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What Makes a Book Life-Changing?

By tackling great books directly—not through the mediation of teachers and lecturers who have predigested them for us—we learn what really matters to us. This is one of the premises behind the St. John’s curriculum—more about that a little later. But first here’s an example from another school.

One of the most popular courses at Harvard these days is “Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory,” taught by Michael Puett, Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations. Many of the students seem to think that their lives have been changed by this introduction to the works of Lao-tse, Confucius, Chuang-tse, Mencius and other ancient Chinese philosophers.

The course has given rise to a new book by Puett and journalist Christine Gross-Loh called The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life. In a recent interview with Diane Rehm, Puett and Gross-Loh were asked what makes the course so meaningful for students:

[blockquote] GROSS-LOH: One thing that [Michael] does in his course, which I think is very important, is he asks the students to read the text alone, just the primary sources, not secondary sources, because there is a whole history . . . of why we misunderstand what philosophies and ideas from other parts of the world are.

REHM: Give me an example, Michael.

PUETT: Absolutely. So most people will tend to assume that Chinese philosophy is really about simply being trained to accept the world as it is. So accept your social position, accept that the world is simply a harmonious world that we should accord with. Most secondary literature presents it that way. It corresponds to our stereotypes of so-called traditional societies. And so as Christine said, in the course, we say read no secondary literature. Simply read the texts themselves. [The students] quickly see that the texts are actually arguing something very, very different and something they find extremely powerful.[/blockquote]

The great books of both East and West are great precisely because they contain life-changing ideas. They maintain their ability to change lives over the centuries because the most important questions of human existence have not—so far, at any rate—changed. The great books of both East and West tackle these questions head-on: Who am I? What is the nature of this world in which I find myself? Who are these other people with whom I live? What is this society in which I live? Is there a best way to live? What is virtue, what vice? Or are those mere concepts without substance? Am I sufficient to myself, or do I owe something to others? What should I do with my life?

At St. John’s, we read the books on the Program directly, without intermediary interpretation by textbooks or professors’ lectures. This gives students direct access to the ideas and leads them to make connections between the ideas and their own lives. Studying a book this way makes it our own.

One of the outward signs of our life-changing curriculum—a sign that always draws admiring comments from outsiders—is the list of topics on which our seniors have written their annual essays, which is printed in the Commencement Program every year. Often beginning in their third year, students start to home in on something that matters to them, something that’s changed the way they consider the world, as the topic for this culminating piece of work. Here are few titles of this year’s senior essays, chosen from the list in no particular order:

  • Wisdom from the Whirlwind: The Nature of Human Suffering in the Book of Job
  • A Self Truth, Rarely Acknowledged: A Study of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and the Journey to Self-Knowledge in Society
  • The Great Unfinished Symphony: Identity, Memory, and Change in Lincoln’s America
  • Man and the Universe: An Essay on Our Place Among Infinite Worlds
  • Life Itself: A Close Reading of Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy
  • The Form of the Good: An Inquiry into the Fundamentals of Value within the Economics of Smith and Marx
  • Mind the Gap: The Philosophical Implications of the Divide of Logic and Intuition in Lobachevski
  • As a Glow Brings Out a Haze: Ambiguity, Narrative, and the Mechanism of Meaning in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness
  • Rationally Postulating an Irrational Postulate: The Dialectic of Faith
  • “Who are You?”: The Character of Alice in Wonderland

The titles alone seem to communicate the intensity and importance of the students’ engagement with the books. It is impossible to know whether their engagement with these particular books changed these students’ lives. It is perhaps also impossible for some of them to know right now. Sometimes it takes a while for the significance of an event to register. But I would be astonished if any student who graduates from St. John’s could not name at least one book on the program that had changed his or her life in some way. That’s what great books do if you approach them directly with your most important questions and let them speak to you directly about their most important questions.