Will Rascals Defend Our Civilization… and What Books will they Read?

He faces execution each day.  Seven days a week, his jury of peers votes unanimously for capital punishment.  The judge’s hand is typically stayed.  Mercy reigns because the accused shows signs of improvement.  Perhaps, this little boy will one day also become fully human.  With him and his kind rests the fate of Western Civilization.

My son Willie’s peers are, as you may guess, his sisters (his younger brother bides his time and keeps a low profile).  Willie’s offenses are many, but on one particular morning as the jury howled for blood, the naughty five-year old could be heard dressing himself and singing this little tune:

Old Mr. B! Old Mr. B!
Hickamore, Hackamore, on the King’s
Kitchen door;
All the King’s horses, and all the
King’s men,
Couldn’t drive Hickamore, Hackamore,
Off the King’s kitchen door.

Now some of you will recognize this as a riddling tune by Squirrel Nutkin. My son has not been made to memorize it.  He has heard the Tale of Squirrel Nutkin a number of times, but it does not have the near liturgical status of a rather simple version of Chicken Little, whose current reading is now Vespers-like in its regularity.  Somehow the songs of Squirrel Nutkin are in him now, perhaps because Nutkin’s are songs in which he can participate and understand his own nature.

 Willie’s singing of “Old Mr. B!” was accompanied by a sort of twisting dance and chuckling laugher that suggested he saw something of himself in that furry agent provocateur, Squirrel Nutkin.  If you do not have your own five-year old, let me assure you that you simply cannot mete out justice against a little fellow who knows such tunes and takes them so very seriously.

Civilization Starts in Wonder and Play

My son’s song reminded me of a letter that my wife read to me once.  It was written by John Keats in 1818 to his little sister Fanny.  Keats had been back-packing in northern England and Scotland.  At the end of a long day hiking in Dumfries, during which Keats occasionally “scribbled” poems and thought for his sister, he trotted out the following lines—“a song about myself,” as he put it:

There was a naughty boy,
A naughty boy was he,
He would not stop at home,
He could not quiet be-
He took
In his knapsack
A book
Full of vowels
And a shirt
With some towels—
A slight cap
For night cap—
A hair brush,
Comb ditto,
New stockings
For old ones
Would split O!
This knapsack
Tight at’s back
He rivetted close
And followed his nose
To the north,
To the north,
And follow’d his nose
To the north.

This playful tune rolls on through four parts and ends as follows:

There was a naughty boy,
And a naughty boy was he,
He ran away to Scotland
The people for to see—
There he found
That the ground
Was as hard,
That a yard
Was as long,
That a song
Was as merry,
That a cherry
Was as red,
That lead
Was as weighty,
That fourscore
Was as eighty,
That a door
Was as wooden
As in England—
So he stood in his shoes
And he wonder’d,
He wonder’d,
He stood in his
Shoes and he wonder’d.

I find this poetic scribbling simple, beautiful, and wise.  I also find it as wonderful as the “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” which Keats wrote the following year.  Perhaps my judgment is shocking, but it is true.   Would a complicated argument or ornate poem burst the conceit of vagabond cosmopolitanism as effectively as this naughty ditty?

The romantic notion of genius beguiles us.  Too many of us think that something like the Odes of Keats (which are sublime in their perfection) are Divinity’s random appearance amongst men and have nothing to do with the specifics of culture or of an individual’s own mind, soul, upbringing, and conscious working out of talent.

The “cold pastoral” of the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” came from a naughty boy.  I would argue that it came out of the naughty boy precisely because he was a boy, a boy who liked to trick and amuse his sister, like many a boy.  His head was filled with potent sounds and images.  These delighted him constantly and made the fertile stuff from which his better-known poetry was born.  Let us not forget that Keats came from a particular kind of family and particular kind of education and particular culture.  Let us tremble at every loss or diminishment of that world which assumed such families, education, and culture would be wide-spread.

