Plumbing the depths of a dozen works of classic literature

“One of the reasons that I’m so passionate about making the great works of literature better known,” says Joseph Pearce, author of Twelve Great Books, “is that they offer a powerful witness to the triune splendour of the good, the true, and the beautiful.”

(Images: www.ignatius.com and Dana Ward/Unsplash.com)

The rich literary patrimony of Western civilization can be daunting. Where to begin? Which books are truly great? Which works of literature have stood the test of time?

Joseph Pearce’s most recent book is titled Twelve Great Books: Going Deeper into Classic Literature (Ignatius Press, 2022). In it, Pearce offers an introduction to several magnificent classics, taking twelve that were written over the course of about 1,500 years, from Saint Augustine’s Confessions to Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.

Joseph Pearce

Pearce has tremendous bona fides for identifying and explaining great works of literature. He is the author of many books and countless articles regarding classic works of Western literature, including books on William Shakespeare (The Quest for Shakespeare, Shakespeare on Love, and Through Shakespeare’s Eyes), and more general surveys (such as Literature: What Every Catholic Should Know and Catholic Literary Giants).

Pearce recently spoke with Catholic World Report about his latest book, what makes a book “great”, and whether there are still great books being produced today.

Catholic World Report: How did the book come to be?

Joseph Pearce: Over the years I’ve written at length on many great works of literature. At some point, it dawned on me that these could be collected together and published as a book. The new volume is the collective fruit of that desire to present all the essays within the body of a single volume.

CWR: What makes a book “great” in this sense?

Pearce: Great books, like great people, deserve to be canonized. We have the canonized saints but we also have the canonized books, those worthy tomes that have made the canon of great literature.

Unlike the saints, the great books might not necessarily be works of great virtue or sanctity, but they are works of great beauty that teach us great lessons about the cosmos in which we find ourselves and our place within it. They hold up a mirror to the cosmos, showing us natural and supernatural reality. They hold up a mirror to humanity, showing us ourselves and our neighbours with a penetrating, perceptive light.

CWR: In the Introduction, your definition of “civilization” is rooted in Augustine’s notion of true citizenship (and thus, true civilization) and of allegiance to the civitas Dei. Why is it important to understand civilization in this way?

Pearce: As Augustine shows us, the whole of human history is a struggle between the City of God and the City of Man. It is the struggle between heavenly values and secular values, between holiness and hellishness, between virtue and vice.

When the City of God is in the ascendant, so is true civilization; when the City of Man is in the ascendant, we have the slide of civilization to barbarism via decadence.

CWR: Four of the twelve books discussed here are by William Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Othello, and Macbeth). Does this say something about the outsized impact Shakespeare has had on Western civilization?

Pearce: It does say something about the magnitude of Shakespeare’s impact and influence, but it says more than that, albeit that the “more” is more prosaic and less lofty. There is no doubt that Shakespeare’s cultural presence dwarfs that of all other writers, with the possible and arguable exceptions of Homer, Virgil, and Dante. Is appropriate, therefore, that he should be such an “outsized” presence in a book on the Great Books.

In addition, however, it says something about my own personal predilection for the Bard of Avon. Shakespeare is a great passion of mine, so it’s hardly surprising that I should choose to write about him often. In point of fact, these four essays were originally published as my introductions to the Ignatius Critical Editions of these four plays. I am the series editor of these editions. We have now published twenty-seven titles in the series. Shakespeare is well represented. Seven of his plays have been published in the series, including The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet and King Lear in addition to the four plays that you’ve listed above.

CWR: You have written about the classics for many years now, in numerous articles and books. What sort of insights or approach does this book offer that sets it apart from your previous oeuvre?

Pearce: This book is different because it walks the via media between my two usual ways of writing about the classics. In the past, I have written full-length books or brief essays. I’ve written whole books on Shakespeare, for instance, and numerous brief essays of about a thousand words in length. The former dive and delve deeply, the latter skim the surface or dive deeply in a singularly focused way.

Longer essays, such as each of the chapters in the new book, enable depths to be plumbed on particular works in a manner which is simply not possible in shorter essays. Few people will want to read a full-length book on a particular work of literature and few people will be satisfied with the mere summaries of the major themes that can be given in short essays. The present volume offers what might be called the Goldilocks option, in which the discussions on the Great Books are neither too long nor too short but just the right length to cover all the major themes adequately. This is, at any rate, the hope.

CWR: What effect have the Great Books had on you personally? Did they play a part in your conversion?

Pearce: It would be no exaggeration to say that the Great Books have been life-changing to me personally. One of the reasons that I’m so passionate about making the great works of literature better known is that they offer a powerful witness to the triune splendour of the good, the true, and the beautiful.

Indeed, on the reverse side of the coin, this is the very reason why the Great Books have been largely banished from the public school system. Those wishing to impose utopian ideologies cannot tolerate the dissident voices that the Great Books represent. I was brought to Christ largely under the influence of these masterpieces of literature. Their influence is also affluence. They offer great riches. They broaden the mind, heal the heart, and serve the needs of the soul.

Ignorance of the Great Books is an impoverishment of the mind, heart and soul. It is an ignorance that leads to arrogance. Their absence from the culture creates a vacuum and a vacuity which is filled with viciousness. The Great Books are not merely an optional extra. They are a necessity.

CWR: The most recent book you feature here is Brideshead Revisited, published in 1945. Are “Great Books” still being written today, or is this a bygone feature of Western civilization?

Pearce: Great Books are like great wines. They improve with age. It is difficult to judge whether a work of contemporary literature will stand the test of time. We are too close to it, or it is too close to us. It might be timely, but is it timeless? This is something that only time can tell. And here’s the paradox: That which is timely is not always timeless, but that which is timeless is always timely.

I would say, however, that there have been some great works written since the publication of Brideshead Revisited which have earned a place in the canon as Great Books. The Lord of the Rings comes insistently to mind, so do C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia or his late literary tour de force, Till We Have Faces. And there are also the works of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. I would add still further that there are many good books still being written which might stand the test of time.

We should remember that great saints are not canonized in their own lifetimes, nor are great books. Just as the good men living today are marginalized by the meretricious culture, so are the good books. Few good men achieve worldly rewards and few good books make the New York Times bestseller list. Many bad men receive worldly rewards and there are many bad books on the bestseller lists. In days of wickedness, the good books, like the good men, are to be found in the catacombs. Such books are published by small publishers and read by a small readership. They are the mustard seeds of a future cultural revival.

Soon, God willing, I’d like to write a book about contemporary “good books”, written since the turn of the present century. There is a living Catholic culture out there. We simply need to work together to cultivate it.


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About Paul Senz 114 Articles
Paul Senz has an undergraduate degree from the University of Portland in music and theology and earned a Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry from the same university. He has contributed to Catholic World Report, Our Sunday Visitor Newsweekly, The Priest Magazine, National Catholic Register, Catholic Herald, and other outlets. Paul lives in Elk City, OK, with his wife and their four children.

1 Comment

  1. Someone said that two people can arrive at the same conclusion independently, the difference is that Shakespeare thought of it first!

    His list is a good one, yet we will all have a favourite that we’ed like to add.

    Ephesians 6:4 Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

    Deuteronomy 6:6-9 And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

    2 Timothy 3:16-17 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.

4 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

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