Reading & Literature Contents

Great Books of the Great Discussion
1000 Good Books & 100 Great Books
A Reading Plan
Teens & the Great Books
Mythology, Fairy Tales, & Fantasy

Our thoughts offered below on the subjects of Reading and Literature are compilations and condensations of discussions we have had on the loop about the various aspects of these topics. We do not believe that this is the definitive word on these topics, but hope that they will make good starters for your own discussions.

Great Books of the Great Discussion

The Great Books of Western Civilization are at the heart of Classical Education. One of our goals as Christian homeschoolers is to educate our children in the Great Books. Why we do and How we do are coming up; first let us become familiar with what the Great Books are.

Our society is a product of Western Civilization, therefore the people in our society are also products of Western Civilization. Throughout the history of Western Civilization, there have been books written, great books written, that have shaped and defined Western Civilization. Therefore, these great books have shaped and defined our culture and those living in our culture.

These books are known as the Great Books of the Great Discussion. The Great Discussion is the expounding of our ideas about God, about man, about family, about society, and government, and what is good, and what is evil, and other important philosophical questions that man has been wrestling with from the beginning, and is still wrestling with today, and will be wrestling with in future generations. Throughout the centuries and the millenia, different writers, scientists, poets, statesmen, scholars, and theologians have, through the books they have written, contributed to the Great Discussion in a great way.

The Bible is the greatest of the Great Books, and the Old Testament is the oldest Great Book in the Great Discussion. Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey come next, and other works in the Great Discussion include Plato’s writings; The Aeneid by Virgil; The New Testament; Confessions by St. Augustine; Beowulf; Summa Theologica by Thomas Aquinas; The Divine Comedy by Dante; Shakespeare’s plays; and American Foundational Documents such as the Declaration of Independence. Two things to notice about this extremely brief list: all of the books have stood the test of time, and treat of the basic questions of man’s purpose, existence, and society with literary greatness; and very early on Christianity and the Biblical worldview have pervaded and influenced and directed the Great Discussion.

Eventually our children will be reading the Great Books of the Great Discussion. There are several reasons why we desire them to do so. Firstly, the vast majority of the books of the Great Discussion do not conflict with our Judeo-Christian heritage, but reaffirm it; as Christianity, as we have observed, has early on been the great influencer of the Great Discussion. There has been quite a bit written on the benefit of being taught by the Great Discussion. We refer you to two excellent articles to spur you on to further study of this subject: Plundering the Egyptians by Wes Callihan of Schola Classical Tutorials, and Why Classical Education by Fritz Hinrichs of Escondido Tutorial Service.

Secondly, the people in our society have been shaped by the Great Discussion, and our children want to reach those people with the gospel of Jesus Christ when they are grown. They can better reach who they know and understand. Paul approached the Greeks of Athens in this way, as Acts 17:16-17 tells:

Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was being provoked within him as he was beholding the city full of idols. So he was reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles, and in the market place every day with those who happened to be present.

In verse 28 of the same chapter Paul said to the Athenians:

For in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His offspring.’

Paul was able to use the literature of the people he was witnessing to as a tool in reaching them with the truth of the gospel, because he had studied their literature.

And thirdly, our children can have a hand at contributing to the Great Discussion for the glory of the Lord Jesus (as Augustine or C.S. Lewis have done) and impacting it for future generations, when they know and understand what has been previously said. We are sure there are other benefits as well that you will discover as you study and discuss this issue on your own.

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1000 Good Books & 100 Great Books

John Senior, in his book The Restoration of Christian Culture, advocates that before a child reads the 100 Great Books of the Great Discussion, he should read 1000 Good Books. The differences between the Great Books and the good books are:

A great book addresses the questions of the Great Discussion, and adds to that Discussion in such a way as to have an impact on Western Civilization. Therefore not only would The Bible, Homer, Milton, and Shakespeare be great, but The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin and The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx would also be great. The last two would be considered *great* because they added to the Great Discussion in a way that affected Western Civilization; not because they are right or true.

