Blowhard, Esq. writes:
One of the most fascinating spectacles of 2015 was the hilarious and horrifying student protests across American universities. The Red Guard hysteria spread from one campus to another with a voraciousness that would make the Bubonic plague jealous: Mizzou, Yale, Claremont McKenna, Amherst, Occidental, University of Kansas, University of Vermont, Princeton, Hamilton — the list just keeps growing. Through it all, two thoughts kept occurring to me: 1) “Is the revulsion that I’m feeling what my grandparents went through when the student radicals took over colleges in the ’60s?” and 2) “Why the fuck would any sane person want to go to college now?”
I guess I should rephrase that last question: Why the fuck would any sane person want to go to college for any reason other than the signalling function? Sure, there are always exceptions, but given the current intellectual climate, exorbitant cost, and confusion over what the university’s mission is in the first place, one could hardly be blamed for avoiding the entire enterprise.
Besides, given the widespread availability of quality college lectures, cheap ebooks, and other online resources, it’s easier than ever to educate yourself. So with that in mind, my nerdy list-making instinct kicked into action and I decided to create a DIY liberal arts curriculum. Looking for an ambitious and probably unrealistic New Year’s resolution? Here ya go. If nothing else, consider it a proof of concept.
- My focus is Western Civilization with an emphasis on Europe and the United States. The histories of Asia, Africa, Central and South America are undoubtedly important, but I’m sticking to what I know best. For those interested in the East this looks like a good place to start.
- This curriculum is centered on the humanities: history, literature, art, philosophy, religion, and law. Except for some discussion in the lectures on the Enlightenment, I’ve largely omitted the history of science. Those wishing to pursue that topic can start here. I’m also light on poetry and philosophy.
- No primary works by any living authors or artists. This course ends at WWII.
- Each section starts with a Great Courses series to provide a historical framework that I then flesh out with primary and good secondary sources. The GC lectures all reflect their discounted price. They go on sale frequently.
- Many of the classics can be had for free from Project Gutenberg, but I opted for Penguin or Modern Library editions for three reasons: 1) professional editing and typesetting; 2) for foreign works, good to great modern translations; and 3) contextual essays and other info. If you opt for public domain versions or collections from e-publishers like Delphi Classics, you can significantly cut your bill.
- I erred on the side of ebooks, but for some works I opted for dead-tree versions because art books don’t look nice on Kindle screens or an ebook version just doesn’t exist.
- For those who live in a big city or have access to a good library system, you can do this whole course nearly for free. Many libraries carry the GC lectures on CD or DVD.
- Supplemental reading recommendations are usually biographies and historical fiction, both of which I find to be excellent ways of delving into history. I’d also recommend liberal use of Wikipedia to fill in gaps or to pursue any alternate paths.
- There are many good academic monographs out there but I’ve avoided them in favor of stuff written for a general audience. If you prefer academic works, the GC lectures come with booklets that contain extensive bibliographies.
- My list is not meant to be definitive or a “canon” of any kind. This is my own quirky take on Western history and culture using works that are widely considered to be central to the West, that I myself have enjoyed, or that have been recommended to me by trusted friends.
- I’m sure many will quarrel with how it’s organized and how works are categorized. Because this is obviously your own education, of course feel free to reconfigure and reorder as needed.
- Equipment needed: Amazon Kindle (I like the Voyage, but the PaperWhite is $80 cheaper) and smartphone with the Great Courses app installed. I assume anyone reading this has a smartphone or equivalent device (like an old iPod Touch), so the final price omits that item.
Prehistory & the Ancient World (to the 4th Century)
I’ve divided this era into three sections: prehistory/early civilization, Greece, and Rome.
Big History by David Christian, $65. The BIG picture.
Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors by Nicholas Wade, $14.
Origins of Great Ancient Civilizations by Kenneth Harl, $20. A cursory yet still good look at the origins of civilization. You may wish to spend more time on the Sumerians, Egyptians, etc.
Literature & Art
The Story of Art by E.H. Gombrich, $24. A great, affordable one-volume history of Western art to consult regularly. Those wishing to splurge on something more lavish and comprehensive can go with Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: The Western Perspective for $300.
