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Review: The Great Books Reader

Books

John Mark Reynolds' The Great Books Reader: Excerpts and Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization (Bethany House, 2011) solidly hits its target audience of Christians who want to get into writers like Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, John Milton, and Karl Marx but don't really know how.

Reynolds runs Biola University's great books program, and he introduces each of the anthology's 29 excerpts with a single page of questions, thoughts, and important information. Other writers, ranging from Peter Kreeft to Hugh Hewitt, briefly guide readers with a single essay after each excerpt. Reynolds' style is breezy, sometimes too breezy. The other essayists avoid this error and neatly straddle the line between academic and popular writing.

Some of the greats anthologized are familiar; nearly everyone knows Shakespeare and Jane Austen. But how many have read Newton's Principia? Or Erasmus' Praise of Folly? Reynolds' introductory essay explains that this book is intended only as an introduction, not a full courtship. He hopes readers will be motivated to explore these classics in their entirety after having a taste of them.

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The excerpts are skillfully chosen, giving the true flavor of the whole work, and the essays on each work are helpful. Reynolds does let us wade into the swimming pool of the great books, and he even lets us get rather far from the pool's edge. But the water wings are always on, and there are no trips to the deep end.

For those who want a manageable way to get acquainted with the great books, or a single-year high school great books curriculum, this book is worth the investment.

Caleb Nelson
Caleb Nelson

Caleb grew up on a ranch in northern Colorado and is currently pursuing ordination in the Presbyterian Church in America. He lives in Greenville, S.C.

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