Saturday, October 26, 2013

Categories of Books to be Filled

Great Books KC strives for a balanced approach, while adhering to our general criteria for great works of literature (see What Makes a Book Great.)

There are several categories we like to cover in the course of a year:

Re-reading books we have read before
One of the hallmarks of the Great Books is that they are worth RE-reading. Each year, we include one excellent selection that we have read more than a year previously.

A selection from the Bible.
One of the two major sources of the Western tradition, Biblical literature holds a central place in our reading program.

A selection from the Greeks
The other major source of the Western tradition.

A selection from Shakespeare
Central to the Western tradition, Shakespeare is only second to the Bible and the Greeks because he came later than they did. Had he come earlier, he would probably equal or exceed Homer in primacy.

A work of poetry

A non-Western selection
There are a wealth of Great Books from non-Western sources. We give ourselves the opportunity to learn from them.

A selection by a female author

A recent (1900-1950) selection

A shorter work

A longer work
We set aside the three summer months, each year, to tackle one longer, more ambitious work.

These categories are open to adjustment. If there are categories you believe should be added, or if you think some of these should be omitted, please share your perspective.

What Makes a Great Book

What makes a Great Book...well, great?

This is a topic of some controversy, especially when it comes to listing the Great Books in any sort of a “canon.” Everyone has their own list, which will not be exactly the same as anyone else’s list. Differences notwithstanding, there are certain works which will appear on most lists—few would dispute that Homer, the Bible, Plato, Aristotle, and Shakespeare make the cut.

One of the most well-known (and—again—controversial) endeavors in list-building is Mortimer J. Adler’s ""Great Books of the Western World," published in 1952 and revised in 1990. Adler’s list is controversial because it focuses exclusively on Western literature, which for a variety of historical and sociological reasons is dominated by male authors of European ancestry. To be fair, Adler did call his catalog "Great Books of the Western World" (as opposed to "Great Books of the World," which might have made a big difference.) A more recent effort in this vein is Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon.

The increasingly egalitarian and global society that has developed since the end of World War II has focused attention on the works of excellent authors who may have been overlooked or neglected due to cultural bias. This has provided an even richer and deeper field from which to choose when selecting candidates for the Great Books.

More useful than attempts at compiling exhaustive lists are efforts to define the criteria by which great works can be identified. Perhaps the single most useful criterion is still the one everyone learns in high school when discussing what makes a classic:

Great Books have stood the test of time.

What this means, exactly, is open to debate—is the “test of time” 50 years? Is it 100 years? Answers will vary—but the underlying concern is separating works of transient interest from those of lasting value. Often this can only be accomplished with confidence when enough time has passed to make it obvious which works have, in fact, lasted.

Anne Perez, in the Winter 1999 edition of the online quarterly "Teaching Great Books," discusses the specific criteria used by Adler when compiling the list for "Great Books of the Western World:"

Great Books are pertinent to contemporary life.
Great Books are worth rereading.
Great Books contain “great ideas.”
Great Books make some sort of impression and/or change in civilization.

Finally, Perez adds a criterion of her own:

Great Books must never forget the complexity of the human spirit.

The meanings of these criteria are open to debate, and the criteria are not exhaustive. Determining appropriate criteria may prove as contentious as attempting to list the Great Books themselves. Thinking deeply and seriously about what makes a work “great,” however, is another treasure of a rich literary tradition.

List of Books Read in Previous Years

Here is a running list of the books we have read in previous years:


Silence, by Shusaku Endo
Native Son, by Richard Wright
A Good Man is Hard to Find, by Flannery O’Connor
Selected song lyrics by Bob Dylan
Cymbeline, by Shakespeare
Palace Walk (Cairo Triology), by Naguib Mahfouz
Palace of Desire (Cairo Triology), by Naguib Mahfouz
Sugar Street (Cairo Triology), by Naguib Mahfouz
The Prayer of Azariah and Song of the Three Holy Children, Susanna, and Bel and the Dragon
Fear and Trembling, by Soren Kierkegaard
Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius


