Saturday, March 5, 2011

"The Well Educated Mind" by Susan Wise Bauer

Subtitle: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had

Published: 2003
Read: 2011
Genre: Non Fiction
Rating: 4
Reviews: Goodreads

This book was in my library's carousel entitled "Books on Books".

Bauer is a professor of American Literature at the College of William and Mary in my home state of Virginia.  This paragraph of the jacket insert intrigued me:
"..offers brief, entertaining histories of five literary genres - fiction, autobiography, history, drama and poetry - accompanied by detailed instructions on how to read each type."
More specifically, the chapter called "Keeping the Journal: A Written Record of New Ideas" is what prompted me to check out the book.  After listening to The Art of Reading in which Professor Spurgin encourages taking notes while reading, I wanted to get a bit more direction.  And this book delivered.  I read the book (and journaled through it) while on the plane for a business trip to San Diego.  I was itching to dog-ear and write in the book and have determined that it is one that I must have.

Bauer says that classical learning is divided into three stages, known as the trivium.
"In the classical school, learning is a three-part process.  First, taste: Gain basic knowledge of your subject. Second, swallow: Take the knowledge into your own understanding by evaluating it.  Is it valid?  Is it true?  Why?  Third, digest: Fold the subject into your own understanding.  Let it change the way you think - or reject it as unworthy.  Taste, swallow, digest; find out the facts, evaluate them, form your own opinion."
From this premise, introduced in the first chapter, the rest of the book flows.  Bauer devotes three additional chapters on fleshing out these stages and then proceeds with specific application to the five genres.  She also gives an annotated book list that should be read in order because:
"when you read chronologically, you reunite two fields that should never have been separated in the first place: history and literature."    
A second reason is that:
"writers build on the work of those who have gone before them, and chronological reading provides you with a continuous story. What you learn from one book will reappear in the next.  But more than that: You'll find yourself following a story that has to do with the development of civilization itself."
Bauer gives her opinion as to why one translation/edition of a medieval or foreign work might be better than another.  If there is a choice, she puts the passages side by side so the reader can determine which one will be more suitable.

She also suggests audiobook versions for the Illiad and Odyssey by Homer and Beowulf.   If I ever tackle these epic poems, it will be by listening to them. 

Here is the recommended fiction list:
  1. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (1605)
  2. The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan (1679)
  3. Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726)
  4. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1815)
  5. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (1838)
  6. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847)
  7. The Scarlett Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne  (1850)
  8. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851)
  9. Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1851)
  10. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1857)
  11. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1866)
  12. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1877)
  13. The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy (1878)
  14. The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James (1881)
  15. Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884)
  16. The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane (1895)
  17. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1902)
  18. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (1905)
  19. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
  20. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925)
  21. The Trial by Franz Kafka (1925)
  22. Native Son by Richard Wright (1940)
  23. The Stranger by Albert Camus (1942)
  24. 1984 by George Orwell (1949)
  25. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1952)
  26. Seize the Day by Saul Bellow (1956)
  27. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1967)
  28. If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino (1972)
  29. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison (1977)
  30. White Noise by Don Delillo (1985)
  31. Possession by A.S Byatt (1990)
Since literature should not be separated from history, she suggests investing in history books such as History of the American People by Paul Johnson and Oxford History of Britain by Kenneth O. Morgan. In preparation, the reader should look at twenty years of history on either side of the novel, perhaps keeping a timeline of main events in the reading journal. 

This is just a snippet of useful information found in the book.  I do plan to buy it and keep as a reference book.  I like the idea of brushing up on my history at the same time. 

I'm still deciding on whether or not to start a second journal - a literary journal or a "commonplace book".  I would use it to implement the ideas gained thus far.  In addition, I found a "how to to get started" site. 

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