What Are The Great Books of Classic Literature?
Have you heard the words "great books of literature" and wondered what this means? What makes them "great" and why are they different than other books of classic literature? Understanding what the Great Books are and why they are important is key to helping your student learn to analyze these challenging books of literature.
The “Great Books” refers to works of literature that are seen as the best expressions of Western Culture, such as our inherited ideas & traditions, social norms, ethics, and values. They provide a guide by giving us morals, understanding, and perspective beyond ourselves.
A student that has read and analyzed the great books, learns a lifelong skill that teaches them to continue to think and analyze.
Who Wrote the Great Books?
To understand the Great books, we must first know who wrote them. Written by some of the greatest philosophers and educators of our times, these books give us access to what is called the “great conversation” of history. People such as Aristotle, Plato, Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens and Homer are just a few of the authors of these classic works of literature, philosophy and science.
The Great Books used to be a standard part of many high school and college curricula, but sadly, are now neglected as too challenging to read and analyze. They are however, making a comeback into many homeschools, colleges and even some public school systems. Educators are beginning to realize that to neglect these books is to neglect our history and the shaping of our nations.
Why Should We Read The Great Books?
“The old books lay a foundation for all later learning and life” David Hicks, Norms and Nobility 1999
The difference in reading the great books verses other books is in the way the student reads and interprets them. In addition to reading, they will do a literary analysis which will consist of analyzing, interpreting, questioning, discussing and writing. They gain an understanding of the bigger picture of history, make connections in science and most of all, they see books as a tool for knowledge and not just for reading pleasure.
These books are not randomly chosen, they come from an established list of readings that has endured time and can come in the form of novels, plays, poems, etc. They are "great" books because they express truth, goodness and beauty, connect us to the past. and challenge us with universal problems and emotions.
In addition, reading these great works of literature exposes us to a greater vocabulary and well-spoken words.
How to Read and Analyze the Great Books
Reading any of the great books can be challenging, which is why there are many options to studying the Great Books, such as online courses, study courses or putting together your own program.
Studying the great books can start in 7th or 8th grade. At this stage, a student will need plenty of guidance and discussion, but the more training and preparation they have in reading difficult books, the easier it will be for them in later grades.
It can be helpful to start with a class or curriculum that introduces Literary Analysis before jumping into the great books. A simple plan for studying literature can follow these steps:
- Read the book and take notes for each chapter.
- Have one-on-one Socratic discussions daily or weekly.
- Write weekly outlines & summaries of your discussions & notes.
- Once the book is completed, using the weekly summaries and outlines, write an essay on the book.
For most parents, it's just not realistic to thoroughly read every book our students read, so finding a good literature curriculum is essential. Instead, look for programs that provide detailed summary notes, discussion points or questions for each book, allowing you to have in-depth discussions.
Below are several excellent resources for teaching literary analysis and socratic discussions.
I strongly recommend this book for both parent and student - Mortin Adler’s How to Read a Book . In his book, Adler explains how to read, analyze and write about classic works of literature for all ages. He also gives tips on how to take notes while reading.
I also recommend Susan Wise Bauer’s The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had . She gives a brief history of six different genres and lists of Great Books with detailed annotations, discussion questions and suggestions on how to read each genre. The Well-Trained Mind Academy offers classes in History & Literature courses that integrate the Great books.
Veritas Press Omnibus courses are excellent as well. These classes start in 7th grade and offer a thorough study of the great books. They can be taken online with a live class or with a self-paced study.
John Sutherland’s A Little History of Literature provides a survey of The Great Books and their genres, from Beowulf to Shakespeare.
Institute for Excellence in Writing Timeline of the Classics is a chronological index of classic world literature and provides instructions for journaling and outlining.
Institute for Excellence in Writing Teaching the Classics prepares you to use the Socratic method to teach character, plot, theme, and other elements of fiction and literary analysis.
Reading Roadmaps is a comprehensive, 231-page, scope & sequence manual with annotated reading lists. It is designed as a supplement to Teaching the Classics and brings together more than 200 classic titles. Each entry summarizes the story’s plot, conflicts, themes, and literary devices, along with links to teacher resources and suggestions for alternate titles.
Ready Readers are literature collections for each grade level. The sets provides complete discussion notes, with questions from the Socratic List on Conflict, Plot, Characters, Setting, Theme, Context and Literary Devices. Each question is answered in full with references to the text. Each set also provides completed story charts and a short author biography for each title.
Institute for Excellence in Writing Windows to the World teaches students how to analyze elements of literature: setting, plot, characterization, imagery, allusions, parallelism. It teaches the student what to look for when reading a work of literature by providing numerous examples and suggestions.
The options below can provide extra notes, summaries, guides, etc. for analyzing the great books.
Pink Monkey Notes has the world's largest library of free online literature summaries, with over 460 study guides, book notes, chapter summaries, author biographies, plot analysis, tests and test guides. The study guides are printable and there is much more on the site
Cliff Notes is like Pink Monkey Notes, having plot summaries, discussion questions, survey of critical issues, character lists, quizzes, study helps and even has them in audio form, for hundreds of books.
SparkNotes is another source for literature guides. They also have Shakespeare literature guides with line-by-line translations specifically for the No Fear Shakespeare books.
See my detailed literature curriculum list for teaching the great books.
Where Can You Find The Great Books?
Now that you have an idea of how to teach these great books, you need to know which books to read and where to find them. Since most of them were written prior to 1920, you can find many of them in the Public Domain for free. Sometimes the free ones can be a bit challenging to read, as some authors are easier to read than others.
Always get the unabridged version, which is the original form of the book. I have included a free printable chart that you can use to track your book list.
Check my Buying Curriculum page with links to websites where you can find the free versions. If you prefer a hard copy of your books like I do, I have printable reading lists for each period in history - American History, Ancient History, Medieval History, Early Modern History and Modern History
Related: Book Lists for History
I did find this classical books source with many of the books all listed for free in one place. I have not looked over all them so I can't attest to the reading level and translation.
The downloadable forms can be found in the links above. Use these to track your Great Books selections. Each page includes:
- checklist box for marking your selected books
- box for using with multiple students
- location boxes for tracking the type of book you are using - audio, kindle, ebook, hardback, etc - or tracking where you have it stored - shelf, file, CD, library - or track both
- box to track the date that you intend for them to read it or either use it as a reading log and track the date it was read