Ivy League Education at Home Part 4: Literature

Written by on May 27, 2009 in Ivy League Education at Home, Reading - 2 Comments

899171_book_series_3Reading great literature can expand your world and give you insight into the human condition. No course of self-education is complete without the great books. In fact, Harvard itself has published a collection of books designed to give readers a complete liberal education without enrolling in classes.

This post will introduce you to some of the best books and show you how to get the most from them.

Assignment 1: Master the Art of Reading

There are two primary questions a reader must consider: “What is the author is saying?” and “How is he saying it?” The best readers delve beyond the surface to explore the ways a writer plays with form, semantics, and figure of speech.

To improve your ability to understand literature, you may need to take a trip to the library. I recommend borrowing three classic books, each offering an in-depth look at ways to approach reading. This isn’t about being able to pronounce the words on a page – it’s about taking your reading to an entirely new level.

How to Read a Book – In this thorough introduction to the art of reading, Mortimer Adler guides you through several levels of reading techniques.

How to Read and Why – Critic and professor Harold Bloom uses passages from classic books to demonstrate reading analysis.

How to Read Literature Like a Professor – In a more modern take on reading, Professor Thomas Foster illustrates the importance of memory, symbol, and pattern.

By concentrating on the practice of reading, you’ll develop the tools to more thoroughly explore the two essential questions above.

Assignment 2: Create Your Own Reading List

Once you know how to read, you’ll need to decide what to read. I’d suggest working your way through a collection of classics. You can choose the books on your own or simply read through a pre-designed set. There are two major collections aimed at giving readers a liberal education: the Great Books of the Western World and the Harvard Classics. Although the sets include works other than literature, they are an excellent start for any reader. (See Also: 10 Ways Reading the Great Books Can Improve Your Life).

Great Books of the Western World – This 54-volume set includes classics selected by University of Chicago president Robert Hutchins and educator Mortimer Adler. When the collection was first released, Hutchins said “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.” (A bit of an overstatement, perhaps, but it is certainly a thorough set). The series was originally published by Encyclopedia Britannica in 1952 and continues in print today. You can order the set at a discount on eBay or Amazon. The individual titles should also be available at any public library or online through Project Gutenberg. A list of all included selections is on Wikipedia.

Harvard Classics – The 51 volumes in the Harvard Classics set were selected by university president Charles Eliot in 1909. He explained: “It is my belief that the faithful and considerate reading of these books, with such rereading and memorizing as individual taste may prescribe, will give any man the essentials of a liberal education even if he can devote to them but fifteen minutes a day.” Although the Harvard Classics (also known as “Dr. Eliot’s Five Foot Shelf”) are now out of print, they are widely available at used bookstores and on eBay. (I found many volumes at a local thrift shop for $3 a book.) You can also find the entire set online for no-cost at Bartleby.com. Or, take Dr. Eliot up on his promise by using the 15-minute-a-day reading guide.

Don’t be intimidated by the size of these collections. Just start reading.

Assignment 3: Familiarize Yourself with the Major British and American Literary Movements

An important part of understanding literature is becoming familiar with the movements that shaped the themes and styles found in the great books. As you work your way through your reading list, pay attention to the publication dates and consider each book’s place in history.

There are dozens of literary movements, some only affecting a single city or a few years. Focus on the major movements that had the greatest impact on literature. I’ve narrowed it down to 11 of the most influential periods you’ll come across in your readings.

You can use the chart below to get a cursory feel for these major movements. You’ll find a brief description of each literary period as well as links to a couple out-of-copyright books that were prominent during the time. See Also: Literary History Timeline (text-based) and Literature Timeline (illustrated).

As you branch out with your reading, you may want to study these periods in more depth or explore other movements from around the world.

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Assignment 4: Start a Commonplace Book

Start a journal to keep track of your readings. Many serious readers use a commonplace book to record what they’ve read and take note of their thoughts.

In any notebook / word processing program, record the following:

1. The name of the book you’re reading.
2. Quotes from the book that capture your interest.
3. Your thoughts / reactions / questions about the book.

Over time, your commonplace book will become a valued reference source. Use it to see how far you’ve come and make connections between the ideas that you encounter. To learn more see: How to Make a Commonplace Book.

Wrapping it Up

Reading difficult books can be challenging. But, don’t let it become a chore. Reading should be pleasurable, enlightening, and inspiring. If you start to feel frustrated, read smaller segments or take a break and pick up a “beach book” for a while. Then, return when you feel ready.

As you become more comfortable with the great books, you may be surprised at the depth they bring to your thoughts and your life. There’s no need to hurry, however. Reading is a lifelong endeavor.

Know of a useful literature or reading resource I missed? Have a learning tip to share on this subject? Please leave your suggestions in the comments section. The more resources and ideas we have, the better.

Next Week: Arts

2 Comments on "Ivy League Education at Home Part 4: Literature"

  1. Jonathan Aquino May 30, 2009 at 11:49 am · Reply

    I like that illustrated literature timeline!

    Have you read The Story of Art? It’s a beautifully illustrated and engagingly written book on the history of art. Seems to match up well with the timelines you mentioned.

  2. Jamie June 11, 2009 at 10:29 am · Reply

    Sounds like a great book. I haven’t read it but I’ll certainly look into it now. Thanks, Jonathan.

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