Chris Schlect: What Happens When We Read?—Variations on Great Books

     What makes a Great Book great? Suppose you need to change the distributor cap on an old Ford Thunderbird. In that scenario, a Chilton Repair Manual promises to be a great read—greater, perhaps, than Homer’s Iliad. But in other reading scenarios, we would likely favor Homer’s Iliad. These scenarios point to a consideration that we too easily overlook as we seek to identify the so-called Great Books. When our conversations turn to qualities of greatness, we often place the shipping container before the Peterbilt. First we need to nail down the qualities of bookness. Whatever a Great Book may be, it is certainly a book. Its purpose cannot be fulfilled until someone reads it. A book sitting on a shelf may hold potential for greatness, but if it is never read, never leafed through, never opened, then its potential goes unrealized. An unread book is worse off than Bishop Berkeley’s proverbial sound of a tree falling in the woods. It has a form of bookliness, but a form that is powerless.

     If books are meant to be read, and if we want to identify which books are the Great ones, then the act of reading should figure into our reflections. This points to a key question that lies upstream of any query into what it is that makes a Great Book great: What happens when we read? The classical tradition offers some proposals, but not a consensus.

     One approach to our question traces back to the cathedral schools of the 10th and 11th centuries. The teachers in these schools, like Brun of Cologne, turned to books as sources of wisdom, as many readers from other eras do. What set them apart, though, was their way of accessing a book’s wisdom, their approach to reading. They tapped a book’s wisdom by means of a live, embodied performance of reading. Bear in mind that books in this era were laboriously reproduced by hand, so most schools possessed only one manuscript of any given book. Students in these schools experienced books through the living voice of a teacher. The interplay of text, teacher, and students resembled the interaction between sheet music, orchestra, and audience. The best teachers lived out the wisdom of these readings through their manners and morals—they became walking illuminated manuscripts. For readers in these early cathedral schools, then, a Great Book was one that stirred up a charismatic teacher’s virtuous performance, which manifested a book’s wisdom to an audience of readers.

     The scholastics of the 12th century treated books differently. Like their charismatic predecessors, they approached books as sources of wisdom. But a book’s wisdom for them lay buried beneath the obscurity of human language, lurking behind untidy human arguments, stories, orations, and historical examples. How, then, did schoolmen extract timeless and universal wisdom from these sources? By means of the arts. When they opened the pages of any book—say, of Cicero or Vergil—they could draw out wisdom by means of the language arts—grammatical, dialectical, or rhetorical insights. Or they could extract wisdom by means of the practical arts—insights concerning ethics, economics, and civics. For scholastics like John of Salisbury and Hugh of St. Victor, the arts were the surest pathway through any book, a pathway that led readers to philosophy, to the love of wisdom. In their schools, what made a Great Book great? A Great Book was one that best rewarded an artistic reading—that is, reading by means of the arts, which unlocked the timeless wisdom it contained.

     If reading in the early cathedral schools was a charismatic enterprise, reading for the scholastics was an artistic enterprise. In the early cathedral schools, readers drew wisdom from books through imitation and enculturation, a mimetic mode of reading. A century later, scholastic readers drew wisdom from books by means of the arts, especially the seven liberal arts, which was a dialectical or analytical mode of reading.

     A third way of treating books arose in reaction to the scholastics, a reaction that developed into the humanist movement. One representative was Petrarch, who excoriated the scholastics for separating wisdom from its textual home. The humanists approached books by highlighting authorial voices and storied characters rather than looking past those elements in search of a disembodied, abstracted form of wisdom. Their mode of reading inspired the reforming impulses of the Protestant movement and new currents in Roman Catholic learning, giving shape to the educational projects of Erasmus, Melanchthon, Vittorino, Vergerio, and Piccolomini, to name a few. Like their predecessors in the early cathedral schools, the humanists drew wisdom out of books through imitation and enculturation, which distinguished them from the more analytical, arts-oriented scholastics. However, they differed from their cathedral-school predecessors in where they located the source of imitation. Whereas cathedral-school students accessed a book’s wisdom through the living, embodied presence of a charismatic reader (the reader being the source they imitated), humanist students accessed a book’s wisdom by imitating the charisma that emanated directly from within its pages, whether it be a charismatic author’s voice or the example of a charismatic hero. For the humanists, then, what makes a Great Book great? They assessed a book’s greatness by its capacity to arouse readers to imitation, a capacity found in the author’s compelling language and in the inspiring exploits they wrote about.

     Which books are the Great Books? That depends on how you read. The cathedral-school teachers, the scholastics, and the humanists handled texts differently. Each offered a unique approach to how readers accessed the wisdom contained in books. I will leave it to others to assess the merits of their proposals. My purpose is to show that the tradition offers no consensus on the question of what happens when a reader reads. Therefore the tradition supplies no settled criteria, no uniform orthodoxy, and no catalogued canon of Great Books. What makes a Great Book great? Differing visions of greatness invariably arise from varying accounts of what actually happens when a reader reads.

Christopher Schlect, PhD, is senior fellow of history at New Saint Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho, where he serves as Head of Humanities and Director of the College’s graduate program in Classical and Christian Studies.


Dr. Christopher Schlect
CCS Program Director, Senior Fellow of History,
& Head of Humanities

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