The Great Books Reader is the tapas of the great books canon.

Great Books ReaderIf you don’t know, ‘tapas’ is a Spanish appetizer that, over time, became popular and sophisticated enough that entire bars are dedicated to only serving it.  The analogy breaks down quickly, as The Great Books Reader makes no apologies in wanting to push readers toward the main courses.  But as an introduction to what is sometimes called “the Western canon,” GBR is a helpful and interesting guide.

Full disclosure:  the book is edited by John Mark Reynolds, a friend and endorser of Earthen Vessels, and populated with essays by several people that I count as friends and one (Gary Hartenburg) who writes for Mere-O.

The book is laid out with a brief introduction by Dr. Reynolds followed by an excerpt from the text itself, and then a brief essay by either an established thinker or an emerging scholar.  Locating the original source in the middle is a helpful touch, as it makes it clear that any commentary is supposed to serve and drive people into the text, rather than the other way around.

There is just enough of an intro to situate the text and author in the “great conversation” of ideas and help us catch a glimpse of their relevance, and just enough of a concluding thought to help us see the author’s depth of thought and the shallowness of our reading–not to turn us off from the text, but back toward it, in the full version.

Neither the book nor essays will satisfy everyone, but then if they did the book would have failed.  As Dr. Reynolds highlights in defending the “(nearly) indefensible,” the work is meant to “fill the role of a good tutor in a great books discussion.”  And in any such good discussion, the real conversation begins when the time runs out and people return to reread the text anew, with better questions and a deeper awareness of our ignorance in light of them.

I’m giving away two copies of the book.  To win yours, write a tweet or Facebook status update about your favorite “Great Book” and link to this post, then leave a comment.  Winners will be chosen next Monday.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. I just got my copy of THE GREAT BOOKS READER. It will be a helpful resource. The translations for the excerpts were well-chosen, but I think the excerpts are a “filler.” I would have appreciated lengthier essays on the great books and their authors. For that reason, I think INVITATION TO THE CLASSICS, edited by Os Guinness and Louis Cowan, is a superior book. Nevertheless, I welcome the contributions from Peter Kreeft on Augustine, Aquinas, and Pascal, Frederica Mathewes-Green on John Milton and Tolstoy, William Dembski on Isaac Newton, John Mark Reynolds on Edmund Spenser and Jane Austen, Hunter Baker on Karl Marx, and Anthony Esolen on Dante Alighieri. I was unimpressed by the contributions from Phil Johnson on Darwin and Hugh Hewitt on Alexis de Toqueville. Why in the world would the editor choose Johnson when there are far more distinguished scholars on Darwin, such as Alister McGrath? Johnson’s got an axe to grind with Darwin, as a result he does not treat him the seriousness he deserves. If I were putting together such a book, I would have chosen Christian scholars who are well-known for their work on the authors and texts. Instead of Russell D. Moore on John Calvin, what about Paul Helm (author of John Calvin’s Ideas, Calvin: A Guide for the Perplexed, Calvin at the Centre)? Instead of Fred Sanders on Friedrich Nietzsche, what about Bruce Benson (author of Pious Nietzsche)?


  2. Matt,

    Of the titles included in this reader, I had to give favorite honors to Paradise Lost. It was perhaps the best reading assigned to me while an undergrad. Orthodoxy was, I thought, an interesting choice. The book is masterful to be sure, but I would be curious to know the criteria on which it was selected. There again, I wondered about the inclusion of Milton and exclusion of Bunyan. But I digress. All great titles, and this reader looks like a very helpful guide.!/cmarlink/status/119064472928264193


  3. Does the ‘great book’ need to have a chap in Reynolds’?

    Mine’d be *Against Heresies*.

    I don’t see it in his TOC.

    I don’t do the tweet/facebook thing, sorry.


  4. […] Day: Koinonia is giving away a copy of Why the Church Needs Bioethics and Mere Orthodoxy is giving away a copy of The Great Books […]


  5. It’s a toss between Confessions and Institutes of the Christian Religion.


  6. Thanks for the giveaway. I posted and linked on my facebook page. My favorite “great book” (from the ones listed in this book) would be Pensees by Blaise Pascal. My blog’s name (Enough Light) comes from a Blaise Pascal quote: “In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe, and enough shadows to blind those who don’t.”


  7. I chose “Pilgrim’s Progress”. (Likely, because I recently picked it up again for a backpacking trip – so it’s fresh in my mind.) I find it to be incredibly refreshing – a very personal critique, I think, as my younger sister found the emphasis on self-denial incredibly oppressing.

    I think it stands out, though, in my reading because Bunyan is very straight forward – in his choice of content and in his poetic style. Yet, his account of Christian’s journey is thought provoking and challenging – especially for those of us struggling through the implications of a “gray” world, where so many insist right and wrong are as undefinable as Christian’s own hands in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. It seems to me that Bunyan would have some important critiques and encouragements for us as we figure out what the faithful life should look like today.

    Such accessibility to such important questions – rendered so beautifully – made for great reading on our breaks from trekking through Yosemite’s valleys and struggling up a couple of those steep mountainsides.


  8. Plato’s criticism of democracy in The Republic still stands as the most cogent today.


  9. My favorite great book is Fear and Trembling by Soren Kierkegaard. He seemed to have a way of combining emotion and reason in his pursuit of understanding faith.


  10. I tweeted about Confessions being my favorite “Great Book.” This looks like a really great resource.


  11. Looks like a great resource indeed. Very interested title, Im going to have to check this out for sure.


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