For lovers of the written word, “what’s your favorite book?” can be a thorny question indeed. There are so many aspects and genres and layers! Not only that, but there are memories, and you have grown and changed. Moreover, is that question about technique or content or…?
Perhaps, it is just me who obsesses that much, but this is even more difficult when you are asked what your favorite St. John’s Program text is. Inherent to the idea of a great book are all things that make the original question difficult and many more, such as the many layers of meaning. As well, your favorite Johnnie texts shift not only with the rapid growth that comes with being a student and fledgling adult, but with the timeline built into the program, and the way you get to see philosophy and literature and science develop. Ideas and methods rise and fall like waves all the time!
However, I am going to talk about my personal favorites. They are books that stuck with me, challenged me, swept me away, made me think, or that I just thought were fascinating, and in Johnnie spirit I will go year by year. They may not be favorites in the uncomplicated sense but -what did you expect?
Fragmented relic of an oral tradition it may be, but I challenge anyone not to love Homer’s Odyssey. It is, first and foremost, a stunning tale that absolutely sounds worthy of being recited at fabled feasts, with the lyrical verse and nail-biting adventure keeping you alert. Odysseus is also an amazing study of human character, as he is extremely flawed, but also gifted and lovable, like many humans. You critique him but try not to let out a cheer when he finally washes up on Ithaca despite, say, his questionable stay with Calypso.
Plato is the star of freshman year. There are an almost unbearable number of dialogues in seminar, but it is through these that we first get bitten by the philosophy bug. I personally love the Meno and the Republic best, as not only do they dive into worthy questions (how do we know things and what is the ideal city) but do so in witty dialogue and amazing imagery.
I was not into math when I arrived at St. John’s, and that changed with the very first math class and of course Euclid. Euclid may be the easiest mathematically, but the prompted questions (what does it mean that ‘a point is that which has no part’?) show that math can partake of philosophy and invention.
Sophomore year is full of poetry, music, and religious allusions, and while Dante does not have music in a literal sense, his verse is stunning, even if it is impossible to render the original form in English. He journeys through hell, purgatory, and heaven, meeting historical figures and his contemporaries, all while having an internal voyage through his grieving heart and admiration for Virgil. His vivid depiction of the afterlife makes it no surprise that the Divine Comedy influenced spiritual imagery for centuries to come.
Back to the music – one of the lovely things about this year is the heavy emphasis on music, which we explore through examining scores and music theory, discussion, and occasionally a performance. There’s Orpheo and the Magic Flute and so on, but the Eroica makes Beethoven my favorite composer. A powerful piece that broke nearly all the conventions of symphony writing at the time, it is insanely layered with instruments and motifs and emotion and is as much a joy to read as to listen to.
Junior year can feel like the year where things take off – it seems almost like the ghost of enlightenment passion fills us from across the centuries. Rousseau takes that to the maximum in the Social Contract, giving us an in depth, profound, and biting look at how people govern themselves, what a people is, and questions about the necessary conditions for democracy, which will always be relevant.
On a less worldly but more stunning note, we get to read Pascal’s Pensees, and never has a collection of notes been more enthralling. A plea to investigate the self and believe, it drives us forward with profound sparks, such as encouraging us to see how great and small we are as humans by taking us up into the cosmos and down into the atom.
Wordsworth’s Two Part Prelude is the closest thing to music on paper that is not a score, and the only poem worth trying to read aloud if you are not an actor. An ode to nature and the subline, beauty, terror, and serenity exist side by side as the young Wordsworth grows up. Watch for a star, a mother, and a cliff.
Newton meanwhile invents calculus (it is fascinating and necessary, I’m not lying), writes clear crisp prose, and draws diagrams beautiful enough to be framed, all in service to understanding the sky. Very rarely does someone have that many talents at once and change the scientific world.
As of writing this, I am a senior partway through first semester, so this is, to be honest, an incomplete list. However, here are the ones who have so far captured my attention.
In language we read Camus’ La Pest, a sadly relevant and heavy tale. But that is merely the surface – written in plain but artful French, he delves into and makes you love individual characters while also treating a whole city as a character, worthy of exploration and love despite the many flaws.
Marx, among a world of Hegels and Nietzsches, stands out with his revolutionary ways and reputation. What is lost, though it likely formed the foundation of both, is that he was at the same time a great theorist and storyteller, with immense understanding of human beings, the damage consumption can do, and a heady optimism.
Einstein is much like Newton in his multitalented ways. He was obviously a mathematical and scientific genius, but his thought experiments and the questions he explores shows a wild and playful imagination that can be harder to keep up with than the equations – sometimes.
These are just a few that I love, and love now, and I am sure that my tastes will shift and the have shifted. You may dislike this crew of thinkers and prefer Apollonius and Nietzsche, but I have faith that there will be texts that will sweep you away, change your thinking, and rest forever in your memory. Such is the enjoyment of exploring the Great Books.