Bauer, Susan Wise. The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had. New York: Norton, 2003.
This isn’t just a book review. I am also making a template on how to approach literature, as given by Bauer.
Anyone can become an autodidact. It’s harder today because we don’t always know where to start. Bauer gives good advice.
The Act of Reading
If you’ve read Adler’s How to read a Book then there isn’t much new here. Good stuff, but I didn’t spend too much time on it.
Keeping a Journal
I used to, but when I saw the awesome power of google docs, I moved everything there. Simply no comparison. However, her suggestions on how to reflect on literature are good. The goal is to understand, evaluate, and react to ideas. Interact with ideas. This is why the further you move along the Great Books track, the more you can interact and the more critical your thinking becomes. A basic beginning:
* Write the title of the chapter on the first page (or google doc). Skim it first and get your mind acquainted with main ideas.
* After the end of the first real reading, write down your reactions.
Understand the structure. Evaluate the assertions. Form an opinion.
Starting to Read: Final Preparations
The following obtain if you own the book. Don’t do this if you don’t. And some won’t like my (and Bauer’s suggestions). I understand. But you need to understand that I am right on this one. She structures the art of reading around the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric).
The grammar stage:
- Underline in pencil. And dog-ear the pages where key arguments are developed. Post it notes are good, too.
- Pay attention to the table of contents and the structure of the book. The mind works from part to whole to part.
- You take notes to create a broad outline, not an in-margin essay.
The Logic Stage (evaluation)
- Reread the difficult sections. Do they make sense now? Sometimes they won’t. The author might just be incompetent.
- Does the book’s structure make sense?
- Is the author’s thesis/aim established? How so?
The Rhetoric Stage
- What does the author want me to do? Believe? Experience?
- Bauer suggests a reading partner.
She takes these three stages and applies them to novels, histories, memoirs, drama, and poetry. Here is how you should read them
- Grammar–keep list of characters, summary. Main event of each chapter.
- Logic–what does the character(s) want?
- Rhetoric–what is author’s take on human condition? Is novel self-reflective?
- Grammar–what are the challenges the main people group face? Who/what causes challenge?
- Logic–what are the historian’s assertions? What questions is he asking? What and how does he use sources? Does evidence support connections between questions and answers?
- Rhetoric–Does the story have forward motion? Are men free or determined?
- Grammar–what are central events in writer’s life?
- Logic–what is the theme that holds things together? God, the self, or no unity? Is there a conversion moment?
- Rhetoric–what are the three time frames (time of the events, the time remembered, the time the book is read)?
- Grammar–pay attention to surface-level details; what holds play together?
- Logic–what gives the play unity: plot? Characters? ideas?
- Rhetoric–how would you direct this play?
- Grammar–read 10-30 pages of poetry. What is your initial reaction?
- Logic–what is the poem’s form? Syntax?
- Rhetoric–is there moment of choice or change? Where is the self?
She gives several remarkably lucid summaries of rather dense texts. Her take on Bede and Augustine is quite good.
It’s probably not fair of me to criticize her for leaving out the poets/authors I like. Nevertheless, she failed to mention Alexander Pope, whose poems are like feasting on beams of light, yet gave attention to the 20th century. I would rather suck on a gas hose than read 20th century poetry. Here are the lists:
I understand that grad students need to read deeply into the essence of despair, namely 20th century literature. But for those who want their soul cleansed, substitute Pope, Samuel Johnson, and Edmund Spenser instead.