Celebrating Great Books in October

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for October 4, 2018, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            The National Association of Independent Writers and Editors used to celebrate Great Books Week during the first week of October. I don’t know if this is something the American Library Association recognizes or not, or if anybody has ever heard of GBW. But here we are in the first week of October, and I want to talk about great books.

            Those of us who taught school for many years used to wonder exactly which books were the “Great Books” our youngsters should read. I’m not sure anyone ever agreed on which books should be on the list, and the list changed as new books were written. Public school teachers believed reading great books prepared their students for college.

            Many parents have also been concerned about which books their sons and daughters should read before going to college. In fact, even when I was a teenager, lists would come out of the “100 books you should read before going to college,” and I’ve seen similar lists ever since, — some say “50 books you should read,” and some as little as 25.

            Most of them contain some of the same book titles and/or authors, but today’s lists include books not yet written when I was in high school. I usually see books on those lists that I wouldn’t include, and I notice omitted books I would include, but then who am I to judge.

            I have always loved to read and was known to read anything in sight, even the family dictionary at home and encyclopedia volumes at school. However, I was rebellious enough not to want to read what the teachers in my life thought I should read, and certainly balked at a long list of great works the learned ones expected me to devour before I went to college.

            I must confess that I went to college and graduated from college without reading all the great books of the Western world.

            In those days, there was a push for reading the Harvard Classics before heading off to college. The Harvard Classics were a 51-volume set of classic works first compiled in 1909 by Harvard University President Charles W. Eliot. There were a lot of awesome books in that collection, and, believe me, if you read them all, you would be a well-educated person. I don’t see great books like that on some of today’s lists.

            Not having read the Harvard Classics before college, and beginning a career as an English teacher, in a belated manner, I subscribed to a buy-a-Harvard-Classic-book-each-month-deal. And, believe it or not, I read a “classic” each month, every month, for years.

            Just to give you an idea of what this collection of great books was like, some of the authors I read were Plato, Epictetus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristotle, Emerson, Newton, Rousseau, Descartes, Bacon, Montaigne, Milton, just to name a few. As you can tell, this was pretty heavy reading. You see, as a teacher, I felt I needed to know what many of the great minds of the world over the centuries were thinking.

            A side effect of reading many good books is improvement in your own writing ability and vocabulary. You can’t learn to write without reading good books.

            Today’s lists include such great American humorists as Mark Twain and Eudora Welty. Twain and Welty are great writers and a lot more fun to read than Descartes and Montaigne, but still great books. Still, you can learn to like to read good books that aren’t that much fun.

            Many famous novels today are “R-Rated,” and I wouldn’t want to recommend that our youngsters read them. Vulgarity or obscenity is not a quality I admire in a book.

            Great books should also be good books, and this first week in October is a good time to start reading some.


Ray Spitzenberger is a retired college speech and English teacher and a retired Lutheran pastor.


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