Quality, not quantity

August 5, 2010

I enjoyed Greg Garrard's interrogation of the packed reading lists in university literature courses ("A novel idea: slow reading", 17 June). This is an old problem: however, it is not as old as one potential solution.

In the late 1920s, Simone Weil studied philosophy at the Lycee Henri-IV in Paris' Latin quarter. There, two great authors were on the syllabus every year, a philosopher and a poet or novelist.

In 1925, Weil studied Plato and Balzac, and in the following year, Kant's Critiques and the Iliad. Scholar Sylvie Courtine-Denamy observes that in her time at Henri-IV, Weil also studied Marcus Aurelius' Meditations: stemming from this, the Stoics' concept of amor fati (love of fate) "constitutes one of the leitmotifs of (Weil's) later work".

Slow reading, like slow food, may indeed be about savouring rather than gobbling. In Weil's case, the lack of a crowded reading list appears to have been no great impediment to her later intellectual development.

But what of the objection that students now should absorb as many "great books" as possible during their brief years at university to compensate for "the decline of reading", as Garrard calls it, in our societies at large?

Perhaps an answer lies in considering, first and foremost, the lifelong mental habits we seek to encourage in students through their experiences of university learning. Formulations of this will vary from teacher to teacher, but if students graduate knowing that they have engaged in intensive and rigorous dialogue with the authors of some great books - even only a handful - then their university stories will surely not be chronicles of wasted time.

Paul Gray, Melbourne.

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