Great Books Without Apology

by Robert Pondiscio
July 19th, 2010

From his very first words, Bruce Gans makes it clear that this is not going to be a typical interview where a defender of Great Books bends over backwards making outsize claims of relevance, excitement and engagement.  Gans, a Professor of English at Wilbur Wright College in Chicago clearly considers that argument settled.  Asked by’s Michael Shaughnessy about the current status of “great books” Gans opens fire:  “Do me a favor—lose the scare quotes and the small letters.” 

It’s on.  

Gans, who has won national attention teaching English and Literature to urban Black, Hispanic and immigrant students, launches immediately into an entertaining and refreshingly unapologetic defense of Great Books:

It is critical that a core of books be identified as Great Books, not because the list is exhaustive and perfect but because it is a falsification of reality to pretend that there is not nor can be certain books which are vastly more profound and influential and beneficial to mankind than practically all others, because people have a right to know and thereby have the opportunity to be personally exposed to such books and in so doing have a greater chance to know themselves and lead an examined life worth living.

Uncomfortable with the idea of saying good, better, best when it comes to works of literature?  Gans isn’t.   “It is a peculiar perversity of the present time that no one objects to a Hall of Fame for baseball players and rock and roll musicians,”  he notes, “but so many do have a problem with a Hall of Fame for books like the Hebrew Bible and the works of Shakespeare.”  The idea of Great Books is resisted by ”faculty who in most cases have not read them, often cannot read them, feel threatened at the prospect of having to teach them, whose political prejudices make it impossible for them to consider the merits and benefits of the texts objectively,” he says. 

No mere scold, Gans is laugh-out-loud funny on his own children’s reading habits:

My twelve year old twins are both deeply absorbed in a multi volume saga of vampires or wolves or maybe both but which I understand, despite being entirely unable to work up the curiosity to retain the name of these multi million dollar properties, are momentarily of universal interest and have some connection, perhaps merely thematic, to a movie that did quite well concerning a Fabianesque fellow whose role was to I think turn into a vampire and or a wolf. My daughters have his graven image on T-shirts but while he is currently one of the world’s most central human beings his name escapes me. I believe he is from Australia.

(If the term “Fabianesque” doesn’t ring a bell, you’re clearly under 50.  I’ll save you the need to tax your 21st century skills by providing a handy link.)

Asked to suggest a list of ten recommended books for summer reading, Gans naturally lists 86, from Don Quixote and The Great Gatsby to Bonfire of the Vanities and The Godfather.  He also pushes back on the “universal appeal” of contemporary writers like Stephen King and John Grisham.  “Universal appeal is not measured in years but in GENERATIONS,” he says.  

His most stirring response, however, is his defense of Mortimer Adler, founder of the Great Books Foundation.   “Adler’s central contribution was on the one hand to attempt to gather the most central texts ever written, to organize them according to central questions about the human condition, and then to stand there like Rocky Marciano and absorb all the red faced, hate filled prejudiced, sneering, philistine ravings that the second, third and fourth raters, the professorial paluka weight class throw at him.”

It’s enough to make me want to stop what I’m doing, and run out and buy a copy of Bleak House

Meanwhile, over at the Answer Sheet, Valerie Strauss offers a completely unrelated, but also entertaining defense of the general level of education of the vampire or wolf played by the Fabianesque figure whose name Gans refuses to learn or repeat.


  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Chan Stroman, Robert Pondiscio. Robert Pondiscio said: A refreshing defense of Great Books without a hint of apology. [...]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention Great Books Without Apology « The Core Knowledge Blog, The Core Knowledge Blog -- — July 19, 2010 @ 1:28 pm

  2. “Fabianesque” certainly did ring a bell with me, but the wrong one. I couldn’t figure out what Sidney Webb had to do with vampires.

    And by all means obey your impulses: Bleak House is fantastic. My favorite of Dickens.

    Comment by palisadesk — July 19, 2010 @ 2:19 pm

  3. I have real sympathy for Gans’s points, but I wonder if he shares his disdain for the vampire stuff with his daughters. I haven’t read it myself, but has he? Can he judge its quality?

    I’m reminded of Harold Bloom’s screed against the Harry Potter books. They’re terrible distractions, because they don’t immediately unlock the doors to Rudyard Kipling and other great authors who wrote for children, he argued. I’m not so sure. My wife, a teacher and true proponent of the Great Books, has used Harry Potter to lead her students into all sorts of Great Books.

    Perhaps the vampire lit. is of a completely different order. Still, I can’t help but think of an (unnamed) friend of mine, whose contempt for the books that lit his children’s fires helped turn those children into non-readers (in my opinion.) Perhaps there is a middle way.