Culture Wars without Culture?

Our own disorders spring from so much neglect of the real soil of culture: the widely shared canon of good literature and the widely affirmed understanding that there must be goodness in literature, and that such literature should be read aloud within families and by each and every person who dares call himself civilized—before, during, and after their formal education.  Goodness is the soil of greatness.

I do not mean by goodness in literature and good literature that all characters should be plaster statues without depth or real complexity.  No, I mean literature which elicits a clear understanding of what is true, good, and beautiful, because what is light is seen nearby to what is dark.  Enchantment will not work in an imbalanced world of goody-goody mannequins.  The enchantment offered by good literature works because those reading or listening to a tale already know first-hand that life is complex.  We need go no further than Squirrel Nutkin to understand how this very real balance is achieved even in a children’s literature.  Nutkin is, at once, morally flawed and attractive.  No one who encounters Squirrel Nutkin—even one of five years—can fail to miss his conceit, fail to anticipate his demise, or fail to recognize his own fallenness in the impertinent will-to-power of Nutkin.

I will go so far as to say that a reader who has not had his experience nurtured and refined by the likes of Squirrel Nutkin is unlikely to comprehend Thucydides, St. Augustine, or Nietzsche.

Do the Great Books Sustain Wonder and Lead to Morality?

Over the last century, “great books” programs and colleges have fought a valiant battle to keep up the high standard of what it means to be human and civilized.  Sadly, most of the progenitors of these programs neglected or gave little time to thinking about the supporting culture—especially as it touched upon family life and social customs.  Worse still, some of the “great books” proponents thought that by rubbing up against Milton’s Areopagita, or joining in a seminar discussion of Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, leaders would be born who would create, leaven, and sustain a good society.  Somehow the idea has held steady for decades that an almost sacred encounter with great literature between the ages of 17 and 22 could transcend a hollow and malnourished family life, where little song was heard and none sung.

Yet the great books demand a supporting culture—both before and after and throughout.

Would we place our trust in a man who was well-versed in Nichomachus’s Introduction to Arithmetic or Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, but who could not complete a line of nursery rhyme, who had never slept under the stars with Jim Hawkins, never wanted to rescue the likes of Princess Flavia, never shrunk in horror at the witches of Macbeth, never wept at the death of a bull dog named Jack or sorrowed over the sins of Kristen Lavransdatter?  The one thing a liberal arts or great books education will not do is create a moral imagination where there is none.  Yet somehow many educators believe that reading advanced works and chatting about them will lead to a good society.  It may lead to a well-read society, but that need not be a good one or a happy one.

For this reason, I wonder how we can go about encouraging those “naughty” boys who at least learn their poetry and know in their bones what friendship, mirth, betrayal, danger, and courage are.

In short, should we not defend those naughty boys and girls, who are not really naughty, but still visibly filled with the eternally youthful wonder that sustains us through life? Such naughtiness may be our best hope for finding the future custodians of the great books and the whole of our civilization.

A Good Culture will need Civilized Readers… like John Senior

Crisis dedicates a weekly column to exploring just such works as would delight a naughty boy and help make him good and whole—the Civilized Reader.  These works are necessary not just for boys and girls, of course, but for all of us throughout our lives.

There is much more that can be said, but let me instead introduce one of the greatest advocates for the great and good books, John Senior.

The following essay by John Senior was handed down and circulated by students of the Intergrated Humanities Program (or Pearson College), The University of Kansas, over many years.  A version is placed at the end of Senior’s book, The Death of Christian Culture, which was published by IHS Press in 2008.

The text below has been checked against the IHS Press version.  It includes a few more things, however—namely some of Senior’s thoughts on spiritual reading, art and music.

When asked about the discrepancy, one of Senior’s students commented that it was never clear from the original manuscript which he had whether this was Senior’s version or something compiled by his colleagues, Dennis Quinn and Frank Nelick.   As the former student said, it does not matter, for among friends, who can truly distinguish the origin of ideas?

