Several weeks ago, someone on Twitter asked people to name a book they know they should have read but are ashamed to admit they haven’t. Answers ranged from To Kill a Mockingbird, Jane Eyre, and A Tale of Two Cities (I salute this last person) to whole genres in general. Russian literature got a huge shoutout as a major gap for many people.
I am sometimes asked by my extended family members or friends, “so why are you doing this?” referring to the Apprenticeship program through the Circe Institute. As I approach my graduation from the three-year program, I thought I’d put down why I did join the Apprenticeship program, what I have gained from it.
I want a classical education, desperately. Together, my wife and I have given one to our three children, all of whom have continued in it to one degree or another. They all have seemed to thrive in it, too. I did not get a classical education. I have, to some extent, recovered one over the years, although sometimes it feels more like I've gotten an education that is about classical education rather than one that is itself classical.
The “must-read” list, like the making of books, never ends. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius hardly stands as a newcomer to that list, yet its place has been often overlooked. The Meditations is a classic work of wisdom literature, providing inspiration and endless fodder for reflection and conversation.
In a room full of thirteen-year-olds, I shared that my daughter and I had recently finished reading The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and that it had now become my favorite book in the series. (Full disclosure: every time I finish a Narnia book again, that book runs the risk of becoming my favorite book in the series...)
“This was my first time to read the book …”, I began to share, only to be interrupted.
Over the summer my eleven-year-old daughter read a contemporary piece of young adult “literature.” This is not a genre I enjoy, but I read the work with her so that we could discuss it together.
“Was it a good book?” I asked.
“Yes!” she answered.
“Why?” I followed up.
“Because I liked it.”
As I continued to press her, she continued to locate the book’s objective goodness in her subjective enjoyment of it. I was unsurprised by this. It is a natural human tendency to conflate our subjective preferences with objective qualities.
In an interview published by Christianity Today, Harvard political scientist Harvey Mansfield called Democracy in America “the best book ever written on democracy and the best book ever written on America.” Surprisingly, its author was neither a democrat nor an American, but a French aristocrat. Alexis de Tocqueville came to America in 1831 to study its prisons, yet his journey through the young democracy inspired a prescient work.
By my latest count, I have heard the following dictum at least a dozen times in the last month: “literary analysis destroys the love of reading.”
Parents and teachers who say this often assert that reading, especially among the very young, is primarily an experience of the heart and soul, to be shared between parents and children, and that too strong an emphasis on mental exercise prevents them from using story time to build deep relationships.
Are stories and parables told only through words?
Perhaps some might grant that parable-like tales are also told through visual art and music. I’d like to suggest, in addition, that there are many math – and, by logical extension, science – “parables” most of us have never heard. And even if we’ve heard them, many of us have likely overlooked the radically fantastic domain they represent and reflect.
The primary reason for this, sadly, is that few of us were told them as bedtime stories (though somewhat tongue in cheek, I’m actually quite serious about this).
In The Weight of Glory, C. S. Lewis cautions us against idolizing our memories of the past: “they are only the scent of a flower we have not found,” he says.
I am sure he chose that image because of a flower’s beauty, but I wonder if he had in mind how fleeting that beauty was designed to be. I wonder if he was intentionally echoing the prophet Isaiah, who said, “All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field…the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.” (40:6-8)