The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide To The Classical Education You Never Had, by Susan Wise Bauer
I must say that having read the expanded version of this book that it is not quite as good as I remember it being in the past. That does not mean that this book is by any means a bad one, it just has the distinct whiff of someone who is not quite on the right side of education. This would be a better book except that the author feels it necessary to indulge in the sort of identity politics within literature that dilutes the classics and allows everyone to feel as if they have contributed to great literature. Even so, for those who are looking to enjoy self-education, this book as a lot to offer and most of the selections are sound even if there are some questionable choices of what makes for a classic that were likely chosen to appeal to those engaged in self-education who might not appreciate self-education that is not suitably diverse enough to show some selections that they can identify with. If this is to be lamented, the author has certainly shown herself willing to engage in the sort of identity politics so as to make this book appealing beyond its usual target audience. If that is something I do not always appreciate, certainly there are others who would appreciate it more.
This book is a long one at more than 450 pages with ten chapters, all of them pretty large. Beginning with some acknowledgements, the book can be divided into two parts. The first part of the book looks at the preparation for self-education in adopting the approach that is necessary to educate oneself in reading great books (I). This task is accomplished through chapters on the training of your own mind that comes from reading good books, which the author assumes are likely to be unfamiliar to many people (1), the wrestling with books that comes from reading (2), keeping a journal of ideas that come from books so as to have a written record of what one has read and how it has affected the reader (3), and final preparations on starting to read (4). The rest of the book discusses reading works that allow one to enter the great conversation of literature (II), which include books in the following categories: novels (5), autobiography and memoir (6), history and politics (7), drama (8), poetry (9), and science (10). These chapters are all organized in a similar fashion, with a discussion of the course of a given genre and how it was shaped by various ages and their preoccupations, as well as a list of representative books in each category that are worth reading. The book then ends with permissions and an index.
What is it that allows someone to be good at self-education? The author makes the point that anyone who can read a newspaper likely has the raw skill to read a work of classic literature, and the books included here as examples of classics are sufficiently broad that self-education is a feasible if ambitious project if one wants to be well-rounded. Some of us find it easier to read certain kinds of books–the author seems to think that certain forms of literature are easier while I have always found it easier to read poetry, plays, and nonfiction despite their relative spareness as texts and their lack of the sort of literary qualities that the author values most highly. The author also uses a technique of multiple layers of reading that allow the reader to gain a great deal of insight out of works. To be sure, not all works are worthy of the sort of deep reading that she advocates for self-education, but deep-reading is a great way to be self-educated in general as it means that one is getting the most out of one’s reading materials, and that is only for the best.