    Comment by Claus — July 19, 2010 @ 3:56 pm

  4. Well, my daughter who disdained Harry Potter because he couldn’t measure up to the standards set by C.S. Lewis in the Narnia series, still loves all that vampire stuff. But, I have to say, I have delved into it and it’s pretty thin stuff. If it’s all a child/teen will read, then I’m for it, but I also want the schools and the culture to push them farther.

    Comment by JB — July 19, 2010 @ 4:11 pm

  5. I think you’re being too hard on Gans, Claus. I took his contempt for the Twilight books as lighthearted. If he’s buying his kids the books and t-shirts, surely he can’t object TOO much. But his refusal to name them (He who must not be named?) underscored his point that greatness and importance comes only with time.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — July 19, 2010 @ 4:14 pm

  6. Robert,

    Great Books aside, including the Harry Potter and vampire series currently all the rave, what does Gans have to say about including non-fiction?

    What I liked about Don Hirsch’s suggestions (What Your _____ Grader Needs To Know) was his regular lacing of non-fiction works into each grade level.

    As for the Fabian reference, the 50′s heartthrob must be wondering why he’s been linked to vampires.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — July 19, 2010 @ 4:39 pm

  7. I agree with Claus. I had a great English teacher in high school who had a real knack for pegging literary classics that students would like based on the kind of “beach reading” they did. Since I liked romance novels, she suggested I read Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Edith Wharton, Elizabeth Gaskell, “Dr. Zhivago”, etc. I wish she were still around for me to pick her brain for reading suggestions!

    Comment by Crimson Wife — July 19, 2010 @ 5:53 pm

  8. Kudos to Gans for his lack of apology and his intriguing list. Soviet Russians used to spend evenings arguing about whether Hemingway or Steinbeck was the greater author; friendships would form and sometimes end in those disputes. Perhaps we need a bit of that passion. It is insipid to deem no book greater than another; it makes for nodding heads, bland memories, and chicken leadership. A great book may be canonical or not–but if you are willing to argue for it all the way, if you are willing to stake your soul on it, perhaps it is worth your staking. We need to stick our necks out and choose. Deem things great. Let others disagree. Get mad. Read passages. Argue about their value. Read more of them. Declaim them without disclaimers.

    I would argue with him about his Roth and Kundera choices–I prefer The Human Stain and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, respectively–but I am so unused to this sort of passionate argument that I would have to reread his selections and mine, with knotted brows and furrowed mind, and gear myself up for an uproarious battle.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — July 19, 2010 @ 6:42 pm

  9. OH, Fabian the 50′s heartthrob! That makes more sense–I thought it referred to the Fabian Society and was a reference to said vampire’s age. Ha!

    Comment by dangermom — July 19, 2010 @ 8:08 pm

  10. What I like about his Twilight screed was that he thumbed his nose at the books without thumbing his nose at those who read them.

    What should not be ignored here, however, is what a great step it is to get kids to read at all. If you get kids in the habit of reading by, among other things, giving them ample opportunity to read fun fluff, it will be much easier to get them to read the Great Books. If reading itself is a chore, you’re going to be SOL on appreciation of the classics.

    Comment by Obi-Wandreas — July 19, 2010 @ 10:26 pm

  11. I don’t think anyone is saying don’t read fluff. The message is more that we shouldn’t read only fluff. I read both. Fluff for pure entertainment and the Great Books for wisdom (and sometimes for entertainment).

    I was wondering why Obi-Wandreas thinks it is hard to get kids to read. Do you mean from a teacher or a parent perspective? As a parent it has been quite easy. We model reading, we read outloud as a family and we keep electronics to a minimum. I have no problem with my kids reading fluff. My son learned to read English mostly through Calvin and Hobbs. However, when it comes to school work I expect them to read books of literary value. We are home-schooling for the first time (6th grade) because we plan to move halfway through the school year. We are using the reading list of the Great Books Academy for literature. I appreciate someone else having already sifted through the gazillion middle school level books available and providing me with some guidance.

    Comment by Gina — July 21, 2010 @ 7:06 pm

  12. The one caveat I’d like to make about great books is not to push kids to read them too young. Most of them were written for adults, not 13 year olds.

    Comment by Rachel — July 22, 2010 @ 11:09 am

  13. Rachel, the Great Books Foundation lists Great Books for young readers. They’re not Crime and Punishment caliber, but nevertheless still expose great ideas at a level more comprehensible for kids.

    Comment by Mojave — January 26, 2011 @ 1:49 am

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