So what exactly are The Great Books of Classic Literature? What makes them so “great” and why should our kids read them? What makes these books different from any other classic literature or historical fiction novels they read? The difference between reading Great Books and other history or science books is mainly in the way the student reads and interprets them. Understanding what the Great Books are and how to read them is very important in helping your student learn to analyze these challenging books of literature.
Who Wrote the Great Books?
To understand the Great books, we must first know who wrote them. Written by some of the greatest philosophers and educators of our times, these books give us access to what is called the “great conversation” of history. People such as Aristotle, Plato, Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens and Homer are just a few of the authors of these classic works of literature, philosophy and science. (I have a more detailed list below of specific authors and their works). The Great Books used to be a standard part of many high school and college curricula, but sadly, are now neglected as too challenging to read and analyze. They are however, making a comeback into many homeschools, colleges and even some public school systems. Educators are beginning to realize that to neglect these books is to neglect our history and the shaping of our nations.
Why Should We Read The Great Books?
“The old books lay a foundation for all later learning and life” David Hicks, Norms and Nobility 1999
A student that has read and analyzed the great books, learns a lifelong skill that teaches them to continue to think and analyze throughout their life. They don’t just read a book, they analyze, interpret, question, discuss and write about it. They start to understand the bigger picture of history, make connections in science and most of all, they start to see books as a tool for knowledge and not just for reading pleasure.
How to Read and Analyze the Great Books
There are many programs that offer a Great Books study course or you can put together your own program. Studying The Great Books consist of choosing your books based on the students grade level, reading and having Socratic discussions together, and having the student writes an essay. You can follow this basic plan:
- Read the book and take notes.
- Have one-on-one Socratic discussions daily or weekly.
- Write weekly summaries of your discussions & notes.
- Once the book is completed, using the weekly summaries and outlines, write an essay of the entire book, which you will then give a grade.
Below are several suggestions for teaching literary analysis and Socratic discussions.
Mortin Adler’s How to Read a Book is a great place to start. In his book, Adler explains how to read, analyze and write about classic works of literature for all ages. This is a great book to have on a hand.
John Sutherland’s A Little History of Literature provides a survey of The Great Books and their genres, from Beowulf to Shakespeare.
Susan Wise Bauer’s The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had is a brief history of six different genres and lists of Great Books with annotations, discussion questions and suggestions on how to read each genre.
Institute for Excellence in Writing Timeline of the Classics is a chronological index of classic world literature and provides instructions for journaling and outlining.
Institute for Excellence in Writing Teaching the Classics prepares you to use the Socratic method to teach character, plot, theme, and other elements of fiction and literary analysis.
Reading Roadmaps is a comprehensive, 231-page, scope & sequence manual with annotated reading lists. It is designed as a supplement to Teaching the Classics and brings together more than 200 classic titles. Each entry summarizes the story’s plot, conflicts, themes, and literary devices, along with links to teacher resources and suggestions for alternate titles.
Ready Readers are sets of literature collections for each grade level. The sets provides complete discussion notes, with questions from the Socratic List on Conflict, Plot, Characters, Setting, Theme, Context and Literary Devices. Each question is answered in full with references to the text. Each set also provides completed story charts and a short author biography for each title.
Institute for Excellence in Writing Windows to the World teaches students how to analyze elements of literature: setting, plot, characterization, imagery, allusions, parallelism. It teaches the student what to look for when reading a work of literature by providing numerous examples and suggestions. (I will be using this book with my 2 highschoolers this fall along with our Great Books selections. You can see more details on my Sprouting Tadpoles website).
Pink Monkey Notes has the world’s largest library of free online literature summaries, with over 460 study guides, book notes, chapter summaries, author biographies, plot analysis, tests and test guides. The study guides are printable and there is much more on the site
Cliff Notes is like Pink Monkey Notes, having plot summaries, discussion questions, survey of critical issues, character lists, quizzes, study helps and even has them in audio form, for hundreds of books.
SparkNotes is another source for literature guides. They also have Shakespeare literature guides with line-by-line translations specifically for the No Fear Shakespeare books.
If teaching the Great Books seems too overwhelming, there are other teaching options available. Programs that teach the Great Books:
The Well-Trained Mind Academy – scroll down to the History & Literature courses that integrate the Great books.
Where Can You Find The Great Books?
Since most of these books were written prior to 1920, you can find many of them in the Public Domain for free. I have a list on my Buying Curriculum page with links to websites where you can find some of these books for free. If you prefer a hard copy of your books like I do, I have links to the books on my Book Lists for High School page. Sometimes the free ones can be challenging to read, so at times you may have to decide which option is better, to purchase a good translation or struggle through the challenging free one. You can also check to see if it’s available at your library before purchasing the hard copy. I have included a free printable list that you can download and use to track which books you want your child to read.
I did find this source with many of the books all listed for free in one place. I have not looked over all them so I can’t attest to the reading level and translation.
Because the book lists became so lengthy, I decided to set up separate pages for each time period. You can go to my Book Lists for High School page to see the links to each time period selections. You will also find many other selections of literature that are great choices for reading.
I have created downloadable forms for you to print and track your Great Books selections. These forms include reading lists for each time period – Ancient History, Middles Ages, Early Modern Times, and Modern Times. Each page includes:
- checklist box for marking your selected books
- box for using with multiple students
- location boxes for tracking the type of book you are using – audio, kindle, ebook, hardback, etc – or tracking where you have it stored – shelf, file, CD, library – or track both
- box to track the date that you intend for them to read it or either use it as a reading log and track the date it was read
This free printable pack can be downloaded by clicking on the “GET ACCESS….” image box below this post. Once you subscribe and receive your confirmation email, you will be directed to my library of free resources.
I hope you have enjoyed this post about The Great Books and have found it useful. I welcome all comments and questions below!!