What Are Great Books?

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Julia Bacon July 8, 2012 Dr. Amanda Berry LIT-125-F01L Defining Great Books Defining “Great Books” in one thousand words is no simple a task. Merriam-Webster defines this term as “of, relating to, or centered in certain classics of literature, philosophy, history, and science that are believed to contain the basic ideas of western culture.” This seems somewhat vague and oversimplified for a term that has sparked many conversations and debates over many years since the nineteenth century. Intellectuals, academics, writers and critics alike have contributed to the discussion. There are several keywords and key concepts in this conversation, specifically in regard to the conceptual nature and criteria of what makes a Great Book; these include excellence, universality, and culture. Excellence Excellence means “the quality of being superior or eminently good,” according to Merriam-Webster. Excellence and excellent are both derived from the Latin verb excellere, meaning “to rise, surpass.” For many involved in the discussion of Great Books, the motif of excellence is apparent across several levels. Excellence is the quality of being outstanding (or great) without the shadow of mediocrity. Tom Lacy, in his dissertation at Loyola University of Chicago, brought it up several times. The most relevant to this discussion is the academic strive for intellectual excellence. He brought up Matthew Arnold’s preference for religious excellence and the Progressive Era’s strive for excellence that fueled this time period. Conclusively, Lacy explores our main topic: Great Books feature a theme that requires an overall reach for a higher quality perspective. In Robert Hutchins’s “The Liberal Arts: The Great Conversation,” excellence in is not necessarily a matter of excellence in language, but a matter of seeking further intelligence and a superior level of education. Great
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