The essay is used with the kind permission of Andrew Senior and IHS Press.  I would like to thank David Whalen, Kirk Kramer, and Fred Fraser for their help in producing this version of the essay.

Senior’s list was the inspiration behind starting the Civilized Reader, which reviews the good and the great books.

The notes and manner of setting down the titles in the list are Senior’s own.

“The Thousand Good Books” by John Senior

The “Great Books” movement of the last generation has not failed so much as fizzled, not because of any defect in the books—“the best that has been thought and said,” in Matthew Arnold’s phrase—but like good champagne in plastic bottles they went flat.  To change the figure, the seeds are good but the cultural soil has been depleted; the seminal ideas of Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Thomas, only properly grow in an imaginative ground saturated with fables, fairy tales, stories, rhymes, adventures, which have developed into the thousand books of Grimm, Andersen, Stevenson, Dickens, Scott, Dumas and the rest. Western tradition, taking all that was best of the Greco-Roman world into herself has given us the thousand good books as a preparation for the great ones and for all the studies in the arts and sciences, without which such studies are inhumane.  The brutal athlete and the foppish aesthete suffer vices opposed to the virtue of what Newman called “the gentleman.” Anyone working in any art or science at college, whether in the so-called “pure” or the practical arts and sciences will discover he has a made a quantum leap when he gets even a small amount of cultural ground under him—he will grow up like an undernourished plant suddenly fertilized and watered.

Of course the distinction between “great” and “good” is not absolute.  “Great” implies a certain magnitude; one might say War and Peace or Les Miserables are great because of their length, or The Critique of Pure Reason its difficulty.  Great books call for philosophical reflection; whereas good books are popular, appealing especially to the imagination.  But obviously some writers are both and their works may be read more than once from the different points of view – this is true of Shakespeare and Cervantes, for example.

It is commonly agreed also that both “great” and “good” can only be judged from a certain distance. Contemporary works can be appreciated and enjoyed but not very properly judged, and just as a principle must stand outside what follows from it (as a point to a line), so a cultural standard must be established from some time at least as distant as our grandparents’. For us today the cut-off point is World War I before which cars and the electric light had not yet come to dominate our lives and the experience of nature had not been distorted by speed and the destruction of shadows.  There is a serious question—with arguments on both sides surely—as to whether there can be any culture at all in a mechanized society.  Whichever side one takes in that dispute, it is certainly true that we cannot understand the point at issue without an imaginative grasp of the world we have lost.

What follows is not a complete list:  almost all the authors have written many books, some as good as the ones given; and there are undoubtedly authors of some importance inadvertently left out—but this is a sufficient work-sheet.  Everyone will find more than enough that he hasn’t read; and everything on this list is by common consent part of the ordinary cultural matter essential for an English-speaking person to grow in.

Remember that the point of view throughout a course of studies such as this is that of the amateur—the ordinary person who loves and enjoys what he loves—not of the expert in critical, historical or textual technology.

The books have been divided (sometimes dubiously because some stand midway between the categories) into the stages of life corresponding to the classical “ages” of man and in general agreement with the divisions of modern child psychology as explained by Freud or Piaget.  And because sight is the first of the senses and especially powerful in early years, it is very important to secure books illustrated by artists working in the cultural tradition we are studying both as an introduction to art and as part of the imaginative experience of the book.  This is not to disparage contemporary artists any more than the tradition itself disparages contemporary experiment—quite the contrary, one of the fruits of such a course should be the encouragement of good writing and drawing.  A standard must never be taken as a restrictive straitjacket but rather as a teacher and model for achievement.  Book illustration reached its perfection in the nineteenth century in the work of Randolph Caldecott, Kate Greenaway, Walter Crane, Gustave Dore, George Cruikshank, “Phiz”, Gordon Browne, Beatrix Potter, Sir John Tenniel, Arthur Rackham, Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, and many others.

