failed woman is a profounder bit of philosophy than the compilers perhaps intended.) is a site presenting a curriculum designed to teach the Christian worldview through the great books.

The 100 Most Meaningful Books of All Time, selected by a poll of famous authors in 2002. It leans more heavily toward more recent books, and I suspect some of those would have already dropped off the list if you took the same poll now. But you’ll still find a large overlap with all the other lists, proving that there really are some books you just can’t get away from.

A list of colleges offering great-books programs, from the National Association of Scholars. A very large number of them are modeled on the St. John’s program.

A huge list of lists of great books.

4 Responses to “Which books are “great”?”

  1. Mike Says:

    Where’s The Grail Code?

  2. Christopher Says:

    There is “greatness,” and then there is “transcendence.”

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