TODAY IN LITERATURE Why Great Books? Why Shared Inquiry?

First, Why Great Books?

Many have written on this subject, but I think Nigel Beale, Ottawa-based writer, broadcaster, bibliophile, is particularly articulate. This is an abbreviated version of his essay, “Why Read Great Literature: the guide to a good life,” included here with his permission.

Most of us, through a combination of personal experience, education and advice from others, cultivate and try to follow as best we can, a set of values, ‘final narratives,’ beliefs, or central convictions about politics, love, sex, money, religion beauty, justice… in order to live a life we deem worth living. Great works of literature, when read seriously, can help. They can shake beliefs and change lives, provide solace and give direction. Some narratives reflect and conform to our own lived experience; many contradict or differ from it. The process of absorbing, accepting and/or rejecting these competing visions, ideas, world views and life maps constitutes an essential benefit of reading.

What should one ask of a major work? Is it true? Can I live it? Put it into action? Does it show me how to live better, without fear, more joyously, exuberantly? Can I use it? What aspect of life does it illuminate? How can I translate its words into action? How does the author’s vision compare to my own narrative, my own experience in the world? What possibilities exist for intellectual and or emotional change? Writers, if they want to produce enduring work, need to answer our questions about how to live, or how not to, and provide guidance on what to do.

The test of a book lies in its power to transform life. It may charm, divert, teach something of the wider world, but if it can’t help at least some to imagine a different, better life, then it probably isn’t a major work. What determines a work’s longevity is the degree to which it serves as a successful guide to achieving the true, good, beautiful life; the degree to which it serves as a sort of Bible, one there for you to read for yourself, without the nervous attention of hovering priests telling you what it means.

Here is a short video prepared by the Great Books Foundation that addresses the dual questions: Why Great Books? Why Shared Inquiry?. Classical Pursuits veterans will surely recognize some familiar faces. Great Books Unbound

Now, why Shared Inquiry?

The following is a mix of more words from Nigel Beale, some from Chuck Scarcliff’s wonderful “A Heretic’s Guide to leading Great Books Discussions,” and some of my own words.

The best reader admits, with Socrates, that he is lost. This isn’t easy in a culture filled with know-it-all punditry, sound bite certainty and pre-digested knowingness. Everywhere, the ‘authoritative’ spew forth: talking heads, hired to impart wisdom, partial often in impartial guise, complicit in the consumer con-game we call society, where the mediocre is hailed as great!

Shared Inquiry is the name given by a wonderful organization in Chicago, The Great Books Foundation, to a method of guided discussion in which participants help one another search for answers to fundamental questions raised by a text. Participants come with their own ways of encountering and experiencing Dante, Shakespeare, or Virginia Woolf. Together, they build on their views through a sharing of ideas.

Here are some indicators of a good Shared Inquiry discussion.

1. Everyone has the opportunity to contribute freely to the discussion ― and everyone makes the most of that opportunity.

2. No one dominates the discussion.  And that includes the leader.

3. Discussion practices of Shared Inquiry ― sticking to the subject, not using outside references for support, etc. ― are followed.  Departures, if any, are brief, seldom and harmless.

4. The best discussions have spontaneity.  The good ones give the illusion of being spontaneous.

5. Spontaneity means good discussions have a flow ― not always an even flow, but one that at times moves rapidly and at others, more leisurely.

6. Good discussions explore the ideas of the text with as much depth as the group is able and willing to handle.  New insights develop and are created along the way.

7. Good discussions won’t necessarily cover all of the author’s ideas, but they will probe deeply into the more important ones.  It is far better to treat a few, sometimes even a very few, points with depth than to discuss many points superficially.

8. We want our participants to have a good time, to enjoy themselves, but we want more.  In good discussions they will also gain new insights, to formulate and to articulate their thoughts more clearly than they would have by reading but not discussing the book.

In preparing for Shared Inquiry discussion, active reading is crucial. Mark passages that seem especially revealing or profound and reflect on them. These may sum up an argument, give advice, offer predictions, provide examples illustrating an idea, or serve as occasions for direct reflection by the author or a character. Or they may simply be a particularly eloquent, beautiful expression of an idea. Jot down your insights, questions, arguments with the author, and anything else that occurs to you about the selection as you read it. This ensures that such observations will not be lost between reading sessions, and that your understanding will have a greater chance to grow. Moreover, by forcing yourself to write down your responses, you will keep your mind active while you read.

The main thing to know is that Shared Inquiry is not intimidating and it is lots of  fun. Come with your questions and an open mind, and you will not be disappointed.

If you missed the video up above, here it is again. Prepared by the Great Books Foundation, it addresses the dual questions: Why Great Books? Why Shared Inquiry?. Classical Pursuits veterans will surely recognize some familiar faces. Great Books Unbound

I invite you to share your own experiences or, if you are new to Great Books or Shared Inquiry, your questions.


  1. Carol Voaden

    Is there a great Books Club meeting in Toronto?

    How do i get a list of books and join?

  2. amazing and thoughtful as usual madam; i rarely remain unimpressed by your casual erudition and charm. i do transgress on #6, looping off into nearby alien idea planets.

    very nice work.

  3. Pingback: TODAY IN LITERATURE – Some of the most powerful stories in Western civilization | Convivium

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