The Impact of Great Books

Great Booksby Dr. John Scholl, Academic Dean and Rhetoric School Director

I recently attended the Annual Conference of the Society for Classical Learning (SCL), amidst the beautiful setting of Stone Mountain, Georgia. The conference was  encouraging, inspirational, and challenging. In this article, I would like to share some of the reflections I had about the value of reading Great Books.

The first plenary speaker was Cherie Harder; she kicked off the conference with a speech entitled “Why Read Stories? Connecting Great Books and the Good Life.” Her argument was simple: reading great books prepares you to live a good life. While fiction novels are often seen as the accoutrements of relaxation, Harder argued that the so-called “Great Books” are productive not so much for mental and physical relaxation as for training readers in wisdom. Great Books, she argued, prepare us for unexpected decisions, give us visions of courage, shine a light on injustice (consider Uncle Tom’s Cabin), and help readers to develop empathy for others.

This is high praise for the Great Books. Can they really do so much good work? During high school and college, I was particularly drawn to some of the great authors of the English language: Dickens, Conan Doyle, and Tolkien. However, it was not a quest for virtue that drove me through their books; it was simply the desire to while away a few pleasant hours. These books were fun. (Yes, ninth graders, I did read Dickens for fun; David Copperfield and Our Mutual Friend are two of my favorite books.) I certainly did not expect that such books were training me for unexpected decisions. To be sure, if I should find a piece of jewelry that gives me the power to rule the world, I now know what to do. But who finds themselves at such a crossroads?

Sometimes, it is easy for me to undervalue the impact of stories as teaching tools. But Harder made an important point: the greatest teacher in history, Jesus, taught largely through stories. This is amazing! Educators are continually speaking about the importance of discussion; if the students are talking, then they will learn better. Jesus did that; he ran group discussions with the disciples. But he also talked, quite a bit actually (consult a red-letter Bible), and telling stories was one of the most heavily-used weapons in his pedagogical arsenal.

I could easily get sidetracked here and talk about teaching strategies and Jesus’ teaching, but I want to return to the main point: Great Books teach us how to live good lives. In response to Harder’s speech, I asked myself a question: Has a Great Book informed, directly and specifically, a decision that I have made? To be clear, I do not think that Harder’s argument relies upon such a direct connection. I can learn about courage from Frodo and the gang and apply that to my life, without ever having to face Black Riders. Nonetheless, I ask myself the question as an interesting test case for the value of Great Books.

One of my favorite passages in all of literature comes from The Horse and his Boy by C.S. Lewis. The hero, Shasta, is having a moment of self-pity, bemoaning a life of misfortune, when he enters into a conversation with an unknown protagonist.

“I do not call you unfortunate,” said the Large Voice.

“Don’t you think it was bad luck to meet so many lions?” said Shasta.

“There was only one lion,” said the Voice.

“What on earth do you mean? I’ve just told you there were at least two the first night, and—”

“There was only one: but he was swift of foot.”

“How do you know?”

“I was the lion.” And as Shasta gaped with open mouth and said nothing, the Voice continued. “I was the lion who forced you to join with Aravis. I was the cat who comforted you among the houses of the dead. I was the lion who drove the jackals from you while you slept. I was the lion who gave the Horses the new strength of fear for the last mile so that you should reach King Lune in time. And I was the lion you do not remember who pushed the boat in which you lay, a child near death, so that it came to shore where a man sat, wakeful at midnight, to receive you.”

“Then it was you who wounded Aravis?”

“It was I.”

“But what for?”

“Child,” said the Voice, “I am telling you your story, not hers. I tell no one any story but their own.”

“Who are you?” asked Shasta.

“Myself,” said the voice, very deep and low so that the earth shook…

Lewis does an incredible job communicating the extent of God’s care for us. But this scene has affected me in an unexpected way. Aslan’s words, “I tell no one any story but their own,” speak to my busybody tendencies. Sometimes, I want to know what God is doing in someone else’s life and why, and then this scene comes to mind, reminding me to stay focused on what God is doing with me. This is one example of how a great story has taught me to live a good life.