John Senior and “The Thousand Good Books”

By Scott Hambrick, Reader-In-Chief

If you’ve been asking, “How do I get children to read the Great Books?” John Senior gives us the answer. The answer is you don’t. They aren’t ready yet. They need the 1,000 good books first.

One of the finest educators in the Great Books movement was Dr. John Senior. He, with a few others, founded the Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas in the 1960s. The program was discontinued long, long ago. I believe it was discontinued BECAUSE it was so successful, but will discuss that in a future post.

Senior, probably more than Adler, saw the many obstacles to modern folk learning from these books. He believed that we needed to be fertilized with good books and stories, steeped in Western culture, in order to best approach the great books. In his book “The Restoration of Christian Culture” he outlines how play, work, folkways, food, and more can help us learn from the world around us. He said, “the seeds (the Great Books) are good but the cultural soil has been depleted; the seminal ideas of Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Thomas, only properly grow in an imaginative ground saturated with fables, fairy tales, stories, rhymes, adventures, which have developed in the thousand books of Grimm, Andersen, Stevenson, Dickens, Scott, Dumas, and the rest. Western tradition, taking all that was best of the Greco-Roman world into herself has given us the thousand good books as a preparation for the great ones and for all the studies in the arts and sciences, without which such studies are inhumane.”

To best set our kids on the path of the great books:

1. Have the 1,000 good books in the home.
2. Find nineteenth-century editions with the excellent illustrations you’ll find in that era.
3. Read them!

“The Thousand Good Books” by John Senior

THE NURSERY (Ages 2 – 7)

Literary experience begins for very young children with someone reading aloud while they look at the pictures. But they can begin to read the simplest stories which they already love at an early age.

Aesop. Aesop’s Fables (The translation by Robert L’Estrange is the classic).
Andersen, Hans Christian. Fairy Tales. Arabian Nights. There are two classic translations, one expurgated for children by Andrew Lang, the other complete by Richard Burton.
Belloc, Hilaire. The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts; Cautionary Tales. 

Caldecott, Randolph. Picture Books, 16 little volumes (published by Frederick Warne).
Carroll, Lewis. Alice in Wonderland; Through the Looking Glass. Illustrated by Tenniel.
Collodi, Carlo. Pinocchio. 

de la Mare, Walter. Come Hither; Songs of Childhood.
Edgeworth, Maria. The Parent’s Assistant; Moral Tales.
Ewing, Juliana. Jackanapes. Gesta Romanorum. Translated by Swann (scholarly facsimiles).
Grahame, Kenneth. Wind in the Willows (illustrated by Ernest Shepherd).
Greenaway, Kate. Apple Pie; Birthday Book; Marigold Garden; Mother Goose; Under the Window; The Language of Flowers (Frederick Warne).
Grimm. Household Stories. Illustrated by Walter Crane (Dover facsimiles).
Harris, Joel Chandler. Uncle Remus.
Kingsley, Charles. Water Babies.
Kipling, Rudyard. Just So Stories; Jungle Book. 

Lamb, Charles. Beauty and the Beast; Tales from Shakespeare.
Lang, Andrew. Blue Book of Fairies and other colors; five volumes; best illustrated by H.J. Ford (Dover facsimile).
Lear, Edward. Nonsense Omnibus; The Owl and the Pussycat. Illustrated by Lear (Warne).
Lofting, Hugh. Dr. Doolittle’s Circus and others in the series.
Milne, A.A.. Winnie the Pooh and others in the series. Mother Goose (Dover facsimiles – illustrated by Rackham; Viking Press).
Perrault, Charles. Fairy Tales. Illustrated by Dore (Dover).
Potter, Beatrix: Peter Rabbit and 23 little volumes; some available in French, Spanish and Latin. All illustrated by Potter (an important feature of these books is their small size, designed for a young child. Buy the individual books, not all of them collected in one big volume).

Stevenson, Robert Louis. A Child’s Garden of Verses (Scribners).

SCHOOL DAYS (Ages 7 – 12)

