What do I mean by “the great books’?

Another post on the substacks!

The most common question I get when telling people I’m writing about the Great Books is “What do you mean by ‘The Great Books’?”

It’s a question I initially found confusing and perplexing. I’m like, “you know, Aristotle and Plato and Shakespeare and Milton and all the super-classics that you hear about but never read. “

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But some people have no idea what I’m talking about. They’re like…”mmm…okay?” This room just does not exist in their brain. They never had any concept of “Western Civilization” or “The Great Conversation” or even “The Canon”. They understand that some books are old and were held to be quite important, but the notion of a concatenation of all the great authors from throughout time and space, all in conversation with each other, is not something they understand. Nor are they familiar with the idea that you can overhear and eventually participate in this conversation.

That’s the first reaction. The second reaction I sometimes get, equally puzzling, is that they want to know what books I specifically mean. What books am I talking about? What are their names?

This is more understandable, but it’s also a bit perplexing. Like, do the details really matter? You can quibble about the names, but I’d think any reader could draw up a list of Old White Guys in about twenty minutes: Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, Herodotus, Cicero, St. Augustine, Descartes, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Milton, Austen, the Brontes, Dickens, Whitman, Melville, Dickinson, Tolstoy, Gogol, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Rousseau, Flaubert, Voltaire, Stendhal, Balzac, Henry James, Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, Faulkner, Hemingway. That’s about a third of them, and I listed them in ninety seconds.

When I talk about the Great Books I’m generally not that concerned with the specifics, and more with the difference between these books and the contemporary books we normally see discussed in review pages and book clubs. But people insist on wanting to know the specifics. Partly, I think, for racial and gender equity reasons: out of the folx I listed, I think there are five women. And all are Western. My definition for the Great Books includes a lot of non-Western works, but it’s still heavily tilted towards the male and the West. To me that’s implicit in the idea of the Great Books. You can’t really make them diverse and representative, because we’ve only preserved written literature from a few societies, and in most of those societies women had structural disadvantages that prevented them from writing great literature and prevented their literature, even when it was great, from being preserved.

But getting all these questions has made me realize I really do need to be more specific about exactly which books I mean.

<Essay continued after the link>

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