Introduction to the Great Books of the Western World

Written by on May 11, 2009 in The Great Books - 5 Comments

great-books-of-western-worldThe best way to understand the world you live in now is to read the Western canon. By reading these classic books, you’ll develop a deep understanding of why our society is the way it is, why our government operates the way it does, and how the great ideas of history have come to shape our beliefs.

You cannot truly think for yourself if you cannot recognize where your ideas and beliefs originate from. By studying the works of Western history, you’ll see that even the “modern” belief sets have been developing for hundreds of years. Once you can recognize where your preconceived beliefs come from, you become free – free to accept the knowledge that has been passed on to you or free to reject these ideas.

Each Monday I plan to post a new overview of one of the Great Books of the Western World and show you where to find it for free.

What is the Great Books of the Western World Series?

In 1952, University of Chicago President Richard Hutchins joined forces with philosopher Mortimer Adler to create a collection of works representative of the Western cannon. 54 books were published as a set by Encyclopedia Britannica.

Upon publication, Hutchins proclaimed: “This is more than a set of books, and more than a liberal education. Great Books of the Western World is an act of piety. Here are the sources of our being. Here is our heritage. This is the West. This is its meaning for mankind.”

In 1990, a second edition of the Great Books of the Western World was created. It included additional works in a few of the previously published volumes and added six more books of modern writings.

Why Read the Great Books?

The most important reason to read the great books is to gain intellectual freedom, as I discussed above. An understanding of the great literature can also help you develop critical thinking skills, learn from the mistakes of the past, and cultivate a spirit of inquiry.

If you have any doubt about embarking on this project, please see: 10 Ways Reading the Great Books Can Improve Your Life.

Great Books Controversy

I want to point out that the Great Books of the Western World series is not without controversy. Critics contend that lists of great books inevitably fall short and leave something out. They are, of course, right on this point. There is no ultimate reading list for life. However, a list can get you started and as far as collections go, this one is a smart although imperfect choice.

Another major criticism is that the great books are not representative of races and genders – that they are primarily the product of “dead, white males.” It is true that most of the works in this collection fit that category. However, there are two reasons for this. First, the Great Books of the Western World collection is focused on Western culture. So, by nature, you’re not going to find African or Asian authors as you might if you were studying another region. Second, most of the ancient works that have had a major influence on our society simply were written by dead white guys. It’s unfortunate that females and people of other races weren’t given the same opportunities in that age, but it is what it is. I could choose to search out obscure female thinkers of ancient Rome. But, it wouldn’t serve the purposes of this particular project (which are to read the works and understand the ideas which have shaped our current culture).

Fortunately, books at the end of the series do include critical works from women and minorities. Hopefully when future readers study the great ideas of our age, their collections will be even more representative.

Where to Find the Great Books for Free

Each time I post about a new book, I’ll include a link so that you can download it for free. The individual great books are no longer under copyright and can be accessed online.

If your public library subscribes to MyiLibrary, you’re in luck. Using your library account information, you can have access to the entire collection online, from your home. This new digital version even includes a hyperlink version of the Syntopicon (an impressive index of the ideas you find weaved throughout all the books). You can click on a link from the Syntopicon to read the text it lists and you can print out selections from any book. Should you prefer to read in paper format, check out the library shelves. All of the titles included should be easy to find.

The most highly-regarded source of free online books is Project Guttenberg. Books are downloadable in several formats including MOBI, HTML, and PDF.

Should you choose to purchase the actual Great Books of the Western World set, keep in mind that it is almost always available on eBay and can sometimes be purchased at a discount from Amazon.

Great Books of the Western World Resources

Want to learn more about the Great Books of the Western World? Keep coming back to the Great Books tab at the top of this page for new posts.

You may also find these sites helpful:

  • How Now, Great Books? Britannica’s blog offers updates and insight into the Great Books series.
  • Great Books Reading Schedule – A fellow reader has divided the books into manageable monthly readings.
  • Great Books and Classics – Check out this gateway website for links to great books throughout history.
  • Great Books Academy – This 4-year Great Books reading schedule is designed for classical homeschoolers, but can be used by anyone.
  • Great Books Lists – Lists of important works from around the world. A helpful site to explore if you’d rather read another collection rather than the one created by Britannica.

5 Comments on "Introduction to the Great Books of the Western World"

  1. benjamin huerta May 19, 2009 at 8:18 pm · Reply

    me encantaria pudiera leer esta pagina al español,aunque entiendo un 70% del idioma de shakespeare,muchas felicidades por hacer esta pagina tan cultural y educativa,

  2. Anon June 1, 2009 at 3:23 pm · Reply

    One could also read the great books in the Eastern canon. There is no University of Chicago
    approved series for this, but they are also available on the internet. One of the disappointments of the Western canon is how various authors misunderstand the East.

    Actually you can find all kinds of misunderstanding littered throughout the “Great Books.”
    The scientific great books are interesting in that you can see how previous ideas have been
    transformed. The literature/philosophy great books give you a glimpse into times that
    you will be glad you don’t live in (or possible not?). There are all kinds of aspirations, ideas and perspectives in the great books, so you can’t really discuss them as a whole.
    Obviously, these were books meant to be dissected, discussed and thought about critically.
    Nearly everyone who goes to Uni reads many of them (in my case, more than twice).

  3. Larry Perkins January 10, 2010 at 12:50 pm · Reply

    Jamie, I must point out that your very first sentence on this page contains a spelling error. It should be easy to fix.

    “cannon” – heavy artillery piece
    “canon” – list of literary works generally considered to be of the highest quality

    Otherwise, thank you for your efforts on behalf of those of us who benefit from these ideas. If only our American culture didn’t stifle broader learning, our politics – among other things – might be more imaginative, and effective!


  4. David August 17, 2010 at 6:36 pm · Reply

    I have the complete collection of the 1952 set and was looking to let it go. Any ideas outside of E-bay for places I could contact about the set?

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