Reading the great books takes a lot of effort. Studying masterpieces such as the Odyssey or the works of Shakespeare requires more concentration than picking up a Tom Clancy novel. But, the payoffs can be tremendous.
If you’re not sold on starting a reading plan, consider the benefits that reading great literature can bring to your life. Here are 10 ways reading these books can have a real impact on who you are and how you think:
1. Understand what shapes your thoughts and beliefs. Whether you’re conscious of it or not, chances are your belief system is based on social norms that have evolved through centuries of history. What you think are independent ideas may very well be philosophies created by the great thinkers of previous generations. Robert M. Hutchins, Editor in Chief of the Great Books of the Western World, explained it this way:
“These books are the means of understanding our society and ourselves. They contain the great ideas that dominate us without our knowing it. There is no comparable repository in our tradition.”
Consider your thoughts on subjects such as romantic love, truth, democracy, and freedom. Are your ideas your own? Or are your thoughts dominated by an outside cultural influence? By reading the great books, you can see how ideas developed over time and be aware of how they affect you now. You may choose to accept or reject the current way of thinking. But, either way you will become cognizant that it is a choice and gain the agency to make a decision for yourself.
2. Let a little genius rub off on you. When I was growing up, my parents always reminded me to choose my friends carefully. “You are who you associate with,” some say. Perhaps the same is true of books. The great books were written by some of the best minds in history. By reading them, your own mind can expand and your thoughts reach a higher plane. Sir Richard Livingston said:
“We are tied down, all our days and for the greater part of our days, to the commonplace. This is where contact with great thinkers, great literature helps. In their company we are still in the ordinary world, but it is the ordinary world transfigured and seen through the eyes of wisdom and genius.”
Reading the great books may not turn us into Platos and Einsteins. But, their words can bring out our strengths.
3. Read like an Ivy League grad. When I was teaching high school, I noticed that students on my campus were focusing on popular modern-day books while students in the preppy private schools received a more liberal education with emphasis on the great thinkers of history. The same seems true with colleges. State programs give a cursory overview of the greats while Ivy League graduates complete school with a firmer grasp of important ideas and what they mean in the world today. Proponents of the classics in schools say, “What’s best for the best, is best for everyone.” No matter what your background, reading the classics can give you a fuller understanding of the world. It’s possible to bring your mind to the same level as Ivy League grads by pursuing a self-study of these important works.
4. Escape from the narrow box of specialization. Focusing your expertise on just one subject may be a smart way to earn a living. But, by shutting yourself off from a more extensive world of knowledge, you limit your ability to excel. In order to truly thrive in any field, people need a broad understanding of the world and how it works. Hutchins said:
“The liberally educated man has a mind that can operate will in all fields. He may be a specialist in one field. But he can understand anything important that is said in any field and can see and use the light that it sheds upon his own.”
Whether you’re in computer science, marketing, healthcare, or any other field, gaining a broad knowledge of the many subjects covered in the great books will help you in your specialization.
5. Learn from past mistakes. It is often said that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. By ignoring the discoveries recorded in the great books, we are bound to make the same mistakes – both on a societal level and in our own lives. Educational philosopher Mortimer Adler explained:
“People who question or even scorn the study of the past and its works usually assume that the past is entirely different from the present, and that hence we can learn nothing worthwhile from the past. But it is not true that the past is entirely different from the present. We can learn much of value from its similarity and its difference…
Everyone has to forge his own path in this life. But, why not see how others conquered the same challenges? There’s no point to wander lost in a wilderness when dozens of guidebooks are freely available.
6. Improve your ability to comprehend. Although the great books weren’t written for specialists and experts, they can be a tough read. If you’re tempted to trade in Sophocles for Sue Grafton, realize that stepping outside of your reading comfort-zone can do wonders for your comprehension. Hutchins explained:
“If many great books seem unreadable and unintelligible…it may be because we have not for a long time learned to read by reading them. Great books teach people not only how to read them, but how to read other books as well.”
Once you get through a few of the more challenging books, you’ll find it easier to comprehend all kinds of works. As a more confident reader, you won’t need to shy away from academic articles or historical texts. The entire body of English writing will be in your domain.
7. Be truly human. At its heart, reading the great books is about exploring our humanity. Rousseau said:
“It matters little to me whether my pupil is intended for the army, the church, or the law. Before his parents chose a calling for him, nature called him to be a man…When he leaves me, he will be neither a magistrate, a soldier, not a priest; he will be a man.”
As a pupil of the great books, you enter into a discussion of what it means to be a person. Ultimately, ulterior motives such as appearing smart fall to the wayside. You can forget all the blogs, self-help books, and magazine articles that tell you how to improve your life. The great books are the master course in self-development.
8. Find your own answers to life’s big questions. By following themes in the great books, you’ll realize that certain topics are discussed over and over again throughout history: “What is our destiny? What is a good life? How can we achieve a good society? What can we learn to guide us through the mazes of the future from history, philosophy and religion, literature, and the fine arts?”
Reading the great books won’t give you an ultimate answer to the big questions. But, they will offer diverse views and possibilities. By understanding the conclusions that great thinkers have come to about these questions, you’ll come closer to settling on answers that works for you.
9. Develop a spirit of inquiry. Too many people are complacent about their lives, not concerning themselves with the ideas that have made the world what it is today. Reading the great books can help you foster your natural curiosity and desire to learn even more about the world. Hutchins put it this way:
“To put an end to the spirit of inquiry that has characterized the West it is not necessary to burn the books. All we have to do is leave them unread for a few generations.”
That’s a pretty startling quote. But, it’s true. All the discoveries, thoughts, and ideas of the people who came before us are meaningless unless we care enough to explore them.
10. Join in the great conversation. Ultimately, the great books make up a conversation that spans mortal time and space. The Romans respond to the Greeks, the authors of the middle ages express their reaction to the Romans, and so on. Modern-day authors are responding to ideas first expressed hundreds of years ago. Once you have a grasp of what has been said in this unending conversation, you’ll be prepared to join in. Write a book, have a discussion with a friend, or post on a message board. Add your 2 cents and become a part of the greatest fireside chat the world has ever seen.
(Post Script: For related information check out The Great Conversation book by Hutchins or the essay “Why Read Great Books” by Adler. Also, be sure to keep checking the Great Books tab at the top of this page. I’ll be posting articles on the books there.)