The rule of thumb is to find a nineteenth-century edition or one of the facsimiles which (though not as sharp in the printing) are currently available at moderate prices.  What follows is an incomplete work-sheet of unedited notes which may serve as a rough guide.


THE NURSERY (Ages 2 – 7)

Literary experience begins for very young children with someone reading aloud while they look at the pictures.  But they can begin to read the simplest stories which they already love at an early age.

Aesop.  Aesop’s Fables (The translation by Robert L’Estrange is the classic).
Andersen, Hans Christian.  Fairy Tales.
Arabian Nights.  There are two classic translations, one expurgated for children by Andrew Lang, the other complete by Richard Burton.
Belloc, Hilaire.  The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts; Cautionary Tales.
Caldecott, Randolph.  Picture Books, 16 little volumes (published by Frederick Warne).
Carroll, Lewis.  Alice in Wonderland; Through the Looking Glass.  Illustrated by Tenniel.
Collodi, Carlo. Pinocchio.
de la Mare, Walter.  Come Hither; Songs of Childhood.
Edgeworth, Maria.  The Parent’s Assistant; Moral Tales.
Ewing, Juliana.  Jackanapes.
Gesta Romanorum.  Translated by Swann (scholarly facsimiles).
Grahame, Kenneth.  Wind in the Willows (illustrated by Ernest Shepherd).
Greenaway, Kate.  Apple Pie; Birthday Book; Marigold Garden; Mother Goose; Under the Window; The Language of Flowers  (Frederick Warne).
Grimm.  Household Stories.  Illustrated by Walter Crane (Dover facsimiles).
Harris, Joel Chandler.  Uncle Remus.
Kingsley, Charles.  Water Babies.
Kipling, Rudyard.  Just So Stories; Jungle Book.
Lamb, Charles.  Beauty and the Beast; Tales from Shakespeare.
Lang, Andrew.  Blue Book of Fairies and other colors; five volumes; best illustrated by H.J. Ford (Dover facsimile).
Lear, Edward. Nonsense Omnibus; The Owl and the Pussycat.  Illustrated by Lear (Warne).
Lofting, Hugh.  Dr Doolittle’s Circus and others in the series.
Milne, A.A..  Winnie the Pooh and others in the series.
Mother Goose (Dover facsimiles – illustrated by Rackham; Viking Press).
Perrault, Charles.  Fairy Tales.  Illustrated by Dore (Dover).
Potter, Beatrix:  Peter Rabbit and 23 little volumes; some available in French, Spanish and Latin.  All illustrated by Potter (an important feature of these books is their small size, designed for a young child. Buy the individual books, not all of them collected in one big volume).
Stevenson, Robert Louis.  A Child’s Garden of Verses (Scribners).

SCHOOL DAYS (Ages 7 – 12)

