Audio: Teach-yourself classics

Culture | Tapes can help, but don't forget to read the actual books

Issue: "Debunking Darwinism," Nov. 22, 1997

One stumbling block to the resurgence in classical education is that most of us who wish to deliver it to our children didn't receive one ourselves. That has led many of us to do something quite foolhardy: We've gone out and bought a set of the Great Books, and waded in at volume one.

In my case, I found a used set of the Harvard Classics. When I arrived home with all 52 volumes, the nightmare began. Aristotle and Plutarch held me down while Burke and Descartes knocked me about the head and shoulders. Plato came along and I thought I was out of trouble, but all he wanted to do was dialogue.

And so I began looking around for helps: With a little assistance-academic training wheels, you might say-I was able to approach those books again, and this time I got something out of them.

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There are two newer helps that could prove invaluable to those making a go at the classics. They're tape sets that focus on the western canon. The first is The World's 100 Greatest Books by Inteliquest. It offers a 30-minute run-down of each book. The tapes explain the plot, the context, the life of the author, and the influences on and of the book. They also recite a few selections from the work.

The World's 100 Greatest Books set is essentially Cliff's Notes on tape. It offers just enough help so that readers can go to the texts without fear and trembling. Inteliquest's claim that the tapes will make listeners "instant experts" is obviously overstated. But the learning system it incorporates-complete with a "Knowledge Map" and study guide-really does etch the major points onto your memory.

Great Authors of the Western Literary Tradition is a very different product: The Virginia-based Teaching Company recorded the lectures of highly regarded university professors. Arnold Weinstein of Brown University, S. Georgia Nugent of Princeton, and Peter Saccio of Dartmouth offer listeners the gems that their Ivy League students have been paying tens of thousands of dollars to hear. Whereas the Greatest Books offers crib notes, the Great Authors set offers class notes.

Neither set is compiled by a Christian firm, and this leads to deficiencies. The Greatest Books set, for example, is apologetic that Dante places non-believers in hell. It explains, though, that many medieval Christians believed that Christ was the only route to heaven. The set also fails to list the Bible as one of the Greatest Books.

The Great Authors tapes have similar flaws. Blaise Pascal, a solid Christian whose Pensées contain some of the most moving prose written, gets an unsympathetic treatment by Michael Sugrue of Johns Hopkins University. Other lecturers flirt with feminist criticism, Marxist criticism, and even deconstructionism. But this is to be expected; like the Great Books themselves, the tapes need to be mined, not taken as gospel.

The tape sets are large; Great Authors has eighty 45-minute lectures, and Greatest Books has 50 tapes with a separate work on each side. They're also expensive, nearly $300 for each set. But they've increased the value of that Harvard Classics I bought; though my set was printed in 1952, the spines still cracked when I opened most of them-indicating they had never been read. With a few solid helps, such as those offered by these tapes, my books won't suffer that fate for much longer.


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