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What's So Great About Great Books?

Contributing Author: Dr. Adam J. Johnson, Associate Professor of Theology in the Torrey Honors Institute of Biola University

I have the vaguest memories of great books from my high school English classes. Some Shakespeare sonnets and maybe a play or two (was it Romeo and Juliet?). A snippet from some Roman story where a guy takes off his helmet (in retrospect, that was a famous scene from Virgil’s Aeneid) . . . The works meant nothing to me, they didn’t move or excite me or compel me to think new and rich thoughts. I simply read them dutifully because I was a diligent student. Rather, I was moved by the Inklings: the Narnia series, The Lord of the Rings, and the Ransom Trilogy.

My second memory of the great books was an invitation, via phone call, to study in the Torrey Honors College at Biola University. I was deeply compelled by the prospect of reading, discussing, and writing papers with like-minded friends and mentors – of avoiding tests and busywork. But the actual reading list meant nothing to me. I looked through my dad’s shelves and found a single book from the reading list: Plato’s Republic. I remember the cover, the feel of the pages, I remember where I read it (in a doctor’s office), and of trying to follow the argument, the images and distinctions. I was in a new world. It was my first entry into the pain and challenge of reading something hard – something too difficult for me, something both exciting and intimidating, something that invited me into a more complex and nuanced world than I had known so far.

The rest of my life has been one devoted to the great books (not exclusively, of course: I also am a parent, a woodworker, and an avid reader of other kinds of books), but both personally and professionally the majority of my time reading is spent with the great books – particularly theological classics. At present, for instance, I am reading one of the greatest sixth century biblical commentaries: Gregory the Great’s Morals on Job.

But what is a “great book”? Simply put, great books are those works throughout history that have been so powerful and formative that a majority of authors have found themselves writing and thinking by means of, in response to, or over and against these books. If one were to make a genealogy of which books influenced which books, an intellectual family tree, the myriad of leaves fairly quickly connect to small and then larger branches, and finally to a recognizable trunk that supports the whole plant. The trunk consists of those books which have influenced more authors, politicians, leaders, and teachers than any other books. And as it turns out, this trunk isn’t that difficult to discern.

Of course, we all enjoy fighting about the details about which Shakespeare play is the greatest, or whether Machiavelli’s The Prince really belongs, or whether we should have our students read a second work by Cicero or perhaps Milton’s Paradise Regained instead . . . but there is no doubt that the works of Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, the Bible, Augustine, Dante, Aquinas and others form a recognizable core that has had a radical and clearly traceable influence on Western civilization.

But that line of thought merely begs the question: why were these books so influential, and why should we continue to read them? This brings us to a second kind of “greatness,” distinct but related to the greatness of traceable influence. These books are great because they introduced the most powerful and compelling intellectual tools into our culture. Read W.E.B. Du Bois or Frederick Douglas, or watch Ken Burns’ documentary “College Behind Bars.” Watch as those in bondage (whether literal or cultural) begin to be equipped with the riches of Western intellectual culture. A dead end becomes a host of possibilities. Boredom becomes opportunity. Freedom becomes a gift, rather than oppressive. The most powerful things in culture are not physical. They are not swords, guns, bricks or mortar. They are spiritual. They are intellectual. They are the terms, distinctions, premises and stories with which we navigate life, make decisions, understand our place and what our lives are about. Give a culture gold, and it will be gone in a generation; give a culture Aristotle, and it will soon have gold.

Behind this, of course, stands claims that the universe is intelligible, and ideas are powerful, true and reliable ways of accessing reality; all because of a yet greater kind of greatness. God is faithful, true and consistent, and therefore made a creation which is in His image. Ultimately the great books are not merely powerful tools – they are tools suited to that with which they are designed to work: a good and intelligible creation, made by a good and loving Creator, who wants to share Himself and His creation with us. The greatness of these books is an attempt, a rich and fruitful attempt, to comprehend the great, sublime, unified, complex, harmonious and ever-rich creation of God, and the source of this creation: God himself.

And why should we read these books? Why read Galileo when we can read modern astronomy, or Shakespeare when we have Christopher Nolan? On the one hand, culture progresses – it moves by little steps and jumps to insights and possibilities that it previously couldn’t imagine. But most of these changes are constrained to the world of technology – to tools that help us do things better, though mostly just faster. But what about the thing itself? The thing we are supposed to do faster with technology? The truly human thing? That does not change. To understand, to contemplate, to savor, to relate, to pursue friendship and virtue, to worship . . . Technology doesn’t touch these things. They are basic human enterprises. And the great books are so great, they are so rich in introducing us to the great things of life, and the great things of God, that I find they have more to teach us than any other works. They are great because they remain great – they transcend the limitations of the eras in which they were written, but guide us to an understanding of the fundamental things of life better than any other books, any other tools.

  • Dr. Adam J. Johnson serves as Associate Professor of Theology in the Torrey Honors Institute of Biola University. He is the author of many books and publications. He has studied widely in many schools and universities to include the Oxford Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies in the United Kingdom. Dr. Johnson is also a previous contributor to Flourishing

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