Why Read the Great Books?

By Karl Schudt, OGB Seminar Host

When you begin reading the Great Books, family and friends may be puzzled. They will see you toting around huge books, taking notes, and gazing off thoughtfully into the void. It might even look like school. Why would you do this? Why would you pay money to do this?

Greg, one of our members, was questioned by a coworker. “Why are you reading Thucydides at lunch?” He asked us on our OGB slack channel. We have an active community of readers, friends who help each other work through the texts. Our members gave great reasons for why they read with us, and I’ve compiled them for you. Perhaps you’ll join us too?

Some members read great books for self-improvement. They aren’t satisfied with their current intellectual life and wish to make a change. Jonathan was going through a tough period in his life, and thought that becoming an improved version of himself was just what he needed. He says “I’m not the smartest guy around, but I feel like I can hold my own in a conversation with anybody now.”

Others expressed dissatisfaction with their own ability to think about the most important topics. Everett says “My own answers aren’t good enough, and I’m not the only one who has asked these questions.” David echoes this thought, saying that the great books are like a cheat code to a video game: “hearing the best arguments made by the best thinkers of all time is a bit of a shortcut to your own understanding.”

There’s a benefit inherent in the difficulty. Doing hard things makes you better. Ethan says that it’s like lifting weights for your brain. If you have any ambition to think better, this sort of activity is essential. Matthew says “You won’t get the best out of yourself by reading the average.”

For some of us, myself included, there’s a bit of rebellion in the casual way the world accepts mediocrity. Joshua is “tired of living in a vapid theme park.” Reading Plato, Aristotle, and Shakespeare will definitely give some color to your world. Colin likes the challenge of doing things that nobody else can do. He wants to be an elite. Reading these books is a calling, a challenge to join the intellectual battle of the ages. Joshua says “taking on these thinkers is a bit like enlisting; I’ve stepped into the fray.” Michelle appreciates the prosperity and freedom that she has and thinks it is worth preserving: “I want to better understand the world I have inherited and do my part to defend it.” This is reading as heroism.

Several members spoke of a desire to join the Great Conversation that Adler and Hutchins talk about. Derek wants to be a part of the stream of thought that’s been going on for generations. Christopher says that it’s part of his heritage as a Westerner. This makes it a matter of filial piety. If you respect your ancestors, you ought to read what they thought. Matt wants to know where all of our sayings and notions have come from. “There is truly nothing new under the sun. It was all done a long time ago and we have been on repeat ever since.”

John’s mother told him that “the day that you die is the day that you stop learning.” He’s a good son, and joined OGB to fill what he calls “the gaping hole” in his education. Joseph started reading to understand a business setback but discovered that the business and financial books didn’t complete the job. Something was missing, and he’s found that the books of the canon are helping him to fill the gaps. “I have a new appreciation of art and literature because of their relation to these books.”

Harold Bloom is suspicious of any moral benefit of the books, but thinks “all that the Western Canon can bring one is the proper use of one’s own solitude, that solitude whose final form is one’s confrontation with one’s own mortality.” Time is fleeting, and do you really have time to read bad books? Kevin had a boss who only read classics, and upon asking why, was told that “he only had 15-20 more years to read, so he wanted to use that time to read the best books.” Our esteemed founder Scott Hambrick echoes this: he doesn’t have time to read “filler”. A consideration of one’s mortality can bring changes. I haven’t watched a football game in years, and it’s not just that I’ve lost interest in the game. I can’t spare the time!

Matt makes the very necessary point that this sort of reading is fun. “I think reading is better than most other forms of entertainment that currently exist.” I agree. It’s not an easy pleasure. It’s a hard pleasure that is nevertheless worth doing. The Iliad may be hard to get through (although it’s not that hard–certainly easier than watching hours of Breaking Bad), but getting to sit with Priam and Achilles in Book XXIV is worth it.

Other members love the community. It’s a great benefit of the internet that those of us who are inclined to read great books can find each other. True friendship, as Aristotle says, is based on a shared vision of the good. We at Online Great Books are already friends before we meet. Ethan and Ian have been able to meet up with other members in real life, and have built fellowship. Jason points out, however, that the books are also our friends. “The books we are reading are the most active members of this growing, noble fellowship.”

Matthew adds an allegorical and mystical note. In a complicated and convoluted world, the books can be a guide. We can look “at this great conversation as the thread that Theseus used to escape the Minotaur’s Labyrinth.” For us the thread starts with Iliad and winds through almost three thousand years of our best thinking. If you had such a golden thread, why wouldn’t you follow it?

You can join us at OnlineGreatBooks.com.


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