Adams, Andy.  Log of a Cowboy.  Illustrated by N.C. Wyeth.
Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women; Little Men; others.
Aldrich, Thomas Bailey.  Story of a Bad Boy.
Burroughs, Edgar Rice.  Tarzan series.
Browning, Robert.  The Pied Piper of Hamelin. Illustrated by Kate Greenaway (Warne).
Burnett, Francis Hodgson.  The Secret Garden; Little Lord Fauntleroy.
Collins, William. John Gilpin’s Ride.  Illustrated by Caldecott (Warne).
Cooper, James Fenimore.  Deerslayer and many others.
Dana, Richard Henry.  Two Years Before the Mast.
Dickens, Charles.  Christmas Carol; Cricket on the Hearth; David Copperfield; Oliver Twist (These last may be reserved for adolescents or re-read.)
Dodge, Mary Mapes.  Hans Brinker.
Defoe, Daniel.  Robinson Crusoe.
Garland, Hamlin.  Son of the Middle Border and others.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel.  Tanglewood Tales.
Henty, George William.  A hundred “Boys Books”.
Irving, Washington.  Sketch Book.
James, Will.  Smoky; Lone Cowboy; Book of Cowboys Illustrated by James.
Kingsley, Charles.  Westward Ho, others
Kipling, Rudyard.  Captains Courageous; Stalky and Co. Illustrated by Millar.
Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth.  Hiawatha; Evangeline.
Marryat, Frederick,  Midshipman Easy; Masterman Ready, and others.
Masefield, John.  Jim Davis.
Porter, Gene Stratton.  Freckles and others.
Pyle, Howard.  Robin Hood and others.  Illustrated by Pyle.
Sewell, Anna.  Black Beauty.
Shakespeare.  Comedy of Errors.
Spyri, Johanna.  Heidi.
Stevenson, Robert Louis. Treasure Island; Kidnapped, and others.  Illustrated by N.C. Wyeth
Stowe, Harriet Beecher.  Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Tarkington, Booth.  Penrod and others in the series
Til Eulenspiegel  translated by Mackenzie.
Twain, Mark.  Tom Sawyer; Huckleberry Finn; The Prince and the Pauper – but not Connecticut Yankee and later novels.
Verne, Jules.  Around the World in Eighty Days; and many others.
Wilder, Laura Ingalls.  Little House on the Prairie; and others.
Wyss, Johann.  Swiss Family Robinson.

ADOLESCENCE (Ages 12 – 16)

Bronte, Emily.  Wuthering Heights.
Collins, Wilkie.  Moonstone and others.
Dampier, William.  A Voyage Round the World.
Daudet, Alphonse. Tartarin, Fromont Jeune.
Dickens, Charles.  Barnaby Rudge; Nicholas Nickleby; Old Curiosity Shop.
Doyle, Arthur Conan.  Sherlock Holmes series; White Company.
Du Maurier, George. Trilby.
Dumas, Alexander.  Three Musketeers; others.
Eggleston, Edward.  The Hoosier Schoolmaster.
Eliot, George.  Romola; Adam Bede; Mill on the Floss.
Fabre, Henri.  Selections from Souvenirs entymologique.
Hughes, Thomas.  Tom Brown’s School Days; Tom Brown at Oxford.
Hugo, Victor.  Quatre-vingt-treize; Les Miserables; Hunchback of Notre-Dame.
Ibanez, Blasco.  Blood and Sand; Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Le Sage, Alain.  Gil Blas.
Park, Mungo.  Travels in Africa.
Parkman, Francis. Oregon Trail.
Poe, Edgar Allen.  Tales; and poems.
Polo, Marco.  Travels.
Reade, Charles.  The Cloister and the Hearth.
Rhodes, Eugene.  Best Novels and Stories (edited by Dobie).
Scott, Walter.  Ivanhoe; Rob Roy; many others.
Shelley, Mary.  Frankenstein.
Shakespeare.  Midsummer Night’s Dream; Romeo and Juliet; Merchant of Venice.
Sienkiewicz, Henryk. Quo Vadis; With Fire and Sword.
Swift, Jonathan.  Gulliver’s Travels.
Wallace, Edgar.  Four Just Men; Sanders of the River; others.
Wells, H.G..  The Time Machine; The Invisible Man; others.
Wister, Owen.  The Virginian.

YOUTH (Ages 16 – 20)

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice; and others.
Balzac, Honore.  Pere Goriot; and many others.
Bellamy, Edward.  Looking Backward.
Bernanos, Georges.  Diary of a Country Priest.
Blackmore, Richard.  Lorna Doone; and others.
Borrow, George.  Romany Rye; and others.
Bronte, Charlotte.  Jane Eyre.
Buchanan, John.  The Thirty Nine Steps; and many others.
Butler, Samuel.  The Way of all Flesh; Erewhon.
Cabell, James Branch.  Jurgen; and others.
Cable, George Washington. Old Creole Days; and others.
Cather, Willa.  My Antonia; Death Comes for the Archbishop; and others.
Chekhov, Anton.  Stories; and plays.
Chesterton, G.K.. Father Brown series; Everlasting Man; A Man Called Thursday
Columbus, Christopher. Four Voyages to the New World.
Conrad, Joseph.  Lord Jim; and many others
Cook, James. Captain Cook’s Explorations.
De Maupassant, Guy.  Stories.
Dickens, Charles.  Bleak House; Our Mutual Friend; Martin Chuzzlewit.
Dostoyevsky, Feodor.  Crime and Punishment; Brothers Karamazov.
Doughty, Charles.  Travels in Arabia Desert.
Fielding, Henry.  Tom Jones; Jonathan Wilde
Hakluyt, Richard.  Voyages to the New World.
Hawkins, Anthony Hope. The Prisoner of Zenda.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Scarlet Letter; and others.
Irving, Washington.  Life of Columbus; Conquest of Granada; Life of George Washington
Jackson, Helen Hunt.  Ramona.
Lagerof, Selma.  Jerusalem; Gosta Berling; and others.
Loti, Pierre.  Iceland Fisherman; and others.
Manzoni., Alessandro. The Betrothed.
Melville, Herman.  Moby Dick; Billy Budd; and others.
Moore, Tom.  Lalla Rookh.
Morris, William.  News from Nowhere.
Scott, Robert.  Scott’s Last Expedition
Shakespeare.  MacBeth; Hamlet; Taming of the Shrew; As You Like It.
Stendahl.  The Red and the Black; The Charterhouse of Parma.
Stanley, Henry Morton. How I Found Livingstone.
Thackeray, William Makepeace.  Vanity Fair; Henry Esmond; and others.
Tolstoy, Leo.  War and Peace; and others.
Trollope, Anthony.  Barchester series
Turgenev, Ivan.  Fathers and Sons; A Nest of Gentlefolk; and others.
Undset, Sigrid.  Kristin Lavransdatter; and others.
Verga, Giovanni.  The House by the Medlar Tree; and others (translated by D.H. Lawrence)
Washington, Booker T.. Up from Slavery.


The Bible.  For cultural purposes, there are only two English Bibles:  for the Protestants the King James Version and for Catholics the Douay-Rheims.  Both are literary masterpieces as none other even remotely is. Since spiritual mysteries can only be communicated through poetry, whatever more modern versions may gain in accuracy is nothing compared to what is lost.

Bunyan, John.  Pilgrim’s Progress—the Great Protestant Masterpiece.
de Sales, St Francis.  Introduction to the Devout Life—the best there is.


Avoiding extremes of difficult and light—neither Bach nor Debussy—the distinction between “great” and good is blurred.  The student should listen to one work only for at least a week, going over and over the separate movements or acts until the repeated themes are recognized as they recur.  It is better to know a very few works very well than to run over vast amounts.  The following is a good order for neophytes:

Beethoven.  Violin Concerto.
Beethoven.  Pastoral Symphony.
Verdi.  Rigoletto.

With an opera, read the entire libretto in English, then take only a single scene and play it through several times trying to follow the words in Italian (or French or German) with an understanding of their meaning.  Having gone through the whole opera scene by scene, pick out great moments – arias, duets, etc.  It is good to have two recordings, one of the complete work, another of the highlights.

Puccini. La Boheme
Mozart.  Clarinet Concerto or Oboe Concerto; Jupiter Symphony; Piano music (especially as played by Gieserking)
Beethoven.  Seventh Symphony.
Brahms. Fourth Symphony.
Chopin:.  Selections.

(Most important:  Students should attend live concerts).


The Kenneth Clark series Civilisation. Clark published a book with illustrations and the text of the series. And most important, visits to museums and galleries.

William Edmund Fahey


Dr. William Edmund Fahey is President and Fellow of the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, New Hampshire.