Whereas a good book, according to Mr. Senior, is one that is rich in literary style, warm and tender and humorous and virtuous, good and moral and true. Even if a battle between good and evil takes place in a good book, good is clearly shown to be right and moral and true, and evil is clearly shown to be wrong and ugly and hurtful. In a good book, good triumphs over evil. A good book emphasizes the Biblical worldview in some way (it is right to obey our parents; disaster finds us when we lie; etc.) A good book crosses age barriers to be enjoyed by all, even if it is a beginning reader such as The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss, or The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain, and Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe would all be considered good books.

According to Mr. Senior, it is necessary to read 1000 Good Books before tackling the 100 Great Books. Reading the 100 Great Books without this preparation can very easily make well-read nihilists out of our children, all knowledge without compassion and heart and morality behind that knowledge. A child encountering the various world views and social and moral codes in the Great Books won’t be led astray by them if he has been immersed in the good books first. A child is like a bank teller in this way, as a bank teller cannot be taken in by the counterfeit, because he is so overwhelmingly familiar with the real thing. And children that have been thoroughly saturated in 1000 good books before reading 100 great ones, will also not be taken in by the counterfeit ideas that show up from time to time in them, because they are so overwhelmingly familiar with the real thing.

Of course, most of the Great Books reinforce our Judeo-Christian heritage to begin with; that is one reason why they are great. There are only a very small number that actually challenge it, as Darwin and Marx do. It is important to remember that the best of the good books and the greatest of the Great Books is the Bible. Everything else should be read in addition to, but not in replacement of, it.

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A Reading Plan

To translate this theory into a reading plan for our children’s school years is not that difficult. All of us on the CE Loop feel that the first order of business is to immerse our children in the Word of God, daily and consistently. They are read the Bible before they are able to read for themselves, and then they read it on their own as well as listen to it read outloud after they are able to read for themselves. This continues as long as the children are living at home, into their high school years.

Then while our children are still babies and preschoolers, we make a habit to read good literature to them, daily and consistently, from among the 1000 good books. The books listed in the 1-3 Primary Reading Level of the 1000 Good Books List are excellent candidates for this, as are also the Read Aloud books listed in the 4-6 Elementary Reading Level of the 1000 Good Books List.

When our children begin school and learn to read, most of us continue to read outloud to them from the 1000 good books, and they also read them on their own. In using the 1000 Good Books List to help find worthy literature to read, either outloud or silently, keep in mind that the list advances in complexity according to a child’s independent reading ability.

By the time they have reached junior high school and the dialectic stage, they have had read to them and read themselves a great majority of 1000 good books. As they begin reading the 100 Great Books over the course of their junior and senior high years, we recommend they also continue reading the good books, either those listed in the 7-9 Junior Reading Level and the 10-12 Senior Reading Level, or others that they or their parents have chosen, at the same time.

What to do about literature that is merely mediocre, that is neither great nor good but not evil, either? We have all had experiences with our children wanting to read, for example, series formula books, or other mediocre literature, simply because they wanted to, or it was what their friend was reading, or for some other reason. The concensus that we arrived at when discussing this issue was that some mediocre literature won’t hurt, the operative word being “some.” But we also believe that with the wealth of truly great and good literature at our fingertips, why not saturate our children in as much of the truly worthy as possible? When feeding their bodies, while we may occasionally allow a bit of junk food, the vast lion’s share of what we give them is nourishing, healthful food. We feel the same care should be taken in feeding their minds, hearts, and imaginations as well.

A child educated in this way, first of all by being trained in the truth of God’s Word from a very early age, and then fed a steady diet of the truly good literature of Western Civilization along with the truth of God’s Word, will be strong and settled in truth and virtue, and will be very difficult to ensnare in a lie, whether that lie be found in The Origin of Species or in the morning newspaper. Not only that, but our children will have had the privilege to have been mentally, emotionally, and spiritually fed, nurtured, and taught by the greatest minds of the last 4000 years of mankind’s existance.

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Teens & the Great Books

In our society today the Great Books of Western Civilization have been relegated to the dusty halls of universities, fit only for old professors at Oxford, or at the very youngest at least, graduate students. Aren’t they too hard, deep, and dry to subject our teen children to?

