Monday Musings (October 2, 2017): Meditating on the Great Books—Some Practical Steps

Monday Musings

The past several weeks I have been exploring the notion of meditation,[1] first upon Scripture, but then suggesting that this could apply to the Great Books as well, albeit with a different authority. One of the ways we can meditate on the Great Books is by recognizing that we are not passive recipients of the Great Books but actually active participants in the same story as these Great Books.

In this post I want to consider some practical steps we can take to meditate on the Great Books and participate in the Great Tradition.

  1. Read the Great Books more than once: Busy schedules are the enemy of participation in the Great Tradition. We have so much to do that the idea of reading a Great Book that will strain our brains is a time commitment we often choose not to make. But reading a Great Book is extra demanding because one reading is simply not enough. Usually it’s better than no readings, but a single reading of a Great Book can sometimes be counterproductive, since one reading will often leave us with an insufficient grasp of the argument and/or beauty of a work and therefore predispose us to think less highly than we ought of that work. If we do determine to give a Great Book more than one reading, I suggest the first reading should be a quicker, big picture type reading. Begin by trying to get the overall picture of the argument without spending too much time on any one point. Oftentimes we wrestle with ideas and ask numerous questions that would be answered if we simply read another couple pages. In the second reading, however, we can really begin to dig deep and meditate on the deeper themes and ideas of the work. We can assess the strengths and weaknesses of an argument, and we can begin to explore ways in which we might see these truths and ideas applied in our own in field
  2. Create space and time for thought: Once again, busy schedules are the enemy of participation in the Great Tradition. Margin is something I believe in conceptually but rarely practice. In busy schedules, one of the first things we eliminate is “free time.” But one of the healthiest—physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually—decisions we can make is to set aside space and time for reflection. I often find myself like the rest of society pulling out my iPhone in “dead space” to fill the time. In response, I have started carrying physical journals around everywhere so that I can sit, think, and write in place of scrolling my Facebook feed or checking on the dismal performance of my fantasy football team. As a culture, we rarely practice quiet contemplation, but quiet contemplation remains the answer to wrestling with life’s great questions, questions that are contemplated time and again in the Great Books. If we would take the time to read deeply of the Great Books and set aside time to think about the Great Ideas, we would be much healthier, wiser, and better people.
  3. book conversationRead and discuss in community: Our culture today is the most connected it has ever been through texting, social media, and news outlets in every conceivable form. Yet we are simultaneously the most disconnected society ever as artificial communication has replaced personal conversations, social media likes and followers have replaced deep friendships, and online facades have replaced vulnerable, trusting relationships. Our culture is becoming more and more isolationist, and this is damaging in too many ways to count. But one of the areas where it is most damaging is in the individualism of modern education. When our sole focus as a student is getting “my” grade, our responsibility to a community of learning is nothing more, and sometimes much less, than simply not being a distraction to others. Whether we are in formal schooling or merely seeking to be lifelong learners, we must recapture the art of reading in community. Book groups, seminars, chats over coffee, and more can be effective ways of growing both friendships and intellect. As we read and discuss together, our minds sharpen one another and, when necessary, correct one another before we get onto the wrong track. Reading in community encourages accountability, fosters friendship, and breeds wisdom.
  4. journal and quill penWrite: One of the most helpful ways to meditate on my reading, whether in Great Books or Scripture, is to write about it. Writing forces me to form my thoughts into words. Writing forces me to take abstract thoughts and make them concrete. Writing usually forces me to take a side when I am waffling between two ideas. Writing is a way of intentionally sharing my thoughts and resisting the desire to keep them to myself, thus helping me achieve my third point of discussing the Great Books in community. Every time I write, I invite others’ critiques; I invite others into a conversation; in fact, by writing I invite myself into the Great Conversation. I am no Plato, Augustine, or Aquinas, but by writing in response to their works, I am entering into conversation with them. By writing, I am no longer a passive recipient of their wisdom but an active participant in their conversation. And sure, most people will find that I don’t belong in that conversation, but they, by their own writing, were kind enough to invite me anyway. And I pray I’m not ever foolish enough to decline that invitation.


[1]Monday Musings (September 11, 2017): Reading and Meditation,

Monday Musings (September 18, 2017): Lectio Divina and the Monster Book of Monsters: Harry Potter, Eugene Peterson, and the Art of Spiritual Reading,

Monday Musings (September 25, 2017): Meditation as Participation,

Feature photo credit: Photo by Thomas Kelley on Unsplash

Man in field: Photo by Lachlan Dempsey on Unsplash

Book conversation: Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash

Journal and pen: Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

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