When you gather data, you become informed. When you read, you develop wisdom.
With The Well-Educated Mind, Susan Wise Bauer gracefully takes up the torch long held by Mortimer J. Adler, and becomes the modern advocate for purposeful reading.
She gives us her own interpretation of what it means to “read well” and, thankfully, holds our hand a little more than Adler does in How to Read a Book. You can think of their two works as a pair of college textbooks–Adler’s is for general instruction while Bauer’s contains the detailed steps and procedures use for lab work.
Her book begins with a general overview of the “whats, whys, and hows” of classical education and then subsequent chapters dive into medium-specific analysis–novels, autobiographies, history, drama, and poetry. It’s obviously not an end-all-be-all list of classical education material, but enough to cover the literary bases (as Bauer states, “List making is a dangerous occupation.”)
Within each of those chapters is an outline of questions we should ask ourselves, specific to that medium. Then we’re given a list of recommended books at the end of each section, each book having its own synopsis.
The one notion I disagree with Bauer on is sticking to one medium at a time in order to grasp the chronological flow of work. In my opinion, many of these classics reference stories outside of their own medium, so I personally feel a wider breadth of reading is more beneficial. For example, if you don’t familiarize yourself with the poetic and historical books of the Bible, you’re going to miss references in all sorts of novels and plays.
But I do agree with the overall message put out by Bauer (and Adler): You get out what you put in. It’s slow going at first, sometimes mind-numbingly so, but like anything worth doing, it takes practice. And like anything you practice, the more you work at it, the faster and more natural it becomes (the fact that I’m typing up my notes more regularly is a good example. 🙂 )
Though both Bauer and Adler admit that not all books require the same level of thought, only by working through the various stages of what classical education calls the trivium–grammar, logic, rhetoric–can the reader be sure they’re getting the most out of books that do matter.
Fun links to learn more: