Essential Knowledge: Part IX

A liberal education has always meant a deep knowledge of cultural history, which inevitably meant art and literature. Sadly, the humanities have taken a beating from the Cult-Marx crusaders in the last half century. Critical Theory and its various off-shoots have, as one would expect from the Germans, reduced art and literature to rubble. Just look at the state of poetry. It has been reduced to displays of childish vanity at scream sessions. You find more culturally enriching rhymes on a rest room wall.

The good news is it is easy to bypass the lunatics and go right to the primary texts, which are often available for a song as ebooks. The literary canon is enormous so we’ll focus on the English portion for now. A modern educated man in the English speaking world has to have a broad knowledge of English (and American) literature, but he should also be familiar with the great works of the West in general. There are good translations of the classics from every Western language so you can read Tolstoy without knowing Russian.

Working forward from the deep dark past, the first “great works” of the English literature are Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The language is a little difficult for the modern reader, but not impenetrable. Something more difficult, and often overlooked as a result, is William Langland’s Piers Plowman. The challenge here is threefold. One is the language and the other is the Christianity. It’s also a social satire so you need to know a little about the times, but that should be a motivation.

Then we come to Shakespeare The good news here is all of his works are free as the family no longer has the copyright. There are some smart people who think The Bard is a waste of time. The important themes from the important plays are so baked into the culture that there’s no point in reading them in the original. There’s some truth to that, but the people who say this usually had a first class education. It’s not like you’re going to lose IQ points by taking the time to read some of the great works of English literature.

That said, Shakespeare had some clunkers too. From the comedies, I’d recommend The Merchant of Venice, especially for the alt-right reader, A Midsummer Night’s DreamTaming of the Shrew and Winter’s Tale. From the histories, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VIII and Richard III should be enough. Then read all of the tragedies. You can probably skip Titus Andronicus and Timon of Athens. All, of these are available on video and it is a good idea to see an actual production, even if it is on video.

This is a good time to talk about poetry. Shakespeare’s sonnets are worth reading as an excellent introduction of English verse. And no, reading poetry will not make you gay or Mexican. Similarly, John Donne is one of the giants of English poetry, but I never found his work all that interesting. Instead, I’d read Samuel Johnson’s discussion of Donne and other prominent poets. Finally, Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene is a must read and it is pretty good. If you like Game of Thrones you’ll like this.

In a previous one of these posts, I recommended Utopia by Thomas Moore. Another classic from this period is New Atlantis by Francis Bacon. I won’t say it is good, but it is short. There’s also The Isle of Pines, which is similar and considered the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe. You can get all three in one book! Something better from this period is Morte D’Arthur by Thomas Malory. This was one of my favorites as a kid. The quest for the grail is one of the most influential themes in English literature.

The first work of fiction to be considered a novel is The Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan. It is a Christian allegory, which probably sounds awful, but the fact that it has never been out of print since the 17th century means it is worth reading. Also in the realm of Christian literature is Paradise Lost by John Milton. Everyone has their list of essential books that an educated man should read. Every one of those lists contains Milton, because it arguably defined the English speaking world’s relationship to Christianity.

Finally, to sew up this post on literature, and yes there will be several more, I’m going to suggest something a bit odd. Integral to the English speaking world’s culture is a relationship with nature. It turns up throughout English literature and in American classics like Huckleberry Finn. The Complete Angler by Isaac Walton is a book about fishing that holds up today, but it is also a book about the peaceful enjoyment of nature. Even if you are afraid of the outdoors, an appreciation of man’s relationship to nature is essential.

This post has already been linked to 9052 times!

Leave a Reply

42 Comments on "Essential Knowledge: Part IX"

Notify of
avatar
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Dan Kurt
Member

The Canterbury Tales are hardly accessible if read in the original language but this retelling is a wonderful read:
The Canterbury Tales: A Retelling by Peter Ackroyd ISBN-10: 0670021229

Dan Kurt

Casher
Guest

Correct. For most readers, it is effectively in a foreign language. Still, this can be an advantage if someone is reasonably intelligent and has never gone far in their studies of any other language. Many editions in the original language that I’ve seen (cf. Norton Anthology) have glossaries/footnotes etc. which help a dedicated reader and allow one to have the joy of the experience of the original.

Member

Try reading it aloud phonetically sometime. Some of it will still be impenetrable, but you’ll be surprised how much of it suddenly clicks.

Ivar
Guest

In college I took an Old English course. It turned out to be excellent. We went right into the written material, with a spelling guide and a modest dictionary written by the instructor. Compared to my experience with other languages, it is amazing how quickly one can learn to read Old English, and even pick up subtleties and nuances in the language.

baldilocks
Guest

Audiobooks.

Member

Exactly, and it’s why I would rather watch an accurately done movie of a Shakespeare play, preferably with subtitles, than read it. My ear is better than my eye. Plus I am a German speaker which seems to help a lot especially with the older ones, such as the Canterbury Tales.

