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Great books adventure

Books | Three works that demonstrate classic literature still inspires

Issue: "Reno Under Fire," April 26, 1997

Great Books is a most unlikely tale of adventure. After a successful 30-year career as a journalist and critic, David Denby arrived at a crisis in which he felt as though he possessed "opinions without principles and instincts without beliefs." He determined that he needed to reeducate himself. He spent a year rereading the great classics of the Western literary tradition at Columbia University. This book is an account of that year.

Tracing his course from the Bible to Boccaccio, from Augustine to Austen, from Machiavelli to Marx, from Seneca to Shakespeare, and from Homer to Hume, Mr. Denby not only recounts the refreshing delights of thinking great thoughts, pondering great prose, and discussing great dilemmas; he also documents the surprising power of classic literature to inform our lives. His wry narrative of this "sometimes perilous, sometimes serene" adventure in learning is a soulful account of a hungry mind feasting on the very best of the best in the context of ordinary life in the modern world.

As brilliant as it is, though, I probably would not have appreciated Great Books nearly as much if I had not first read Leland Ryken's introduction to the classics, Realms of Gold. Throughout history, great works of literature have been among the most significant cohesive forces in Western civilization. They have helped to interpret our common experiences and served as a catalyst to our thinking. Realms of Gold places these foundational works in Christian perspective-enabling the reader to comprehend their significance through the lens of biblical truth.

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That is no easy feat, given that many of the classics are more than a little antagonistic to the Gospel and its fruits. Nevertheless, Mr. Ryken deftly accomplishes his task with a delightful but critical eye. He establishes a sound and scriptural apologetic for an appreciation of our long and imaginative legacy of art, philosophy, and literature. And he provides a practical approach to literary discernment and interpretation.

Ever wonder just which books are the great books? Terry Glaspey has provided a partial annotated bibliography of the Western canon in Great Books of the Christian Tradition. Ranging widely from the acknowledged master works of antiquity through modernity, this resource guide to good reading also has a panoply of helpful features-including specialty lists, agendas, and suggestions for group discussion. Indeed, it is an invaluable road map to the great books adventure.

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