Saturday, August 22, 2009

Some books are an education in themselves

I was struck again today by the realization that some books are so good and so chock-full of ideas that reading them can be an education in itself. Two books I am currently reading meet that standard: Charles Taylor's A Secular Age (philosophy, religious studies, history of ideas) and Erich Auerbach's Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (literary criticism, religion, history of ideas).

Neither of these books are easy reads. I intended to read both during my August vacation, but it looks like it could take me as much as six months to finish them, since I can only read about ten pages of each at a time before I have to turn to something else. But when you read for self-educational purposes, it is important to sometimes choose books that are slightly above your comfort level in terms of their difficulty. Even the most advanced readers can easily find books that are "above their heads" - books written in distant places and times, books written in difficult English or in another language, books in a field that you have little background in. If you choose such books wisely and then rise to the challenge and struggle through them, you can have an immensely rewarding and educative experience.

On page after page of Taylor's book, for example, the reader is bombarded with references to ideas, religious practices, sects, and thinkers familiar and obscure. The trick as a reader is to remember to be curious about these allusions: don't be so concerned with making your way through the book that you forget to ask, for example, who Gregory of Nyssa was, what beliefs characterized the school of Arminianism, or what the word neuralgic means. (And that's where a quick Google search can come in handy).

I recently posted excerpts from both books on my general-interest blog if you are interested in a sample.

Other books which have struck me as providing an "education in themselves" in the hands of advanced, curious, self-educating readers and with the assistance of good secondary literature or teachers include:

-Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace (history, international relations theory, psychology, narrative, military strategy, literature, etc.)
-The Bible (Biblical Hebrew, Koine Greek, literature, poetry, narrative, history, religious studies, mythology)
-Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (religion, psychology, literature)
-The plays of William Shakespeare (psychology, history, religion, drama, language, literature)

...and many anthologies, including:

-William Theodore de Bary, Sources of Chinese (also Japanese and Korean) Tradition (literature, history, art)
-The Norton Anthology of Poetry and The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry

I'd like to hear your ideas about books that fit this description, and why you feel they do - please share in the comment section if you are interested.