Christine Perrin: Great Books Plant a Seed

Books plant a seed of reality that can grow in us. The books that last are the ones that have found a remarkable form for reality, the instantiation is unrepeatable, but the pattern carries across books and time because reality carries across. Just as humans come in all forms and faces and particular beauties, so do books, and yet there is also a continuity among them. This is how G.M. Hopkins says something similar: “for Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features of men's faces” (As Kingfisher’s Catch Fire).

Books ask the questions of our existence ahead of us and in myriad ways. They help us to purchase the free gift of life that we are losing and finding, losing and finding. But they grow slowly like a seed in their making and in their reception. And they are a holistic garden planted in biodynamic relationship to the other plants in the patch.

Our goal is to find the books that carry these seeds. It’s important to see what others have said and read and to hear why they have chosen the ones they have (please note The Black Intellectual Tradition that describes the liberating influence the great books have had on those enslaved—wide, ongoing impact is one measuring stick for this question). Many of these books that have made the deepest imprint on people over time require preparation. And this is another question we can ask in helping us to determine what is a great book—what are the books that must be read before reading this one? In this manner we make a curriculum—what is the goal and what is the backward work to arrive there?

When Lewis says, in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, about robins: “they're good birds in all the stories I've ever read. I'm sure a robin wouldn't be on the wrong side,” it presumes preparation in story for this story. In this case the preparation is likely fairy tales out of the oral tradition. I’ve been rereading these to my grandchildren (three and six) from the Grimm brothers and I’m startled by the kinds of conversations we have about them, and the fairy tales I passed over in reading to their mother, and the ways these seeds grow in other books.

If you aim for certain books at the end (say of high school), you will have to retro-engineer the curriculum through kindergarten. You will also likely have to disrupt the conventional way of grouping things chronologically or nationally (British lit, modern lit). You will have to factor in life experience and maturity. You may have to think in terms of an author’s oeuvre. Here are some examples. To read The Brother’s Karamazov, which you most certainly should do (in translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky), you ought to really read Crime and Punishment and, perhaps, The Idiot, beforehand. The Brother’s Karamazov is difficult and exceedingly hard to interpret and gathers ideas from previous books in an attempt to reshape the notion of godliness and virtue and depravity through a series of protagonists: Raskolnikov, Sonya, Myshkin, and Aloysha. Reading each unlocks the fullness of the final and most difficult text. But you may well not want to take the time to read all three and where do you place each piece leading up to the final?

How about reading the Illiad, Odyssey, and the Aeneid (something my children did not do in their classical Christian school—they read the first two but not the third)? How important is it for them to read the Aeneid so that they understand that literature is a great conversation that builds on itself, revises itself, and answers earlier stories with stories? The sequence does precisely this, remarkably and eloquently. How could we write stories without the genealogy? What did it mean for Homer to come before Virgil? What do we think was the oral tradition of which these texts partook? How necessary is it to have read the fairy tales by Grimm (or some other collector) to properly register this—in order to enter into the thought category oral tradition at all? And, while you are at it, read On Fairy Stories by Tolkien to understand what we read for and how the belief in eucatastrophe (good catastrophe) impacts our reading and interpretation.

Which brings our beloved J.R.R. into the conversation. Where do we read Lord of the Rings—that remarkable epic fed by other epics that is written in English and distinctly Christian? Ought we to precede it by The Hobbit? By “Leaf by Niggle”? By Beowulf? Or should Beowulf follow it? Do you see the fascinating, learned, delicious conversation that is waiting for us? It’s essential that second-generation classical educators be involved in this conversation. You must have read the books to have the conversation. I know many teachers in their 20’s and 30’s who received this education. My guess is that all of us writing these essays did not.

These books are a purchase on our humanity, they are a garden in which to bide. Being able to dwell in and name our existence is a never-quenching thirst that takes us to those who have also tried. We want the quality without a name (Christopher Alexander) to be constructed for us again and again in ten thousand ways and forms. We want to be inside of it, to find a home in it even as we are homo viator, or human on the way, or pilgrim. We want to domesticate despair (as Gabriel Marcel describes hope), but we also simply agree with what Marilynn Robinson says through John Ames, “Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined.” Why are we alive together? How do we truly live: zóé (ζωή, ῆς, ἡ)? The great conversation/books/seeds/garden yearn toward this.

Christine Perrin has taught at Messiah University and in classical schools since 1999. She and her husband, Christopher, currently teach the course Architecture of Virtue to seniors. She has published two books: Bright Mirror (poems) and The Art of Poetry.


Christine Perrin
MFA Professor, Author

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