Why You Should Read Challenging Older Books

George Grant on why we read Plutarch:

“It was the primary textbook of the Greek and Roman world for generations of students throughout Christendom. It was the historical source for many of Shakespeare’s finest plays. It forever set the pattern for the biographical arts. It was the inspiration for many of the ideas of the American political pioneers–evidenced by liberal quotations in the articles, speeches, and sermons of Samuel Adams, Peyton Randolph, Patrick Henry, Samuel Davies, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Henry Lee, John Jay, George Mason, Gouverneur Morris, and Thomas Jefferson. Indeed, after the Bible it was the most frequently referenced source during the Founding era. For these and a myriad of other reasons, Plutarch’s Lives is one of the most vital and consequential of all the ancient classics.”

Click through the link above to read the rest.  While Plutarch stands alone, it also stands tall in a long tradition of worthy minds communicating to minds.

I get a little tired of people dismissing classics merely on the basis that “I don’t believe that we need to read anything just because it’s on somebody’s list.”  That’s not an argument anybody makes.  But some lists are worthy of more respect than others. I do not know who this mythical ‘somebody’ is, but I would not lightly dismiss a book on George Grant’s or C.S. Lewis’ list.

We read Plutarch because he is Plutarch, and centuries of the best and the brightest have concluded he has compiled a remarkable book useful for the education and character building of the young and we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Anything that has worked for centuries but isn’t working well in this generation, I generally take a suspicious glance at this generation to see where the fault lies (not 100% failproof, as slavery might be said to have worked well for at least half the people for centuries, but now we in the west at least have a different understanding of liberty and the Golden Rule of doing until others).

If a child can read stuff like Plutarch and Shakespeare and the KJV of the Bible, then there is not going to be any literature in English that is barred to him. He will at some point no longer be dependent on the explanations and interpretations of others.

This is not a *goal,* but rather a side benefit, kids who can read stuff like Plutarch generally do well on the verbal portion of their SAT and ACT scores with no extra studies.

And then there’s this very fascinating research:”Serious literature acts as a rocket booster to the brain.”

More here.  Good stuff, like:

“In one example, volunteers read a line from King Lear: “A father and a gracious aged man: him have you madded”. They then read a simpler version: “A father and a gracious aged man: him you have enraged.”

Shakespeare’s use of the adjective “mad” as a verb sparked a higher level of brain activity than the straightforward prose.

The study went on to test how long the effect lasted. It found that the “peak” triggered by the unfamiliar word was sustained onto the following phrases, suggesting the striking word had hooked the reader, with their mind “primed for more attention”.”

The best books are not books with perfect morals to deliver, sermons candy coated in fiction.  They are books that are true in their characterizations, in their depiction of life, and human nature.

We ask too much of our literature and also not enough.


” We demand that every story be a sermon, that every written thing speak as holy writ. Literature is not so. Written by fallen man for fallen men, the most it can ever do is “hold the mirror up to nature” and show us ourselves in the clear light of art.

Fortunately, this self-knowledge is the first step on the road to virtue. Where endless models for emulation will eventually create a self-righteous Pharisee, true depictions of human nature can make a humble, empathetic man.”

(Circe, What is a Classic, Anyway?)


Doug Lemov on Reading podcast

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