Taking a page from the playbook of an old friend this post is entitled “Why Do We Read Aeschylus?”
This title kills two birds with one stone. First it effectively puts the world on notice that one day I intend to get through an analysis of every book in the entire curriculum at the prestigious little classical school at which I have the privilege to teach. Second it suggests the salutary pedagogical principle that if we can’t offer a ready and compelling defense of the books that we demand our students read, then perhaps the position of this or that book in the curriculum needs to be re-thought!
Granted that a zealous bookworm might devour a great many books in the course of a normal lifespan, nonetheless the number of books that anyone can read still amounts to only a drop in the bucket of the almost infinite number of books that exist.
For example, let’s say that an especially ferocious reader was able to read an average of 5 books every month for his entire life, and let’s set the parameters of his “reading life” to, say, 70 years.
This person will read 60 books each year and therefore 4200 books in 70 years. That really would be an impressive feat. Maybe someone will read more than 4,200 books, perhaps even double -8400 books. Imagine that!
But, you might ask, “just how many books are there that could possibly be read?”
The answer: 129,864,880!
So it is quite clear that even if someone read 120 books a year for 70 years, even he would not make a measurable dent in the nearly 130 million books that exist.
But a school curriculum makes the parameters even narrower. Curriculum designers cannot realistically expect a student to read five books every month. When will the poor student find time to accomplish the countless mathematical calculations that he is expected to calculate? When will he learn the principle parts of all those Latin and Greek verbs?
Remember, he also has to pay attention to history and science and writing and maybe even learning how to play the piano!
Maybe a student even has some kind of home life. Chores? A job? Some kind of athletic hobby?
It is not realistic to think that an ordinary student, nay even an extraordinary student, could read even two books a month on average for school.
That a student would, in fact, read as much as possible on his own, outside of school is to be expected. This is a characteristic of many excellent students.
But the responsible literature curriculum designer would do well to remember that it is not his responsibility to assign every book that a student should ever read.
And, parenthetically, who says that it is a virtue to plow through books at a breakneck speed anyway? That’s not what Friar Lawrence would advise! Perhaps good reading is slow reading. Perhaps effective and fruitful reading is the same thing as slow reading. But this is another question.
On average it seems reasonable to me to propose that the wise literature curriculum will do no more than to assign one good book at most per month. Let us assume that each book is an excellent book. Let us propose that each book be read with a view towards fruitful understanding though discussion, and perhaps even some out loud reading.
Therefore in any given year of high school a student might read as many as nine books. But let us not forget that some books like the Odyssey or the Divine Comedy will most certainly take more than one month to read – especially if students are to discuss them in a leisurely way.
Where does this leave us? Well, although theoretically students might read as many as nine books each year, in actual fact it is probably the case that nine books is an unrealistic goal; a more realistic number of books to be read in an annual literature curriculum is probably closer to six or seven.
Which brings me to my point.
If an ordinary student in high school is able to fruitfully read, discuss, and appreciate 7 books each year, then over the ordinary course of a four-year high-school career a student would read a total of 28 books in his literature curriculum.
So which 28 books out of the 130 million should he be expected to read?
Which 28 of the 130 million books will survive the almost Darwinian struggle to survive the epic purge. (epic purge…that is clever!)
Which 28 books will emerge on top of this veritable battle of books, a battle between the comparatively few works of greatness and the myriad and mercenary battalions of mediocrity!
The Oresteia of Aeschylus for starters!
(to be continued)