Are The “Great Books” Really All That Great?

Everyone who has been to school has been told to read something because it is one of the “Great Books.” We have this idea that there are some things that everyone should read.

Years ago, I was given a set of Encyclopedia Britannica Inc.’s Great Books of the Western World, which puts this idea into practice. While I have read several of the works from the set in other books as part of classes or on my own, I have never read my way through the set. In the first volume of the set (part of which is pictured above), the compilers of the set created a recommended ten-year reading list.

After years of moving these around, it seems like its time to take a systematic approach to the set and see what it’s worth. The plan is to find out whether these books are worth reading and get into the “Great Conversation” with the authors of these books. My goal is to read these books and write about how they relate to modern life. The reason for this blog is to broaden the conversation from just me and the authors to include you.

Over the past few years, I have been a writing tutor for the Illinois Humanities Council’s Odyssey Project (more on that in a future post). One of the professors, Charles Thomas Elder, summed it up by saying “The only reason to read Plato is if you want to have a conversation with Plato.”

So, join me for a conversation with these authors and please chime in through the comments. I’ll post my thoughts on the readings and how they relate to modern life as I read them and include some readings not in the set, including some modern books. Since I studied Ancient Greek and Latin, I’ll also probably have an entry or two on my translation projects.

One note before we go any further, Encyclopedia Britannica Inc. has nothing to do with the project and knows nothing about it. In fact, the set I am using is from 1952. Britannica has added to the set since then, so the readings and reactions are limited to the set I have.

Without further ado, here is the first year reading list, so you know what is coming up.

The Britannica Great Book Reading List (1952)

First Year

1. Plato:

  • Apology
  • Crito

2. Aristophanes:

  • Clouds
  • Lysistrata

3. Plato:

  • Republic (Books I – II)

4. Aristotle:

  • Ethics (Book I)

5. Aristotle:

  • Politics (Book I)

6. Plutarch: The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans

  • Lycurgus
  • Numa Pompilius
  • Lycurgus and Numa Compared
  • Alexander
  • Caesar

7. New Testament:

  • The Gospel According to St. Mathew
  • The Acts of the Apostles

8. St. Augustine:

  • Confessions (Book I-VIII)

9. Machiavelli:

  • The Prince

10. Rabelais:

  • Gargantua and Pantagruel (Book I – II)

11. Montaigne: Essays

  • Of Custom, and that We Should Not Easily Change a Law Received
  • Of Pedantry
  • Of Education of Children
  • That It Is Folly to Measure Truth and Error by Our Own Capacity
  • Of Cannibals
  • That Relish of Good and Evil Depends in a Great Measure Upon the Opinion We Have of Them
  • Upon Some Versus of Virgil

12. Shakespeare:

  • Hamlet

13. Locke:

  • Concerning Civil Government (Second Essay)

14. Rousseau:

  • The Social Contract (Book I – II)

15. Gibbon:

  • The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Chapter 15 – 16)

16. American State Papers:

  • The Declaration of Independence
  • The Constitution of the United States
  • The Federalist (Numbers 1-10, 15, 31, 41, 51, 68-71)

17. Smith:

  • The Wealth of Nations (Introduction – Book I, Chapter 9)

18. Marx-Engels:

  • Manifesto of the Communist Party

4 thoughts on “Are The “Great Books” Really All That Great?

  1. Welcome to the blogosphere.

    It sounds like a very ambitious year. Can’t wait to follow along on the blog and, in person in a few months!

  2. “We have this idea that there are some things that everyone should read.”

    Personally, I’d argue that that is a mistake right there. I mean, there is this idea you describe, but it is a wrong idea. First of all, there are more great books out there than anyone could read in a lifetime. Western civilization’s contribution alone to top-shelf literature is huge, much bigger than that collection of yours that the U of C put together. (They themselves admit that in the first volume, which I recommend reading.) If we look outside the West– and there is no reason not to– we find even more “must read” books.

    Mongolia, for example, has three classic works that have come down through the centuries as the best of Mongolian literature. Two of these works have yet to be translated into English. And yet, in that culture, these are books that everybody “should read,” even though I may never get the chance. So, the sheer quantity of reading material is one problem.

    The other problem is, when? Was I supposed to have all this stuff read by the time I graduated high school in order to be a well-rounded adult? Preposterous. One of the things that make great books great is that they will reveal new things to you over the course of your life. Read Crime and Punishment when you are 20 and read it again when you are 40. Same book, different reader; it will have new things to say to you.

    By creating this stupid standard of “everybody should read” we create a standard that no one can acheive. That leads to failure, which saps motivation. I converted to a diet of almost exclusive great books 17 years ago and I still have important stuff I haven’t read– lots of it. If I felt obliged to read these things out of a vague “everybody should” dictate, I’d be so ashamed at never having picked up Mark Twain that I wouldn’t be able to finish Adam Smith.

    Better (and sufficient) to read these books because we want to, not because we “have” to.

    Congratulations on your endeavor, The Great Conversation is a fantastic set.

    • This is a great comment. I have a whole list of things outside of this set that I think are also great books. I think the idea behind the set (which is mentioned in the first volume) is that this is a starting place and is not meant to be exclusive. I will try to come up with a post about this in the near future.

  3. The Great Books program was never meant to contain ALL the greatest writings ever. It concentrates on Western writings and thoughts. Also, the purpose of the set was to offer a chance for a Liberal Arts education to people who didn’t or couldn’t afford to go to college (like me).

    Adler mentioned that the Liberal Arts were no longer in vogue (this was in ’52), as most people who went to college did so aiming at a specialized degree.

    One only has to go to Easton Press ( if you’re looking for works outside the Great Books. They offer sets like the 100 Greatest Books, Books That Changed the World, Great Books of the 20th Century), etc.

    Enjoyed Your article.

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