Online Great Books–The Riverworld Analogy

As mentioned in the previous post, there are four levels of reading:

  1. Elementary reading (“what does the text say?”)
  2. Inspectional reading (“what kind of a text is this?”)
  3. Analytical reading (“what does the text mean?”)
  4. Synoptical reading (“what do various books say about a topic?”)

There is a brief description of the first two levels in Part One, Chapters 3 and 4. The emphasis of the book How To Read a Book is on the third level of analytical reading (Part Two) and on the fourth level of synoptical reading (Part Four).

The book How To Read a Book (hereafter given the acronym HTRAB) is what we covered in our first seminar after the introductory seminar on the mechanics of the Online Great Books course. There are rules that Mortimer Adler puts forth for analytical reading, and we discussed those rules for the majority of the time.

However, someone asked the question, well, we’re Seminar 49. How far has Seminar 1 gotten up to. Our moderator Mike Cwik (pronounced “swik”) said they’re reading Cicero. That excited me because after we discuss Plato and Aristotle, we’ll be able to discuss the differences between their approach to a given topic, which starts us on our journey towards synoptic reading.

For some reason, while discussing our ultimate goal of reading the Great Books of the Western World, which is to have a discussion amongst ourselves but also ultimately with the texts contained in those books, I stumbled across a memory of a science-fiction book series called Riverworld. In the first book, To Your Scattered Bodies Go, the protagonist wakes up alongside a great river on a giant planet along with numerous other people, and discovers that each person lived and died on Earth, but in a different time period. An alien civilization had been monitoring our civilization for a long period of time, and decided as a social experiment to reincarnate everyone who had ever lived to see how they interact.

I thought this is kind of an analogy to the Online Great Books club, because we are reanimating the authors of the great books of Western Civilization in order to interact with them. But then I realized where the analogy breaks down. We can read and interact with each other in discussion about the great books, but the authors themselves cannot interact with us.

But if we were incarnated in Riverworld in a specific section that was downstream, we might be able to read the works of the authors who put their messages in bottles so that they could be passed along the river. And this is closer to the truth, because we are receiving the bottles (the great books) that have been sent down the river of time.

With synoptical reading, we can construct a view that is wider and hopefully deeper than the ancients who came before. This is a worthwhile endeavor for an individual, but as a group, we can create something which can be handed down to those further downstream. I am keenly aware of this because I am in my 60s and don’t have grandchildren of my own, but I have extended family around my age who do have grandchildren and even great-grandchildren, and I constantly think about the world they are growing up in. It would be a shame if the thread of conversation were lost, and so that it is an additional motivation to pass this on the next generations.

My father tried to get me involved in the Great Books program when I was in junior high school, but it didn’t take–I was too busy with my STEM (as they would call it now) education in math and physics to have time for the liberal arts, and frankly too lazy when I look back on it. That is why when I saw the Online Great Books program being offered, I leapt at the chance to join–I always increasingly valued the Great Books as I have gotten older, and to have a conversation with others, both of my generation and those younger than me, about these books is one of the best things I have done for myself. As Heraclitus said, “you can’t dip into the same river twice.” Once you dip into the river of the Great Books, the river may stay the same but you yourself are enlarged and so the river means something different each time you dip into it.

And just as I wrote that last sentence, I thought of the old gospel hymn, Shall We Gather By the River?

‘Shall we gather at the river
Where bright angels feet have trod
With its crystal tides forever
Flowing by the throne of God.”

So as an invitation to all of those who are considering joining the Great Books online program, I say, shall we gather at the river?

Published by Jerome Rowley

I am a multilingual professional who has worked in the manufacturing and insurance industries. I am interested in Integral Theory and its application to various issues that put the globe at risk.

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