Joey Junger
Guest
The Germans gave us some dumb ideas in the 20th century but they gave us most of the good ones before that (Kant, Goethe, and Nietzsche were more essential to Western man’s intellectual formation, I think, than anything going back to Greek antiquity). Also, even though the victors control the big publishing houses, it’s important to point out that, if you know where to look, you’ll see a conservative movement that was a robust and worthy reaction to Critical Theory’s stupidity around the same time (especially Ernst Junger and Carl Schmitt). I like older English literature, but it goes flaccid… Read more »
SamlAdams
Guest

One recommendation is to pair Shakespeare’s history plays with readings in English history of the same era. Had the privilege of taking my British history sequences under the late Lacey Baldwin Smith and this was a technique that he used very effectively.

Member
I’m going to admit to hating poetry and that most of what I know about all of the above is from reading about it rather than reading it. I agree with watching the Shakespeare videos. Watching a performance provides insight to the meaning of some of the dialog that might have to be explained in a footnote that, depending on the edition you get, might not be there. Bunyan up until when I was young, was the second most published book in the world after the Bible itself. An abridged version of Plowman is fine for getting the gist of… Read more »
Casher
Guest

I’ll just put a good word in for Alexander Pope. Though, of course, opinions . . .

Member

Funny. I just read Johnson’s Life of Pope in his Lives of the Poets. Didn’t know until then he and Swift were good friends.

Terry Baker
Guest

I would add Churchill’s “The Gathering Storm”.

jdallen
Guest
I guess, by your (and I’m sure most people’s) estimation that I am doomed to remain ignorant. I can’t read more than half the material you deem “essential”. Mainly because I do not find it to be essential, or worth the time. I read other material as my interest wanders. For instance, all of Bill’s plays, none of his sonnets. I have read a lot of scientific literature on things related to my career, and a lot that related to my career in only the vaguest way. If that makes me ignorant by someone else’s standards, so be it. Neither… Read more »
Member

Graphic novels for you.

karl hungus
Guest

and lotion, lots and lots of lotion.

karl hungus
Guest

then why comment? plus, who cares what a willfully ignorant knob thinks, anyway? an educated man don’t need him around, anyhow.

Doug
Guest
Seems like the revisionists from Marx to the Frankfurt school and the agenda of revised history in whole has turned the classical critical theory on its head. They managed to infect even that classical basis of examining the truth. So that pretty much leaves the agrarian related sciences and philosophies as the only bulwark against all revisionism, because the agrarian is so closely related to nature and the personal experience and enlightenment derived from that relationship, unless you never raised a garden, or involved in provincial animal husbandry, a trade in contact with nature, or just live in the rural… Read more »
Member

Wonderful post. The Compleat Angler should be some pleasant weekend reading.

Titus Andronicus is worth skimming if only to see that even geniuses have their off moments. It’s Mystery Science Theater 3000 level stuff.

karl hungus
Guest

Zman, if you ever cover Hebrew culture, will you be recommending “The Complete Parser”?

Christopher S. Johns
Guest

For those who enjoy Shakespearean drama but would like to branch out from the Bard, let me recommend Tis Pity She’s a Whore by John Ford – a most “interesting” retelling of Romeo and Juliet.

baldilocks
Guest

I’ve used my local library–LAPL–to fill in the gaps in my formal literary education.

CaptDMO
Guest

“The important themes from the important plays are so baked into the culture that there’s no point in reading them in the original.”
Couldn’t disagree more. Too much lost to “comfortable”, or incompetent transposition/ translation.
Frankly, I can’t see today’s “liberal arts” as anything but an exercise in
“Gentleman’s C ” credentials without a firm foundation in Aesop’s Fables.
Of COURSE i can’t read them in the original. It’s all Greek to me!

Anonymous Whjite Male
Guest
Anonymous Whjite Male

To me, poetry is an anachronism. Like opera. It was great at one time, but it requires a love of language that few people possess today. Plus, the deconstructionism of language a la Orwell, makes poetry a luxury that few people indulge in. And since there are no true great poets today, it seems like a bygone relic.

Tonawanda
Guest

I suggest The Cloud of Unknowing as an essential pre-Shakespearean masterpiece?

Rod1963
Guest
If you pick up schoolbook from the 1870’s like a Appleton’sr or a McGuffey Reader you’ll see a goodly portion is devoted to the works of welll known English and American poets and writers. The prose is just beautiful. It was clear that poetry was considered essential for a student’s education and making him fit for society. The thing that amazed me going through Appleton’s and McGuffey’s was that the stories, poetry would be today considered appropriate for a college level English course. The material is certainly not simplified. Both can be picked up for a reasonable price at Amazon.… Read more »
LetsPlay
Member
Zman. You continue to rock & roll man! Great stuff. And many thanks. One thought that occurred to me as I was thinking about your “Essential Knowledge” Series. It seems to me that “essential” to reversing the damage from the Academia Leftist to the minds of our young folks, is to capture both the essence of freedom and it’s development, and the evil that is in direct opposition to it, what we fight every day. A compendium of those American jewels like the Founding documents, to De Tocqueville, and many others on both politics, economics and history. Maybe there is… Read more »
David Dwyer
Guest

And a nice book that recapitulates and shouts out to a lot of the great western works in its own Pilgrim’s Progress is Silverlock by John Myers Myers.

wpDiscuz