Monday, December 10, 2007

Great books nobody reads (Plutarch)

And bad books everybody reads.

Kathryn at Suitable for Mixed Company pointed me to this article by Anthony Esolen, The Top Twenty Books That Nobody Reads. Top of the list: Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans.

To be honest, I'm surprised that it even made it to the list--I mean, to make it to the list of famous books that nobody reads, it would have to be famous, if not read, right? Everybody's heard of The Grapes of Wrath and The Odyssey and Paradise Lost, even if they don't read them. But it seems to me that more people just haven't heard of Plutarch than have heard of him but don't read him. Part of that reason--I think--is that he's kind of hard to find unless you're looking on purpose. Easy to find online or probably in a library (say if they have the Harvard Classics), but you're not going to see multiple copies of Plutarch come up at book sales like you are the hundreds of school editions of Shakespeare's plays, or the multiple copies of Lord of the Flies. (I think there were school editions of Plutarch produced years ago--as well as the retellings for children that are available online--but I haven't yet seen one myself, I mean a "real" Plutarch but just with some of the content edited out, see below, or maybe some vocabulary notes.)

Also, he was a "moral biographer," and that's gone out of style. That's good for us, in some ways, because you don't have to know all the history that's included to make sense of one of Plutarch's Lives. Some background helps, but it isn't just the battles and the rulers that matter; it's what makes a great leader, or a poor one; what good choices were made, and what bad ones.

If you're talking to homeschoolers who are even aware of Plutarch's existence, they're most likely either of a classical or CM bent, since Charlotte Mason enthused about his biographies in her own books. She classed Plutarch as "Citizenship Study" rather than as history lessons. To the rest of the world (maybe outside of the Classics departments), he's more obscure even than Sir Walter Scott. (How many people can name more than about two Scott books?) Even the author Penelope Lively (in Oleander Jacaranda), who studied through the Parents' Union correspondence school, says she can't understand what a child would have gotten out of Plutarch.

And then there's the problem of whose translation you're looking for, and which Lives are included in the volume you have. And the problem of some of the nasty stuff--Plutarch is neither squeamish nor prudish. Lacking an edited version, you have to read him aloud rather than turning your kids loose.

However: the Ambleside Online curriculum, among other things, has quietly been turning all this ignorance of Plutarch on its ear. All Ambleside students over about the age of ten are encouraged to become familiar with Plutarch, to study one of his Lives every term--beginning with the retellings if they want, but eventually moving on to the grownup version. Lacking a SparkNotes for Plutarch, we created our own notes (which get added to the website at regular or sometimes irregular intervals). And we've started to hear from families for whom Plutarch is no longer a stranger. We start to hear that his Lives are even inspiring enjoyable discussions.

This, from a book at the top of the list of the Books That Nobody Reads.

Not bad.


Anonymous said...

A nice reminder.
Me and my children were reading 'The Children's Plutarch: Tales of the Greeks'
by F. J. Gould for a while.
We all enjoyed it. I got sidetracked and stopped, but I believe I'll get back to it!

Unknown said...

When I first read Charlotte Mason I didn't succeed in implementing Plutarch even though I did absorb the idea that reading Plutarch is important.

It wasn't until Ambleside came along that I began a plan for reading Plutarch and now it almost seems so easy I don't know why I didn't try it earlier.

Anne's notes are very helpful.

TeacherBritt said...

Your post was so true! When we started Plutarch with my 10 yo dd this term, she wasn't a fan at all. We even started with Puplicola, which was said to be a good "starting point". But, she still wasn't understanding why we were reading about his life.

When we started using Anne White's notes on the AO site, and also combining the "Our Young Folk's Plutarch" summaries, THEN the light bulb went off for Caroline and she really started liking Plutarch.

It is definitly a "citizenship" lesson and a very good one at that! Thanks for all the details on your post!

Be Blessed,

Delia said...

i found out about plutarch in college.
a great read...

amy in peru said...

hilarious. I just found this post... I'm posting a link to it on my blog today :)

It wasn't long ago I had no idea what Plutarch was... and I probably couldn't have cared less. But now, the enriched homeschool mother than I am. I have discovered something worthwhile. I mean it's one of the top 20 books that nobody reads!
hahahah! I find this funny.

amy in peru