The Great Books: From The Iliad and the Odyssey to Goethe's Faust: A Journey Through 2,500 Years of the West's Classic Literature

September 17, 2009

Author: Anthony O'Hear

Edition: First

Publisher: Icon Books

Pages: 480

Price: £10.99

ISBN: 9781848310063

Anthony O'Hear has written a great book about great books. With the exception of Goethe's Faust, his selection is confined to works before the 19th century, on the grounds that works after that period do not require a knowledge of the Greek and Roman classics in order to fully understand them.

So here we have the first criterion of a "great book"; that it utilises tradition. The second is that it should display a religious sensibility, a "reverence" for "a sacred order not of human making".

The third criterion of a great book is that the human characters - Achilles, Aeneas, Hamlet, Phedre and Faust - should all be individuals of "heroic stature". No wonder great literature can often make you feel inadequate.

While great books engage with such themes as war and peace, it is these three criteria alone that make them "great". You might have thought the quality of writing would have proved a factor, but no.

O'Hear acknowledges that other cultures have also produced great works, but he makes the entirely fair point that their influence on the Western tradition is limited compared with his chosen few, which include, among others, Homer, Ovid, Dante, Cervantes, Shakespeare and Racine.

Any list of great books is bound to be incomplete. There will always be someone who says: "Yes, but what about?". In my case it's "where's the Bible?" - surely the strangest omission in a work that places such a high value on Christian doctrine. And O'Hear must be the only person I know who thinks that Henry V is a great play, but King Lear is not. But the world would be a dull place if we all thought alike; though it would be more peaceable.

O'Hear used to be a special adviser on education during the premierships of Margaret Thatcher and John Major. What a pity he could not have made some of the ideas expressed in this book, for example that art has a value in and for itself, prevail with them.

But despite his political affiliations, he is no elitist. His aim is to give people the background they need to appreciate the West's literary heritage. To that end he gives helpful plot summaries and colour reproductions of paintings based on scenes from Aeschylus and co.

All very admirable. As is his critique of "relevance", the idea that we must approach the past through the "prejudices" of the present. No, argues O'Hear, we must strive to appreciate its difference.

Ultimately, The Great Books is an exercise in nostalgia. The values on which they are based have long passed away. As Edgar says in King Lear, it is now time for us to "speak what we feel, not what we ought to say".

Who is it for? Anyone who thinks there are such things as great books and anyone who thinks there aren't.

Presentation: Very readable, despite overly long plot summaries.

Would you recommend it? A book that should be read by all students studying literature, theology or philosophy.

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