The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form by Kenneth Clark, $33. A how-to manual for cultivating an appreciation of beauty.
The Iliad and The Odyssey of Homer, $25. Lots of versions out there to choose from. I went with Fagles’s translations because I find him to be more readable than others.
The Landmark Herodotus, $16.
The Landmark Thucydides, $17. Recommend hard copies of these since they contain a lot of maps and pictures that don’t render well on Kindle screens.
Aeschylus I and II, $6. The Oresteia.
Sophocles I and II, $6. The Theban plays.
Euripides I through V, $15. Medea and The Bacchae. These volumes of Greek tragedy, all edited by Lattimore and Grene and published by the University of Chicago, can be had on sale for $3 each.
Philosophy & Religion
Tanakh, $12. It’s worth spending some time with a translation of the
Old Testament Torah from a purely Jewish POV. For those wishing to wrestle with the five books of Moses as interpreted by the Jewish sages, I highly recommend the ArtScroll Chumash for $30.
Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, $0. Included in the Modern Library Greek and Roman philosophy bundle linked to immediately above.
Letters from a Stoic by Seneca, $9.
Discourses and Other Writings by Epictetus, $10.
King James Bible, $8. Because it’s so central to the West, it’s worth having a hard copy of this one. I like the Barnes & Noble edition, which contains Doré’s illustrations, for $18. 45
The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution by Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending, $10.
The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution by Denis Dutton, $9.
Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why by Ellen Dissanayake, $21.
History of Ancient Egypt by Bob Brier, $65.
Medieval World (5th Century to 14th Century)
This era is divided into three sections: the early, high, and late Middle Ages.
Literature & Art
Philosophy & Religion
Digest of Roman Law, $8.
Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition by Harold Berman, $20. The ebook version of this one is poorly formatted (though not unreadable), so you might want to spring for a hard copy, which is actually two bucks cheaper.
Julian by Gore Vidal, $15.
Barbarian Empires of the Steppes by Kenneth Harl, $50.
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Gibbon, $3.
The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization by Bryan Ward-Perkins, $9. A refutation of 20th century revisionism that affirms some of Gibbon’s conclusions.
The Inheritance of Rome by Chris Wickham, $15.
The Vikings by Kenneth Harl, $50.
The Saxon Tales by Bernard Cornwell, $60.
The Black Death by Philip Ziegler, $12
Shakespeare’s History Plays, $0. Included in the complete Shakespeare below.
Renaissance, Reformation, & Enlightenment: Early Modern World (14th Century to 18th Century)
This era is divided into two sections: the Renaissance/Reformation and the Enlightenment.
Literature & Art
Lives of the Artists by Vasari, $6. Explore the works of the Great Masters in more depth here and here.
Don Quixote by Cervantes, $10.
Complete Works of Shakespeare, $25.
Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of Milton, $3.
Diary of Pepys, $3.
Gargantua and Pantagruel by Rabelais, $14.
Misanthrope, Tartuffe, and Others Plays by Molière, $5.
Robinson Crusoe by Defoe, $2. The first major English novel was an adventure story.
Gulliver’s Travels by Swift, $1.
The Life of Samuel Johnson by Boswell, $17.
Complete Novels of Austen, $19. Pride & Prejudice is the most popular and Persuasion the most critically lauded, but I prefer Emma.
War and Peace by Tolstoy, $1. I realize this was written in the 19th century but, for the ambitious, it makes a great companion to Desean’s history of the Napoleonic era.
Faust I & II by Goethe, $10.
How to Listen to and Understand Great Music by Robert Greenberg, $95. Time to introduce the history of classical music.
Philosophy & Religion
A Treatise of Human Nature by Hume, $8.
The Wealth of Nations by Smith, $2. The Theory of Moral Sentiments is also very much worth your time.
The Federalist & The Anti-Federalist, $16.
Autobiography of Franklin, $10.
The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy by Jacob Burckhardt, $3.
Autobiography of Cellini, $9.
The Reformation by Diarmaid MacCulloch, $19.
The Book of Common Prayer, $17.
Seeing Through Clothes by Anne Hollander, $31. Why not spice things up with a little fashion history?
Complete Works of Johnson, $2.
