When I was choosing which books to assign for Great Books at Boyce College this year, I googled the topic and surveyed the choices others had made. Teaching Great Books has been a joy to my heart. I was an English major, and I wish I could talk about these books like my teacher, the eloquent Skip Hays.
Here are the books we covered in the Fall of 2015:
Homer, The Illiad.
Pre-Christian violence and nobility in poetry that has been studied for thousands of years now, inspiring offshoots and firing imaginations as it supplied the straw for not a few bricks of literary metaphors, similes, and illustration. The Illiad shows that the adultery of Paris and Helen leads to the smoking ruin of Troy surrounded by its blood-soaked fields, Hector dead and Achilles hopeless.
“Fair is foul, and foul is fair: Hover through fog and filthy air.” Brave Macbeth cannot maintain his resolve to “do all that may become a man” and no more, and his false face hides what his false heart knows. Temptation. Ambition. Marriage. Murder. And in the end we see the triumph of the faithful and the downfall of the traitors.
Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment.
Old Fyodor was well acquainted with the dreamers who thought they could bring about a better world if only they could bring themselves to accomplish the worst crimes. All the “progressive” attempts to rationalize evil for the greater good are set forth in this 1866 masterpiece. And the harlot and the murderer find life together as they read the eternal Book. Lazarus, come forth!
Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
I agree with John Granger: the chronicle of the boy who lived is the shared text of this generation. Rich with biblical imagery and themes, laced with imagery and allusion to the western literary canon, the weak who love goodness, truth, and beauty overcome the strong who know only power and love only themselves. Love is the true magic, and the only person who really finds the Philosopher’s Stone is the one who seeks it to serve and benefit others.
Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
A flying Ford Anglia, a book within the book, and a hero who descends to the underworld to stab the snake in the head to save the girl. These stories get better page by page, book by book. As the characters grow the plots deepen in color and texture. Rowling’s seven volume accomplishment is unrivaled.
These are the books we will, Lord willing, consider this spring semester of 2016:
The noble champion defeats the seed of Cain and then slays the dragon as his disciples, that is, fellow-soldiers, flee the scene. Douglas Wilson has proposed an intriguing chiastic structure as well as a convincing explanation of the author’s apologetic art.
Another tale of another murder of another king. The Bard shows that those who kill to get what they want never succeed. Many think Shakespeare was a closet Roman Catholic in officially Anglican England, but Hamlet is a thorough protestant–studies in Wittenberg, even.
Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities.
This novel gives a better feel for what life was like in Paris during the reign of terror than a history book ever could. The romance of resurrection shows the power and the glory of the love than which there is none greater, when a man lays down his life for his friends.
Tolkien, “Leaf by Niggle.”
Tim Keller discusses this short story in his book Every Good Endeavor. Tolkien depicts the frustration of work in a fallen world followed by the fulfillment of all our efforts in the new heaven and new earth. To be read repeatedly and slowly, pondered and treasured.
O’Connor, “The Displaced Person.”
How will the world treat a helpful Jewish servant? Harrowing, convicting, and thought-provoking. Vintage Flannery.
McCarthy, The Road.
A father and son on the road in a post-apocalyptic world. Headed toward hope, carrying the fire, enjoying the small things, and there is nothing the father won’t do to protect his son from roving bands of cannibals. McCarthy’s prose is a thing unto itself.
Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
Had to put volume three of the Potter series at the end of the semester so that students could read books four through seven over the summer. Because they will want to.