Let’s suppose that we have been handed a copy of The History of Herodotus, without knowing that it was supposed to be too hard for the masses, and of course too hard for children. This is exactly what has happened with some of us on the CE Loop. When sitting down to read the engaging stories within, we have found ourselves caught up in the dramas portrayed, and our children at rapt attention. The eleven-year-old son of one of us was enthralled with Plato’s Apologia, the story of Socrates’ defense before the Athenian court on the charge that he had been corrupting the youth of Athens. After spending several weeks having it read outloud in school, he poured over it again, on his own, without being told, or forced. What had caught his imagination so? Perhaps it was the drama of the courtroom, or the logic of Socrates’ defense; or the desparation that even in the face of truth, good men have been condemned to death, when no evil had been committed; or maybe the sorrow and purity of a noble man facing an undeserved death with courage and bravery.

These children had not been told that these books were dry, dusty, or too hard, and they have been devouring them. The drama, courage, and action portrayed in Homer’s The Iliad is enough to shame any modern action movie. Our hearts swell with pride and emotion and just plain largeness everytime we read this phrase from the Declaration of Independence:

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.

There is a reason that these works are great. We submit that they have a reputation for dryness that is completely undeserved. We encourage you to tackle the Great Books with your teen children. We believe you will be pleasantly surprised.

Disclaimer: We are not trying to treat the greatest works that humankind has produced flippantly. There is much to learn from reading them. A resource that has helped so many of us in learning to read the Great Books in a way worthy of their greatness is the book, How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler. We highly recommend it for anyone desiring to read the classics.

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Mythology, Fairy Tales, & Fantasy

We have included mythology, fairy tales, and fantasy in our 1000 Good Books List, and our children read this genre of literature in our homes. Learning the Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Norse myths is a part of learning the history and culture of those civilizations that have influenced Western Civilization. We are not afraid that our children will begin believing these pagan stories to be true, as they have learned the history of the Old Testament and know the Word of God to be true long before they ever are exposed to mythology. Furthermore, carefully chosen mythology that has stood the test of time, such as Charles Kingsley’s wonderful Heroes, or Bulfinch’s The Age of Fable, exemplifies all of the qualities of good literature, having its own intrinsic value in our children’s education. Please also read the excellent article How to Handle Mythology by Rob and Cyndy Shearer of Greenleaf Press, for a more thorough treatment of this subject.

Concerning fairy tales, we agree with this excerpt taken from Honey For a Child’s Heart by Gladys Hunt:

Bruno Bettelheim, one of the world’s leading child psychologists, contends that fairy tales provide children with an invaluable education in good and evil. He believes that every child has a rich supply of personal fantasies filled with fears and anxieties and that fairy tales reassure him and offer solutions. He learns how to deal constructively with his fears. Happy endings tell him that solutions and hope are real and model the kind of happy life the child wants to find. ‘Like all great art, fairy tales both delight and instruct; their special genius is that they do so in terms which speak directly to children.’ Fairy tales, says Bettelheim, help children answer such questions as: What is the world really like? How am I to live my life in it? How can I be myself?

Some of the greatest Christian literature is in the form of fantasy. Pilgrimís Progress by John Bunyan is just such a book. The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis, rich in spiritual truth, is another example. Gladys Hunt, again in Honey for a Child’s Heart (which we highly recommend to any parent or educator) says about fantasy:

A good fantasy is not a thinly disguised moral message: it asks profound questions that develop out of the plot and the characters of the story. The word fantasy comes from the Greek and literally translated means a making visible. A proper story makes visible certain basic realities; it demonstrates options in handling lifeís situations. ... I am convinced that fantasies quicken the ability to extract and apply principles in life as readers learn to make a transfer of ideas from allegory to reality. Good literature should always make life larger.

It is important to note two things: first of all, not every fairy tale or fantasy ever written for children or adults is what we would consider “good.” We believe we have been careful in choosing those fairy tales, fantasy, and mythology in our 1000 Good Books List that we do consider to be exceptional. Secondly, mythology, fairy tales and fantasy do not comprise the lion’s share of our children’s literature, but it is included along with fiction, historical fiction, biography, poetry, histories, and non-fiction. The balance of all these genres of literature helps our children develop into well-rounded persons, with keen and inquisitive minds and rich imaginations.

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