  • knights not warriors

    Marzio’s Crucifix [1887] or Casa Braccio [1895] or Saracinesca [1887] by Francis Marion Crawford — for your upper-high-school list and college list, please.

  • hombre111

    A good premise, I think.  But unfortunately, civilization has moved on, so good luck trying to attract the attention of the text message generation with its twenty second attention span.  I was struck by how poverty stricken Dr. Fahey’s notion of spiritual reading is.   Just the Bible?   And in ancient English at that?    I think of the dozens of spiritual books that have nourished me over a lifetime, and don’t even know where to begin. 

    • William Fahey


      The spiritual reading selection is that of Dr. Senior.  Please, keep in mind his list was something that he never completed.  It is merely a beginning.   Have a look at either his Death of Christian Culture or Restoration of Christian Culture for a sense of what Senior would have suggested.

      • hombre111

        Thanks for pointing that out.  God bless.

  • That list is John Senior’s, not Dr. Fahey’s! Don’t worry, Dr. Fahey is very familiar and conversant with the Church’s rich treasure trove of spiritual reading. Take a look at his biography on the college site ; you’ll see he’s translating St. Robert Bellarmine.

  • hombre111

    It occurs to me that, since the world seems to have gone to Facebook, somehow these excellent ideas have to be expressed within that reality. 

    • Marchmaine

      You seem intent on being obstreperous.

      460,339 people like Jane Austen: http://www.facebook.com/JaneAustenAuthor

      Every few days followers are treated to a quotation to remind them of the pleasure they enjoyed when encountering it the first time:

      “One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.” — Emma Woodhouse, from EMMA (2/20/2012)

      And we may share these gems freely among friends…and they will sparkle on iPhone and iPad alike.

    • William Fahey


      I find this an odd remark.  Dr. Senior wrote out a list.  Then it was typed.  After several years, it was photo-copied, retyped, and eventually sent around by email over the course of 30 years.  It was put in print recently in his book, The Death of Christian Culture (also available in ebook format).  In the process of writing this article, I received version by pdf and email.  Now I have added the original list to a website, which is– for many readers– linked to their Facebook or LinkedIn pages.  I believe your own posting in the “com box” testifies to the success of putting these “excellent ideas” “within that reality.”  No?  That John Senior’s list has appeared in so many media attests to the enduring worth and ongoing attraction of his views.

      • hombre111

        Thanks.  I was trying to think historically.   The Christian Church, grounded in a Semitic culture, moved into a world grounded in Greek culture and adapted.   If people were using the language of neoPlatonism, they were willing to adapt, and did.  Now something was probably lost in the exchange, but the Roman Empire was suddenly open to the Christian message. 

        Then I skip forward to St. Thomas Aquinas.  Plato was losing his influence over the thinking of educated people and suddenly Aristotle appeared.  The Church was forced to face a coherent explanation of reality that did not include the Christian God.   Then Thomas took Aristotle and showed how his philosophy could be used to explain our Faith. 

        In both instances, the solution could have been:  Don’t yield and give up our inherited way of explaining things.   But they adapted instead. 

        So, today.  You are a lot younger than me.   If you were going to do what Justin or Athanasius  or Thomas did, how would you do it?

  • MarkRutledge

    ” the seeds are good but the cultural soil has been depleted”

    Alas, this masterful turn of phrase was left to waft away in the breeze.  It seems to me an important question was left unaddressed, that is how to replenish the soil.  The obvious answer, so obvious as to be left uspoken, is we replenish the soil one child at a time in our own families.  On the greater scale, this calls us all to work for strengthening the family as a national institution.  Only thus can we restore the fruits of western civilization to our own land.

