Honors | Ideas and Experience - Modern
H212 | 0007 | T. Thayer
What is it that makes all of these “great books” great, and rewards
the effort it takes to read them? Most of them are famous, of course,
and some of them among the most famous of Western culture. But after
that, generalizing becomes more difficult. Some of these books were
strikingly original, pioneering, and even revolutionary when they were
written. Others summarized accepted wisdom of their respective times.
Some had an immediate, strong impact, while others had to outlast
stretches of obscurity to be rediscovered later. In some of them it is
the power of the author’s personality, or of his moral conviction, or
his faith, that reaches out to us most strongly. In others it is the
artistry or the quality of imagination, and still others the power and
rigor of thought.
In fact, most of these books have many sides to their excellence. Each
of them can also be seen to represent a noteworthy point in the
evolution of Western ideas and culture since about 1700. At the same
time, all of these books deal with ideas, values, and experiences that
concern human beings and human society as urgently today as they did
when they were written. All of these qualities, all of these broad and
lasting kinds of distinction, make these books worth reading--and even
It’s undeniable, though, that these books together make up only a
minute sampling from the abundance of Western culture. The earliest
books we will read date from the eighteenth century, when the United
States was still a colony ruled by the King of England. Several of the
books were written originally in English, beginning with Robinson
Crusoe. Other books on our list were written in German (Freud) and
Italian (Levi). Moreover, these books are quite diverse, and not a
single one of them is related to all the others in an obvious way. I
have tried to give the books some measure of continuity by choosing
mostly books by clear-sighted, resolute writers who are concerned with
the spiritual, moral, and intellectual organization of human affairs.
Each of them describes or documents a quest or journey of discovery,
whether its destination is outward or inward, geographical or
personal, intellectual or imaginative, scientific or spiritual.
Probably the most important continuity running through these books is
the basic one of universally shared concerns, on the one hand, and of
historical traditions by which later writers either accepted,
rejected, or developed what earlier writers had written.
To sample and document the continuing presence of these books in our
own recent culture--of their images and ideas, strategies and
truths--we will also watch a set of recent films: Apocalypse Now, Cast
Away, and The Patriot, among others, along with parts or all of recent
television documentaries on Mark Twain and the atomic bomb.
Discussions of the films will round off discussions of the books.
Homework will consist mainly of close reading of the assigned texts
with the aid of translators’ or editors’ introductions and notes.
Brief background readings in Mortimer Chambers’ (and others’) volumes
The Western Experience (available on closed reserve in the Main
Library reserve room) are recommended to those interested, although
these will not be required. Each book should be read in advance of the
class session for which it is assigned. Since virtually all of these
books yield more meaning, and are more interesting and enjoyable, the
second time through, a second reading is an even more helpful form of
class preparation than the first reading.
Our class time is reserved mainly for exchange of views about and
critical discussion of the books (and films, too). The value of these
discussions depends just as much on the open-mindedness,
thoughtfulness, and energy of your participation in them as it does on
my own efforts at guidance and critical control. This is why you are
asked to prepare for class with the intention of taking an active part
in the discussions. Graded work will include short (and easy) content
quizzes on the assigned books, no tests unless the class votes to have
them, and several short papers on suggested or individually developed
topics. Depending on what time can be made available, class activities
may also include visits to the Lilly Library to see original editions
and to the IU Art Museum.
Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, ed. John J. Richetti (Penguin Classics)
Thomas Paine, Common Sense, The Rights of Man, and Other Essential
Writings, intr. Sidney Hook (Meridian Book) ISBN 0452009219
Thomas Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population and A Summary
View of the Principle of Population, ed. Anthony Flew (Penguin
Classics) ISBN 014043206X
Lester R. Brown, Gary Gardner, and Brian Halweil, Beyond Malthus:
Nineteen Dimensions of the Population Challenge (W.W. Norton) ISBN
Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, ed. Victor Fischer and Lin
Salamo (University of California Press) ISBN 0520228383
Joseph Conrad, The Heart of Darkness, ed. Cedric Watts (Everyman’s
Library) ISBN 0460874772
Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, ed. James Strachey (W.W.
Norton) ISBN 0393008312
John Hersey, Hiroshima (Vintage Books) ISBN 0679721037
Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity, tr.
Stuart Woolf (Touchstone Book / Simon & Schuster) ISBN 0684826801