If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, a translation by Anne Carson
Dream of the Red Chamber(also titled
Hónglóu Mèng (紅樓夢)), by Cao Xueqin
The Vicar of Wakefield, by Goldsmith
The Cross, by Sigrid Undset
The Wife, by Sigrid Undset
The Wreath, by Sigrid Undset
The Book of Ruth, from the Bible
Look Homeward, Angel, by Thomas Wolfe
The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath
Selected Poems, by Gwendolyn Brooks
Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 by Shakespeare


Njáls Saga (part of Sagas of Icelanders)
Bhagavad Gita
The Nature of Things, by Lucretius
The Mansion, Vol. 3 of Snopes Triology, by William Faulkner
The Town, Vol. 2 of Snopes Trilogy, by William Faulkner
The Hamlet, Vol. 1 of Snopes Trilogy, by William Faulkner
King Lear, by Shakespeare
East of Eden, by John Steinbeck
Book of Esther, from the Bible
Sonnets from the Portuguese, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Letter from a Birmingham Jail, by Martin Luther King


Snow Country, by Yasunari Kawabata
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
The Future of an Illusion, by Sigmund Freud
Ulysses, by James Joyce
Ulysses, by James Joyce
Ulysses, by James Joyce
A Winter's Tale, by Shakespeare
The Song of the Lark, by Willa Cather
Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe
Song of Solomon, from the Bible
Oedipus at Colonus, by Sophocles


The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Medea by Euripides
On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
One Thousand and One Nights (covered in three meetings)
As You Like It by William Shakespeare
Genesis from the Bible
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf


Gospel of Mark from the Bible
Epic of Gilgamesh
Anthony & Cleopatra, by William Shakespeare
The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas (covered in three meetings)
Idylls of the King, Alfred Lord Tennyson
Tao te Ching, Lao-tsu
Symposium, Plato
Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry
Catch 22, Joseph Heller


The Federalist Papers, by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay
Notes from the Underground, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Ecclesiastes, from the Bible
Plutarch's Lives, by Plutarch (covered in three meetings)
Candide, by Voltaire
Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, tr. Edward FitzGerald
Taming of the Shrew, by William Shakespeare
and the movie, “10 Things I Hate About You”
The Odyssey, by Homer
The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton


Beowulf, by anonymous 
Selected Poems, by various English authors 
The Art of War, by Sun Tzu 
War and Peace, by Tolstoy (covered in three meetings)
The Tempest, by Shakespeare 
Revelation, (from the bible) 
Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell 
Revelations of Divine Love, by Julian of Norwich 
The Peloponnesian War, by Thucydides 


A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
King Lear, William Shakespeare
In A Grove, Ryunosuke Akutagawa
Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman
Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
Job (from Hebrew Scriptures)
The Iliad, Homer (2nd time for the group)
Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte


Twelfth Night, by William Shakespeare
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriett Beecher Stowe
Sister Carrie, by Theodore Dreiser
Emma, by Jane Austen
Fathers and Sons, Ivan Turgenev
The Koran
The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner
Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
Prometheus Bound, Aeschylus


The Winter’s Tale, by William Shakespeare
The Sayings of Confucius, by Confucius
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce
The Divine Comedy, by Dante (covered in three meetings)
Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather 
The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
The Sonnets, by William Shakespeare
Lord of the Flies, by William Golding 


Bleak House, by Charles Dickens
Democracy In America, by Alexis de Tocqueville
On the Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin
Middlemarch, by George Eliot
Moby Dick, by Herman Melville 


Paradise Lost, by John Milton
The Republic, by Plato
The Epic of Gilgamesh
The Pentateuch
The Alhambra, by Washington Irving 


The Aeneid by Virgil
Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes
Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe
The Odyssey, by Homer
Queen Margot by Alexandre Dumas
The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy
The Iliad, by Homer

Links to Definition of Classics of Literature

Below are some interesting links to check out about the definition of classics of literature.  They are by a blogger who calls herself "MidnightFaerie."  Her definition of a classic is not followed by our group, but it's interesting to compare her definition with our posting of "What Makes a Book Great?"

Definitions of a Classic

Lists of Classics

Information about the blogger named "MidnightFaerie."

Link to our group's discussion of "What Makes a Book Great."