How I Chose Great Books for Excellence in Literature
Everyone has favorite books, so I often get questions on how I chose great books that are included in the Excellence in Literature curriculum. This explanation may help you decide whether or not this is the right curriculum for your family.
Choosing books for Excellence in Literature
There were many factors that went into my choice of books, but I considered the following questions to be most important as I selected what to include.
- Is this work foundational to an understanding of western civilization and culture?
- Is it a classic work that is regularly alluded to in current conversation (including newspaper, radio, books, movies, etc.)?
- Does it tell the truth about life and consequences?
- Is there something compelling about this particular work that makes it, more than another, deserve a place in the curriculum?
- Does it offer a unique perspective on the culture of its time and place?
- Does it have the power to engage readers and cause them to think deeply about important issues?
- Is it well-written?
- Has it endured the test of time?
While I considered whether or not I liked each work (and included as many favorites as possible), I couldn’t make selections solely on my own preferences. Some works are included because of their place in the literary canon, and the fact that the answers to the primary questions were positive. I have favorite books and historical periods, just as you probably do, but it’s important to have a good overview of the development of American, British, and World literature in order to understand the progression of ideas and the resulting worldviews.
Great literature tells the truth
I rarely enjoy dark, depressing literature, and I’ve tried to be very careful about what is included, while working within the above guidelines. Literature reflects the worldview of its writer, and if it’s written truly, the outcome of various worldviews will be evident. Great literature accurately reflects the fallen state of humanity, and one of its great themes is redemption. Literature that fails to acknowledge truth about fallen human nature not only forfeits the opportunity to present a complete picture of grace in redemption, but it also cultivates a warped, unrealistic worldview. It’s like reading romance novels to discover what marriage is all about.
Because great literature addresses essential truths about human nature, characters are not perfect. Literature can vividly portray consequences for poor choices as well as for good choices. Like parables in scripture or Aesop’s fables, stories give the reader an opportunity to learn from the mistakes and successes of others. Because a story usually contains a complete arc of thought, action, and consequence, it’s easier to learn from than real-life examples in which beginnings and endings aren’t always clear.
If you use all five years of the Excellence in Literature curriculum, you’ll encounter vivid portrayals of the great ideas of western civilization. You’ll read stories that illustrate freedom, justice, truth, humility, goodness, and love in action. You’ll also encounter their opposites — imprisonment, injustice, falsehood, pride, evil, and hatred. This is true to life and consistent with the range of stories found in the Bible. One of the most important parts of education is learning to discern what is good, and seeing through literature how practical virtue plays out.
For more on literature that tells (or doesn’t tell) the truth, I suggest reading “Of Weeds & Fairy Tales: The Idylls, Idols & Devils That Corrupt the Moral Imagination” by Vigen Guroian in Touchstone Magazine.
What about negative things?
I have had parents ask me whether a book had lying, adultery, violence, or other evils in it. If you’ve followed the discussion so far, you’ll know that literature that is true deals truly with these things. Rather than pretending that sin does not occur, great literature generally shows clearly what happens as a result of it. In any of these books, the emphasis is not on the negative or sinful act, but on the unfortunate result. Most older literature treats these events just as the Bible does — not graphically, but with utmost brevity and discretion, and in very old literature, often with the same language found in scripture.*
Young readers read differently
One thing that many parents don’t seem to remember is that married adults read things differently and with a completely different frame of reference than relatively sheltered young people. I first read and enjoyed most of the recommended texts as a teen or pre-teen, sometimes in a class, but usually independently. Later in life as I re-read them or heard them discussed by other adults, I realized that I’d totally overlooked or simply didn’t understand the bits that might potentially seem offensive to some adults. The more sheltered the young person, the less they will notice or comprehend.
In a conversation about another literature curriculum, a parent once commented that it would be nice to have a list of all the potentially offensive things in a book so that they could be skipped. I couldn’t disagree more. First, it would be nearly impossible to guess at everything that might offend someone.* Second, I believe that a list could be harmful for young people by calling attention to things that they would in innocence otherwise skim past as I did when younger. Finally, for less sheltered young people or sheltered students who are not being wise, a list could be easily misused to search for potentially provocative passages.
Finally, chopping into a story to focus on individual elements is much like serving the ingredients for lasagne on separate plates and expecting a diner to enjoy dinner and come away with an understanding of what lasagne tastes like. He may know what pasta, sauce, cheeses, meat, and herbs taste like, but he hasn’t experienced lasagne, and it’s unlikely that he found the meal particularly enjoyable. A student who receives abridged, pre-digested literature or a laundry list of things to skip is unlikely to enjoy the work or fully understand its themes.
Where better than home to discuss challenging ideas in a literary context?
I believe that literature can play an important part in the process of becoming “wise as serpents, and harmless as doves,” (Matthew 10:16). Literature, read and discussed in the home, seems to be an ideal vehicle for learning about life and seeing, in a completely non-threatening way, how various choices and worldviews are lived out. When great literature is coupled with history and context information, it provides a unique window into worldviews and their consequences.
My choices for Excellence in Literature include many of the books listed on major “Top 100 Books of All Time” lists, and in many cases reflect my own Christian worldview (though the curriculum itself is not religious). Some books such as The Great Gatsby are written from a different worldview, but each of them is included because the answers to the primary questions were positive. Books such as Gatsby speak truth about the author’s worldview, and they don’t gloss over it or make it appealing. This is truth, and while it’s not necessarily pleasant, it is helpful.
My goal in writing Excellence in Literature is to pass along my love for some of the most beautiful, thought-provoking literature in the world, and to help students learn to think critically and analytically while growing mentally and spiritually. Great books raise challenging questions, and I hope your family will enjoy many interesting conversations about what you read. Be ready to get lost in a story and emerge on the other side, having grown through walking in another’s shoes for a time. Great books can be great friends. Enjoy!
*One note about editions: For the curriculum, I often chose older editions of the selected books, as they are usually the most discreet about things parents might find worrisome. In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, for example, if you read a modern translation, you may to want to pre-read and omit the Miller’s Tale. Although it would be physically impossible for me to personally review every single edition or translation, I have favorite editions of many of the books, and you will find Amazon links for them from the focus text page at Everyday Education.