For this reason, I wonder how we can go about encouraging those “naughty” boys who at least learn their poetry and know in their bones what friendship, mirth, betrayal, danger, and courage are.
In short, should we not defend those naughty boys and girls, who are not really naughty, but still visibly filled with the eternally youthful wonder that sustains us through life? Such naughtiness may be our best hope for finding the future custodians of the great books and the whole of our civilization.
A Good Culture will need Civilized Readers… like John Senior
Crisis dedicates a weekly column to exploring just such works as would delight a naughty boy and help make him good and whole—the Civilized Reader. These works are necessary not just for boys and girls, of course, but for all of us throughout our lives.
There is much more that can be said, but let me instead introduce one of the greatest advocates for the great and good books, John Senior.
The following essay by John Senior was handed down and circulated by students of the Intergrated Humanities Program (or Pearson College), The University of Kansas, over many years. A version is placed at the end of Senior’s book, The Death of Christian Culture, which was published by IHS Press in 2008.
The text below has been checked against the IHS Press version. It includes a few more things, however—namely some of Senior’s thoughts on spiritual reading, art and music.
When asked about the discrepancy, one of Senior’s students commented that it was never clear from the original manuscript which he had whether this was Senior’s version or something compiled by his colleagues, Dennis Quinn and Frank Nelick. As the former student said, it does not matter, for among friends, who can truly distinguish the origin of ideas?
The essay is used with the kind permission of Andrew Senior and IHS Press. I would like to thank David Whalen, Kirk Kramer, and Fred Fraser for their help in producing this version of the essay.
Senior’s list was the inspiration behind starting the Civilized Reader, which reviews the good and the great books.
The notes and manner of setting down the titles in the list are Senior’s own.
“The Thousand Good Books” by John Senior
The “Great Books” movement of the last generation has not failed so much as fizzled, not because of any defect in the books—“the best that has been thought and said,” in Matthew Arnold’s phrase—but like good champagne in plastic bottles they went flat. To change the figure, the seeds 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 into 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. The brutal athlete and the foppish aesthete suffer vices opposed to the virtue of what Newman called “the gentleman.” Anyone working in any art or science at college, whether in the so-called “pure” or the practical arts and sciences will discover he has a made a quantum leap when he gets even a small amount of cultural ground under him—he will grow up like an undernourished plant suddenly fertilized and watered.
Of course the distinction between “great” and “good” is not absolute. “Great” implies a certain magnitude; one might say War and Peace or Les Miserables are great because of their length, or The Critique of Pure Reason its difficulty. Great books call for philosophical reflection; whereas good books are popular, appealing especially to the imagination. But obviously some writers are both and their works may be read more than once from the different points of view – this is true of Shakespeare and Cervantes, for example.