  • execvp

    You are correct that the text-message generation cannot suddenly pick up (or listen to) Homer for a quiet evening of joy and understanding.  I am afraid, however, that Homer cannot be acquired any other way.  Dr. Senior made the same point when he contrasted calligraphy and typing.  He wrote: 

    “This is not merely writing, it is what the Greeks called kalligraphy, literally, beautiful writing.  Typing is unbeautiful, impoverished, starved writing, sacrificing all that is beautiful and personal for sheer mechanical utility.  Calligraphy, although useful, rises above utility, as crystal is above glass, as wisdom is above information.  Modern readers are likely to complain that calligraphy is “hard to read,” but they will also complain that crystal must be polished and that wisdom cannot be acquired in three lessons.”

    Wisdom cannot be given or received in a text message.  One reason for this is what Romano Guardini called collectedness (and I would add his HOW TO PRAY to the list).  Collectedness requires a capacity to sit still and be quiet and allow that grace on nature action that we all desire.  Modern communication technology is the enemy of sitting still and being quiet.  My brother William moves more gracefully in the world of communication technology than do I (I’m pretty sure I do not know what a com box is), but he reaches the hearts, imaginations, and souls of his students around the seminar table, as I have seen him do, much more so than he does with his fine online essays.  the fault is not in his prose style, it is in the medium.  The effort to compare a “platonic to aristotelean shift” to a “literate to frenzied-incapable-of-thought shift” seems to me not to work.  The second is really a difference of kind.

    I encourage readers of William’s superb post to print out Dr. Senior’s list and buy those books, especially, as he suggests in their 19th Century illustrated version.  Decorate your children’s rooms with these books.  The results will please you.

    I also encourage comment makers on this site to use their real names.  Not using your real name seems a kind of deceit.

    Oh–I think I just figured out what a com box is.  It’s this thing I’m typing–excuse me, word processing–in.

    Christopher Check

    • William Fahey

      Brother Christopher,

      Please supply further lists.   I would be interested in knowing what else you would place in the Spiritual Readings section.

      • execvp

        Brother William,

        Here are two of many:

        Abandonment to Divine Providence (JP de Caussade)
        (There was a Sophia edition once; still?)

        Soul of the Apostolate (Dom Chautard)

        Peace and Good,

        Christopher Check

  • clane

    Dear Dr. Fahey,

    Warm greetings from a former student, and many thanks for posting Senior’s essay and book list, along with your excellent introductory essay. The discussion, especially Mr. Check’s comments on spiritual reading (notably Guardini and Dom Chautard), makes me wonder how we can best integrate a spirit of silence (or collectedness) with a literary moral formation.

    It seems that even the best of good books could be distractions from the “one thing necessary,” if taken in excessive doses. Certainly, a hefty diet drawn from this list would contribute to far more collectedness than a typical diet of television, the internet, text messages, and the like. Yet there seems a place for mortification of the intellect and the imagination even with respect to the stimulation that good (and great) literature can give us.

    Both as adult readers of and as parents, is there a middle state between dullness and overstimulation, one that puts good books in a context of our call to contemplation (and the interior silence prerequisite to that contemplation)?

    In Christ,
    C. Lane

  • M.Hand

    This conversation came and went a long time ago, but I want to comment on the MarkRutledge response. He says that Dr.Senior (I had him as one of the three professors of the IHP during my Freshman year at KU in 1982)–the last year that he taught-did not answer the question as to how to replete the soil. It seems to me that the essay was misread by Mr.Rutledge. Dr.Senior is making the distinction between the “Great Books” and the “Good Books”. The “Great Books” programs fizzled because the “Good Books” had not been read. That is why he was compelled to write the list of “Good Books” as a remedy to the depletion of the cultural soil. Now, over 30 years after my classes with Drs.Senior, Nelick and Quinn-and particularly Dr.Quinn’s Children’s Literature class, 25 years of marriage and 7 children to test the list, I know he was right. My children have read a lot of the Good Books list, and the older ones are now able to read the “Great Books” without “fizziling”—granted, they have also had the advantage of an intact family, and a Catholic culture/community.

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