5 Tips on How to Read (the Classics)

Maybe you can relate to the following scenario:

You have some vacation due or maybe a long weekend coming up with plenty of (intentionally planned) downtime on the agenda.  You begin to put together a reading list.  There are quite a few of the classics on the list that you’ve always wanted to read but never quite managed to get around to—Plato’s Republic, Augustine’s Confessions, Aquinas’s Theologica, Calvin’s Institutes, Milton’s Paradise Lost.  So of course you do what any reasonable person would do in this situation.  You bring all of them.  After all, you’re going to have plenty of time.

Well, unless it’s a really long weekend, you recognize fairly quickly that your eyes are once again too big for your stomach.  While they all seemed to fit on your Kindle with ease, reading through them becomes a much harder task than initially realized.  You begin with Plato, get through book IV (about 100 pages), close the book, and forget all about it…until you begin to plan your next vacation.

This is obviously an exaggeration, but the truth is, for many of us, reading the classics is a stated value—not an embodied one.   We love the idea of reading Homer, Virgil, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Newton and the like, but when it comes to the practice of reading these classics, we lack the discipline and the motivation.  Or at least I do.

This is why I was so excited to see John Mark Reynolds, a professor of Philosophy at Biola University, put together The Great Books Reader: Excerpts and Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization.  This book does not set out to give students a mere bite-size understanding of these influential authors, but rather a taste for and greater understanding of the classics.

Reynolds is obviously passionate about the classics becoming a major part of any Christian’s reading habits.  For those who have questions as to why, he responds,

“The easiest voices to ignore are those of the dead; nevertheless, they often are the ones we need most.  We don’t hear from the Christians of the sixteenth century on television, or the ancient Romans on our radio.  We must turn to books and be willing to have open minds as we do so.  They’re like us in their humanity but different in their time.  This difference sometimes will make no difference, but at other moments it will allow them to speak prophetically.  The best revelation of men as they are today often comes from men long dead.”

Reynolds himself is uniquely qualified to head up such a project, as he is the director and founder of the Torrey Honors Institute, which is Biola’s Great Books program.  Check out their “what we read” page.  Impressive to say the least.  (If you’re wondering how the Torrey Honors Institute chooses the books for their program, Fred Sanders explains here.)

A few years back, Reynolds put together an ambitious list of thirty books he believes every college student should read.  For those of us who didn’t quite make it through all of these books in our college days, however, Reynolds’ new book offers another great opportunity to increase our understanding and wet our appetites for the classics.

In the beginning of the book, he gives five tips on how to read.  In actuality, these tips are intended to help people read his book, but in my opinion they have a broader use as we seek to read the classics, and an even broader one that simply helps us to read.  So here they are, directly from the introduction of The Great Books Reader, which the publisher has made available to read online for free.  Enjoy.

1.  Consider taking a moment to write about three hundred words on what you think the author is saying.  (If writing is hard for you, record your ideas.)  Only then turn to the essay by one of your fellow students and discover what he or she has to say.

2.  Read charitably.  Don’t look for problems in the ideas on the first read.  Great men and women have patterned their lives on the books you are reading.  Why?  What’s good about it?  What’s true?  What’s beautiful?  Try to get inside the world of Homer and see what it would be like to think with his view of reality.  Only then can you begin to judge it, because only then do you really understand it.

3.  Read argumentatively.  Charity does not preclude being opinionated!  After your second reading, compare, and bring into line, every thought with God’s Word.  Then realize that you have only brought those thoughts into line with your thoughts about God’s Word!  Ask yourself: are you right in your comprehension of that Word?  Have you rightly understood the author, and the Author?

Embrace a point of view, and argue for it forcefully, but be meek enough to realize you might need to change your ideas.  Commit yourself, and then see what you find.

Don’t make the mistake of hiding any idea from the Way.  Every thought must be examined by God—the Word, the Logos—including our beliefs about Him.  Also, don’t make the secondary mistake of starting over all the time in the vain belief that this shows humility.  Ask the questions you really have, not ones you think you should have.

4.  Don’t try to get a “last word” on any of the authors.  There is no harm—and much value—in ending with tentative conclusions.  It’s highly unlikely any of us will ever fathom all the depths of any of these writers before we get to continue the Discussions in the real City of God.  Spend some time with each, wrestle honestly, and then move on to the next.  Come back another time and try again.  As with physical fitness, mental fitness is a lifetime project.

5.  Pick at least one author and go read the entire work.  I would recommend starting with Homer, because he is accessible and there are many good translations of his great works.  If America does become a post-Christian society, then something like his view of reality may prevail.

One more thing:  Avoid secondary sources, and don’t try to master all the details about an author.  Most of us have loved something or other to death—like the Star Trek fan who watches all the episodes and the movies too many times and eventually ruins the fun.  Being an ‘expert’ on Shakespeare is not the same thing as enjoying and learning from his plays.  There’s a place for the expert, but most of us will remain happy amateurs.  Embrace that status.

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