Adams, Andy. Log of a Cowboy. Illustrated by N.C. Wyeth.
Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women; Little Men; others.
Aldrich, Thomas Bailey. Story of a Bad Boy.
Burroughs, Edgar Rice. Tarzan series.
Browning, Robert. The Pied Piper of Hamelin. Illustrated by Kate Greenaway (Warne).
Burnett, Francis Hodgson. The Secret Garden; Little Lord Fauntleroy.
Collins, William. John Gilpin’s Ride. Illustrated by Caldecott (Warne).
Cooper, James Fenimore. Deerslayer and many others.
Dana, Richard Henry. Two Years Before the Mast.
Dickens, Charles. Christmas Carol; Cricket on the Hearth; David Copperfield; Oliver Twist (These last may be reserved for adolescents or re-read.)
Dodge, Mary Mapes. Hans Brinker.
Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe.
Garland, Hamlin. Son of the Middle Border and others.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Tanglewood Tales.
Henty, George William. A hundred “Boys Books”
Irving, Washington. Sketch Book.
James, Will. Smoky; Lone Cowboy; Book of Cowboys Illustrated by James.
Kingsley, Charles. Westward Ho, others
Kipling, Rudyard. Captains Courageous; Stalky and Co. Illustrated by Millar.
Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. Hiawatha; Evangeline.
Marryat, Frederick, Midshipman Easy; Masterman Ready, and others.
Masefield, John. Jim Davis.
Porter, Gene Stratton. Freckles and others.
Pyle, Howard. Robin Hood and others. Illustrated by Pyle.
Sewell, Anna. Black Beauty.
Shakespeare. Comedy of Errors.
Spyri, Johanna. Heidi.
Stevenson, Robert Louis. Treasure Island; Kidnapped, and others. Illustrated by N.C. Wyeth
Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Tarkington, Booth. Penrod and others in the series Til Eulenspiegel translated by Mackenzie.
Twain, Mark. Tom Sawyer; Huckleberry Finn; The Prince and the Pauper – but not Connecticut Yankee and later novels.
Verne, Jules. Around the World in Eighty Days; and many others.
Wilder, Laura Ingalls. Little House on the Prairie; and others.
Wyss, Johann. Swiss Family Robinson.

ADOLESCENCE (Ages 12 – 16)

Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights.
Collins, Wilkie. Moonstone and others.
Dampier, William. A Voyage Round the World.
Daudet, Alphonse. Tartarin, Fromont Jeune.
Dickens, Charles. Barnaby Rudge; Nicholas Nickleby; Old Curiosity Shop.
Doyle, Arthur Conan. Sherlock Holmes series; White Company.
Du Maurier, George. Trilby.
Dumas, Alexander. Three Musketeers; others.
Eggleston, Edward. The Hoosier Schoolmaster.
Eliot, George. Romola; Adam Bede; Mill on the Floss.
Fabre, Henri. Selections from Souvenirs entymologique.
Hughes, Thomas. Tom Brown’s School Days; Tom Brown at Oxford.
Hugo, Victor. Quatre-vingt-treize; Les Miserables; Hunchback of Notre-Dame.
Ibanez, Blasco. Blood and Sand; Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Le Sage, Alain. Gil Blas.
Park, Mungo. Travels in Africa.
Parkman, Francis. Oregon Trail.
Poe, Edgar Allen. Tales; and poems.
Polo, Marco. Travels.
Reade, Charles. The Cloister and the Hearth.
Rhodes, Eugene. Best Novels and Stories (edited by Dobie).
Scott, Walter. Ivanhoe; Rob Roy; many others.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein.
Shakespeare. Midsummer Night’s Dream; Romeo and Juliet; Merchant of Venice.
Sienkiewicz, Henryk. Quo Vadis; With Fire and Sword.
Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels.
Wallace, Edgar. Four Just Men; Sanders of the River; others.
Wells, H.G.. The Time Machine; The Invisible Man; others.
Wister, Owen. The Virginian.

YOUTH (Ages 16 – 20)

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice; and others.
Balzac, Honore. Pere Goriot; and many others.
Bellamy, Edward. Looking Backward.
Bernanos, Georges. Diary of a Country Priest.
Blackmore, Richard. Lorna Doone; and others.
Borrow, George. Romany Rye; and others.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre.
Buchanan, John. The Thirty Nine Steps; and many others.
Butler, Samuel. The Way of all Flesh; Erewhon.
Cabell, James Branch. Jurgen; and others.
Cable, George Washington. Old Creole Days; and others.
Cather, Willa. My Antonia; Death Comes for the Archbishop; and others.
Chekhov, Anton. Stories; and plays.
Chesterton, G.K.. Father Brown series; Everlasting Man; A Man Called Thursday
Columbus, Christopher. Four Voyages to the New World.
Conrad, Joseph. Lord Jim; and many others
Cook, James. Captain Cook’s Explorations.
De Maupassant, Guy. Stories.
Dickens, Charles. Bleak House; Our Mutual Friend; Martin Chuzzlewit.
Dostoyevsky, Feodor. Crime and Punishment; Brothers Karamazov.
Doughty, Charles. Travels in Arabia Desert.
Fielding, Henry. Tom Jones; Jonathan Wilde
Hakluyt, Richard. Voyages to the New World.
Hawkins, Anthony Hope. The Prisoner of Zenda.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Scarlet Letter; and others.
Irving, Washington. Life of Columbus; Conquest of Granada; Life of George Washington Jackson,
Helen Hunt. Ramona.
Lagerof, Selma. Jerusalem; Gosta Berling; and others.
Loti, Pierre. Iceland Fisherman; and others.
Manzoni., Alessandro. The Betrothed.
Melville, Herman. Moby Dick; Billy Budd; and others.
Moore, Tom. Lalla Rookh.
Morris, William. News from Nowhere.
Scott, Robert. Scott’s Last Expedition
Shakespeare. Macbeth; Hamlet; Taming of the Shrew; As You Like It.
Stendahl. The Red and the Black; The Charterhouse of Parma.
Stanley, Henry Morton. How I Found Livingstone.
Thackeray, William Makepeace. Vanity Fair; Henry Esmond; and others.
Tolstoy, Leo. War and Peace; and others.
Trollope, Anthony. Barchester series
Turgenev, Ivan. Fathers and Sons; A Nest of Gentlefolk; and others.
Undset, Sigrid. Kristin Lavransdatter; and others.
Verga, Giovanni. The House by the Medlar Tree; and others (translated by D.H. Lawrence)
Washington, Booker T. Up from Slavery.


