Great Books and Great Ideas - Why Bother?

A few years ago, when Tree and Little Jack were still in high school, a popular speaker and author was staying in our home.  He was admiring the set of Great Books of the Western World on our bookshelf.
"My, they look so nice on your shelf.  Unfortunately, I don't know anyone who actually reads them.  Do you?"

I hope he didn't see my jaw drop.  This person was considered an authority on books as well as homeschooling and influenced many people. It seems not everyone thinks these works are important  for a liberal education.  I silently wondered what he would recommend for high school beyond historical fiction.* 

When I began homeschooling,Charlotte Mason's third instrument of education, "Education is a Life", impressed me.

"Education is a life. That life is sustained on ideas. Ideas are of spiritual origin, and God has made us so that we get them chiefly as we convey them to one another, whether by word of mouth, written page, Scripture word, musical symphony; but we must sustain a child's inner life with ideas as we sustain his body with food." Vol. 6, p. 109

Ideas! Everyday! Yes, I thought, this is definitely something I want to offer my children.  When I saw that  Volumes 2 and 3 of the Great Books set were titled, "The Great Ideas", I knew I was on to something. These volumes attempt to  index and unify all the themes and ideas in volumes 4 to 54.  Ideas such as Beauty, Democracy, Eternity, Habit, Judgment, Liberty, Science, Truth and  Tyranny are just a wee sampling.  We  have used almost all of the volumes, starting with the Iliad of Homer and working through Augustine, Dante, Locke, Dostoevsky and all those in between. Plutarch and Shakespeare can be started during the elementary years, while most of the other titles are more suitable for junior high and high school.

"...the fact that much and varied humane reading, as well as human thought expressed in the forms of art, is, not a luxury, a tit-bit, to be given to children now and then, but their very bread of life, which they must have in abundant portions and at regular periods. This and more is implied in the phrase, "The mind feeds on ideas and therefore children should have a generous curriculum." Vol. 6, p. 111
An amazing characteristic of books with ideas is that you will go back to them over and over again.  Ideas keep you thinking.  They help you see what you don't know.  The Great Books fit this description.

Back to my guest at the bookshelf.

I finally answered, "Why, yes, we actually use these books quite a bit.  They're packed with ideas."  And now he knows someone who uses them.

Grace to boot,


*(Yes, historical fiction  can be challenging, is important and may have ideas- that's not my point here:-)


  1. Declare it! We need to hear it.

  2. Thanks for sharing this with the CM Carnival. My boys are in high school and we are enjoying quite a few Great Books.

    The other day my son actually asked if I had any ideas for books for him to read "just for fun". I asked him what he was interested in reading and he said "anything more than 10 years old". It made me smile.

  3. I enjoyed reading this today. Wish I had that same set on my bookshelves.

  4. I agree with the comment above me -- wish I had these on MY shelves. But, good news, I'm getting a Kindle. And since most of the Great Books are in public domain, I'll be stocked up in no time.

  5. What a beautiful photo of your books! Now, I thought I had read a lot of classic books, but looking through the list of titles via your link, there is a lifetime of reading just in your collection that I have yet to conquer!

    What did your guest say to your 'yes!'?

  6. Jeanne,
    He didn't say much about it after that. I think he became distracted by the dust jackets on my Opal Wheeler collection...but that's another post, isn't it? !!!
    Thanks for asking,

  7. Happy continued unpacking of all those great ideas!

    As someone who holds a spot in one of your (read) volumes once said:

    "The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them."
    -Mark Twain

  8. Nancy, such a great set of books to have on your shelf. People have made negative comments about the books on our shelves also. But, you know what, my children are constantly going to the shelf and pulling one of them off and I'll find it laying somewhre about my home with a book mark stuck in it. Thanks to Charlotte Mason we are raising readers.

  9. We certainly don't have your impressive range of books, but the few Great Books we have read have been life-changing.

    Recently, my 16-year-old told me that I had spoilt her for life. When I asked her to explain, she said that she just could NOT bear bad literature and music. She calls the music sometimes played on the radio 'junk' music and I call popular light reading as 'candy floss'!

    Your reading list is trully inspirational! Thanks for sharing.

  10. Thank you Nancy! You always offer such inspiring posts!

  11. Do you have any insight on either the 1952 first edition verses the more current 2nd edition from the 80's?

    1. I like the 80s version better. It has more updated translations and more volumes to include more 20th century works. Plus, they sure are pretty on my shelves!