IT IS NO SECRET THAT great minds usually come to us in great books. But what are the Great Books? How many are there? And why should we read them?
Books, from papyrus to Kindle, are the depositories and vessels of knowledge and ideas──the distillations of civilizations──that get passed on from one generation to the next.
From time to time, centres of learning would deem certain writings of classic value and primary influence that they would mandate their members to get familiar with and be conversant in the select texts. The Great Books List may, however, vary with the institutions, the cultures or the times.
The most famous is perhaps the Harvard Classics, a 51-volume anthology of world literature compiled in 1909 by Harvard president Charles W. Eliot (1834–1926). This selection is mostly Eurocentric and authored very rarely by feminine or non-western hands.
Harold Bloom, prominent literary critic and professor of Yale, identified 26 men and women of letters, from Jane Austen to Virginia Woolf, as standard-bearers of the western canon.
There are 25 books honoured on CUHK’s list. In Dialogue with Nature and In Dialogue with Humanity, the two standard texts for CUHK’s general education course which every freshman since 2012 has to take, contain extracts from 25 sources in the Eastern and Western canons of literature, philosophy, political thoughts and scientific treatises. In addition to Homer and Plato, it includes Chinese classics such as The Analects and Zhuangzi. The Qu’ran also makes the list.
Why should we read the Great Books? Apart from a passport to the society of educated citizens, the Books actually do you good, and not just while you are reading them for your exams but throughout your life, as Italo Calvino (1923–1985) puts it in his ‘Why Read the Classics?’:
Books read then can be ... formative, in the sense that they give a form to future experiences, providing models, terms of comparison, schemes for classification, scales of value, exemplars of beauty──all things that continue to operate even if a book read in one’s youth is almost or totally forgotten.
The Great are also the Good.
This article was originally published in No. 516, Newsletter.