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The rich literary legacy of western civilization can be daunting. where to start Which books are really great? Which works of literature have stood the test of time?
Joseph Pearce‘s latest book is titled Twelve Great Books: Delving Deeper into Classic Literature (Ignatius Press, 2022). In it, Pearce introduces several great classics, including twelve written over some 1,500 years, from Saint Augustine’s Confessions to Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.
Pearce has tremendous credibility in identifying and explaining great works of literature. He is the author of many books and countless articles on classic works of Western literature, including books on William Shakespeare (The Search for Shakespeare, Shakespeare about loveand With Shakespeare’s eyes) and more general surveys (eg Literature: What Every Catholic Should Know and Catholic literary giants).
Pearce recently spoke to Catholic World Report about his latest book, what makes a book “great” and whether great books are still being produced today.
Catholic World Report: How did the book come about?
Joseph Pearce: Over the years I have written extensively on many great works of literature. At some point it dawned on me that they could be collected and published as a book. The new volume is the collective fruit of this desire to present all essays in a single volume.
CWR: What makes a book “great” in that 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 make up the canon of great literature.
Unlike the saints, the great books are not necessarily works of great virtue or holiness, but they are works of great beauty that teach us great lessons about the cosmos in which we find ourselves and our place in it. They hold up a mirror to the cosmos and show us the natural and supernatural reality. They hold a mirror up to humanity, showing us ourselves and our neighbors with a penetrating, perceptive light.
CWR: In the introduction, your definition of “civilization” is rooted in Augustine’s conception of true citizenship (and thus true civilization) and allegiance to the civitas Dei. Why is it important to understand civilization in this way?
Pearce: As Augustine shows us, all of human history is a struggle between the city of God and the city of men. It is the struggle between heavenly values and worldly values, between holiness and hell, between virtue and vice.
When the city of God rises, so does true civilization; When the City of Man is on the rise, we have the slide of civilization into barbarism over decadence.
CWR: Four of the twelve books reviewed here are by William Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Othelloand Macbeth). Does this say anything about the outsized impact Shakespeare had on western civilization?
Pearce: It says something about the extent of Shakespeare’s impact and influence, but it says more than that, although the “more” is more prosaic and less lofty. There is no doubt that Shakespeare’s cultural presence dwarfs that of any other writer, with the possible and debatable exceptions of Homer, Virgil and Dante. It is fitting, therefore, that he should have such an “oversized” presence in a book about the Great Books.
But it also says something about my own personal fondness for the Bard of Avon. Shakespeare is a great passion of mine, so it’s little wonder I choose to write about him often. In fact, these four essays were originally published as my introductions to the Ignatius Critical Editions these four pieces. I am the serial editor of these issues. 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 pieces you listed above.
CWR: You’ve written about the classics in numerous articles and books for many years. What insights or approaches does this book offer that set it apart from your previous work?
Pearce: This book is different because it moves the via media between my two usual ways of writing about the classics. In the past I have written full length books or short essays. For example, I have written entire books on Shakespeare and numerous short essays of around a thousand words. The former dive and dive deep, the latter glide on the surface or dive deep in a uniquely concentrated way.
Longer essays, like the individual chapters of the new book, allow individual works to be explored in a way that shorter essays simply cannot. Few people will want to read an entire book on any particular work of literature, and few people will be content with mere summaries of the main topics that can be given in short essays. The present volume offers the so-called Goldilocks option, in which the discussions of the Big Books are neither too long nor too short, but just the right length to adequately cover all the important topics. At least that’s the hope.
CWR: What impact have the Big Books had on you personally? Did they play a role in your conversion?
Pearce: It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Great Books have changed my life. Making the great works of literature better known is also so close to my heart because they are a strong testimony to the triune splendor of the good, the true and the beautiful.
On the other side of the coin, this is the very reason the Great Books have largely been banned from the public school system. Those who want to impose utopian ideologies cannot tolerate the dissenting voices that represent the Great Books. I was brought to Christ largely under the influence of these masterpieces of literature. Their influence is also prosperity. They offer great riches. They expand the mind, heal the heart, and serve the needs of the soul.
Ignorance of the great books is an impoverishment of mind, heart and soul. It is an ignorance that leads to arrogance. Their absence from the culture creates a vacuum and void filled with evil. The Great Books aren’t just an optional extra. You are a necessity.
CWR: The most recent book you have 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 him or he is too close to us. It may be contemporary, but is it timeless? Only time can tell. And here is the paradox: timeless is not always timeless, but timeless is always current.
However, I would say that since Brideshead Revisited was published some great works have been written that have earned a place in the canon as Great Books. The Lord of the Rings comes to mind, as does CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, or his late literary masterpiece Till We Have Faces. And there are also the works of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. I would add that many good books are yet to be written that may stand the test of time.
We should remember that great saints are not canonized while they are alive, nor are great books. Just as the good people alive today are marginalized by mertricious 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 bestseller lists. In bad days, good books, like good people, 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 want to write a book about contemporary “good books” that have been written since the turn of the century. There is a vibrant Catholic culture out there. We just have to work together to cultivate it.
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