Great Books Project, 6 months in

I started reading the Classics around Thanksgiving 2020, and the half-year anniversary of reading the books passed me by. I strike the books off this list and am 10 books in, with Dante’s Inferno coming up as #11.

Some quick thoughts:

  • Best classic so far: Don Quixote and The Odyssey, which might replace Count of Monte Cristo as my go-to “it’s a Die Hard-style rollicking good time, but for books.” Worst: I didn’t get into Metamorphoses but people smarter than me really seem to like it. Elements was hard, but mostly because I did it solo: I’ll hopefully get to see it again during my first semester at St. John’s.
  • As the world starts to open back up, I’m happy that my desire to read these books continues to be high. Put another way, while this project started during shelter-in-place, it’s a hobby I want to continue even as other activities become possible again.
  • I’m also happy that reading the classics didn’t eclipse reading contemporary books, both fiction and non-fiction. My overall books-read list is here and includes a hodgepodge of theology, novels, essays, and contemporary nonfiction. Put another way, I’m reading exactly what I was reading in years prior: reading the greats has complimented rather than supplanted what I used to read before.
  • When I started, I think I believed that reading the greats would be good for career development. I think that might be true in a very indirect sense, in that it trains reading comprehension muscles, and blogging forces me to write often. More than anything, though, I find it enjoyable for its own sake, and while it may expand my career choices or opportunities, that feels like a distinctly tangential benefit.
  • The Jewish conception of a Sabbath (from whence we get the idea of a sabbatical) centers around this idea that we spend six days a week striving: trying to be better, richer, etc. The Sabbath, on the other hand, is a day for leaving the world alone: of being content with things as they are and not trying to exert one’s will on the world, to make it just so. Zena Hitz, author of the excellent Lost in Thought, connects this idea to an intellectual life. Creating and developing an inner life cultivates “a retreat within a human being, a place where real reflection takes place.” This retreat, for Hitz, is a space of aspiration, of being someone, or somewhere, different to today. This experience feels true to me, in that it’s hard to read these books and not challenge some belief you have. Reading these books has kicked off more than one late-night dorm room-style philosophical conversation with a friend. (Although I can’t do late nights any more.)
  • The books themselves are funnier, shorter, and more relevant than I would’ve given them credit for. I think Don Quixote was the longest, at 450 or so pages. The US paperback of The Da Vinci Code was longer.
  • “The Classics” are both a sort-of-but-not-really-agreed-on list of good books and also a leg on a culture war stool. On my desk right now is Donna Zuckerberg’s Not All Dead White Men, her look into how the Alt-Right co-opts the classics.
  • My impression so far: The sort of people you’d expect to jump and defend the classics as a foundation of culture do so, the other side vociferously attack them, and nuance is the first casualty.
  • Blogging is not dead in the book world, and it doesn’t feel like it’s been supplanted by Book Instagram or Book Tiktok.
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