The Bible. For cultural purposes, there are only two English Bibles: for the Protestants the King James Version and for Catholics the Douay-Rheims. Both are literary masterpieces as none other even remotely is. Since spiritual mysteries can only be communicated through poetry, whatever more modern versions may gain in accuracy is nothing compared to what is lost.
Bunyan, John. Pilgrim’s Progress—the Great Protestant Masterpiece. de Sales, St Francis. Introduction to the Devout Life—the best there is.


Avoiding extremes of difficult and light—neither Bach nor Debussy—the distinction between “great” and good is blurred. The student should listen to one work only for at least a week, going over and over the separate movements or acts until the repeated themes are recognized as they recur. It is better to know a very few works very well than to run over vast amounts. The following is a good order for neophytes:

Beethoven. Violin Concerto.
Beethoven. Pastoral Symphony.
Verdi. Rigoletto.

With an opera, read the entire libretto in English, then take only a single scene and play it through several times trying to follow the words in Italian (or French or German) with an understanding of their meaning. Having gone through the whole opera scene by scene, pick out great moments – arias, duets, etc. It is good to have two recordings, one of the complete work, another of the highlights.

Puccini. La Boheme
Mozart. Clarinet Concerto or Oboe Concerto; Jupiter Symphony;
Piano music (especially as played by Gieserking)
Beethoven. Seventh Symphony.
Brahms. Fourth Symphony.
Chopin: Selections.
(Most important: Students should attend live concerts).


The Kenneth Clark series Civilization. Clark published a book with illustrations and the text of the series. And most important, visits to museums and galleries.




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  1. Sean Hickey

    Thank You. Thank You. Thank You. Thank You.

    I have been compiling my own list and ‘shooting in the dark’ trying to come up with a canon for teaching my own kids. I have asked friends, searched online, asked bookstore owners and librarians for a text that outlined a path kids could build on. An example I used when looking for it was if I throw ‘Crime and Punishment’ at them when they are 18 will they have the soil for it to take root in.

    Nobody had suggested “The Restoration of Christian Culture”, it is exactly what I have been looking for.

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  5. William Keevers

    Children are capable of understanding Bach, if they are exposed early enough, it is the adults who are past the developmental window for easy comprehension, adults shouldn’t limit children’s development because of their own limitations. Excellent, quite comprehensible Bach works are The Goldberg Variations and The B Minor Mass.

    Regarding the singing scene of the now-classic African-American hymn “His Eye Is On The Sparrow” in the 1952 film “Member of the Wedding” With Ethel Waters as Bernice Sadie Brown; Julie Harris as Frankie Addams; and Brandon De Wilde as John Henry.

    Children who were daily exposed to fine singing quickly themselves became proficient at it in own their turn, in the absence of culturally corrosive social media devices–they had to meet the Muse in the first person. Prior to the rise of electronic media (radio, 1923, talkies, 1929), everyday singing was the default cultural condition, a widespread social habit more ingrained than just a hobby, a full dimension of interpersonal life completely atrophied today. Part-harmonization was then the daily social habit of millions. The actors in “Member of the Wedding” didn’t need to be specially coached to sing beautifully, because they were just exercising the customary cultural habit, that nearly everyone except the deaf or the tone-deaf practiced, singing impromptu in groups, a vastly expansive music club rather than a concert. The film clip is an accurate, nostalgic echo of the daily experience of the common people, casually repeated in dozens of old films, portraying the disappearing legacy of the once-routine habits of legions of real people who had actively, spontaneously, habitually made quality, casual vocal music as part of their ordinary cultural lives, in the period before the dominance of portable, transistor radios.

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