History of the English Language by Seth Lerer, $50.
Reflections on the Revolution in France by Burke, $7.
The French Revolution by Carlyle, $3.
Napoleon by Felix Markham, $9.
The Aubrey-Maturin Novels of Patrick O’Brian, $217.
Modern World (19th and 20th Centuries)
The two-part division of this era is obvious.
Literature & Art
Vanity Fair by Thackeray, $6. Better than Dickens.
Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights by the Brontës, $8.
Complete Works of Dickens, $3. A Tale of Two Cities if you’re into the French Revolution, Hard Times for a portrait of life during the Industrial Revolution, while Great Expectations and Oliver Twist are the go-to evocations of Victorian society, and Bleak House is generally considered his best.
Moby-Dick by Melville, $4.
Complete Short Stories of Poe, $1.
Leaves of Grass by Whitman, $12.
Selected Poems of Dickinson, $3.
Complete Works of Twain, $3. Huck Finn is the one people usually talk about, but I like his nonfiction memoirs Life on the Mississippi and Roughing It better.
Collected Works of Conan Doyle, $3.
The Virginian by Wister, $7. The Western cowboy archetype starts here.
The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky, $6.
How to Listen to and Understand Opera by Robert Greenberg, $65.
The Trial by Kafka, $7.
Ulysses by Joyce, $2.
In Search of Lost Time by Proust, $50.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Loos, $13. As I noted previously, Loos’s novel was wildly popular; she included Joyce and Churchill among her fans. Given the work she did for Griffith, she’s a nice transitional figure into the movies, which supplanted novels as the dominant narrative form in the 20th century. Fabrizio’s list of American films is a great place to start. I’d focus most on the 20s and 30s, ending with John Ford’s STAGECOACH, which makes a nice bookend to The Virginian.
Philosophy & Religion
Democracy in America by de Tocqueville, $9.
The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels, $2 and Marx: A Very Short Introduction by Peter Singer, $5.
Collected Works of Chesterton, $2. Particularly “What’s Wrong with the World,” “Heretics,” “Orthodoxy,” and The Man Who Was Thursday.
Basic Writings of Nietzsche, $3. I like PR’s take: Nietzsche is the great stand-up comedian of Western philosophy.
Decline of the West by Spengler, $1.
Civilization and Its Discontents by Freud, $1. Freud has really taken it on the chin the last couple of decades, hasn’t he? Still, he was a big deal for most of the 20th century.
Irrational Man by William Barrett, $14. The book that introduced existentialism to America.
The Romantic Revolution by Tim Blanning, $3.
Selected Poetry of Wordsworth, $3.
The Flashman Papers by Fraser, $174. A fantastic fictional series about British colonialism.
Lincoln by Gore Vidal, $14. Vidal’s Narratives of Empire series is a great alternative history of the United States.
Memoirs of Grant, $18. This edition for $1 is also good.
A Renegade History of the United States by Thaddeus Russell, $13.
American Religious History by Patrick Allitt, $35. Russell and Allitt make excellent contrasts.
In Praise of Commercial Culture by Tyler Cowen, $14. Maybe the market isn’t the enemy of art.
Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America by Lawrence Levine, $28. The barrier between “high” and “low” culture is a lot more permeable than people like to think.
Stompin’ the Blues by Albert Murray, $10. An approximate for a used copy because this one is out of print.
Elements of Jazz by Bill Messenger, $16. Black American music was hugely influential in 20th century world culture. Lots of jazz and blues to sample on YouTube.
The Genius of the System by Thomas Schatz, $8. Hollywood movies from the 20s and 30s have never been topped.
Grand Total: $4,030
That’s a little over four grand for everything on the list — a tricked-out Amazon Voyage, about 33 GC lectures, 156 ebooks (actually, a lot more since many of the books are compilations), and 23 dead-tree books.
- While you’re at it, upgrade the dictionary on your computer and Kindle too.
- My anti-modernism reading list would make a great elective.
- Philosopher Roger Scruton on how the Left has destroyed intellectual life.
- Think this whole idea is kinda silly? You’re probably right. Check out Alex Beam’s cultural history of Mortimer Adler’s Great Books program.