Here is an excerpt from CapitalIdeasOnline on the great books movement followed by a little something on books such as The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses by Kevin Birmingham, Ulysses by James Joyce, The Iliad by Homer, The Odyssey by Homer and The Republic by Plato.

I would rate “The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses” by Kevin Birmingham as one of the best books I read in 2014. It’s the biography of a book – the story of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Here is a small part that I marked in my copy of the book dealing with the need to read the old classics.

1.“When Cerf was at Columbia, the Great Books movement was incubating in the university’s English department. Professors like John Erskine envisioned a two-year survey of the Western canon that, when it was instituted in 1920, the university described as a “Reading of Masterpieces of literature in poetry, history, philosophy and science.” The reading list included works from Homer, Plato, Dante and Shakespeare. This sounds like typical fare, but having biology students read masterpieces outside of literature’s disciplinary constraints (and there were plenty) was not something universities generally did before 1920.”

2.“Erskine’s idea was to “treat The Iliad, The Odyssey, and other masterpieces as though they were recent publications” – they transcended centuries and bore directly upon contemporary lives. Masterpieces showed readers that the chaos of modern life was a part of the larger pattern of human civilization. The Great Books movement was, in other words, a syllabized version of Ulysses. Both within and beyond universities, people began thinking that certain books illuminated eternal features of the human condition. They didn’t demand expertise – one didn’t need to speak classical Greek or read all of Plato to benefit from The Republic – all they demanded was, as Erskine put it, “a comfortable chair and a good light.” Bennett Cerf absorbed the ethos of reading great books as contemporary texts during his college years, and he was inspired by a freshman course on contemporary British authors (Rudyard Kipling, Arnold Bennett and H. G. Wells), which extended the great literary continuum to the present. The Modern Library catalog was, to some extent, an homage to Cerf’s undergraduate education.”

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The Great Books Movement: The Most Dangerous Book

The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses by Kevin Birmingham.

“A great story—how modernism brought down the regime of censorship—told as a great story. Kevin Birmingham’s imaginative scholarship brings Joyce and his world to life. There is a fresh detail on nearly every page.”—Louis Menand, Pulitzer prize-winning author of The Metaphysical Club

For more than a decade, the book that literary critics now consider the most important novel in the English language was illegal to own, sell, advertise or purchase in most of the English-speaking world. James Joyce’s big blue book, Ulysses, ushered in the modernist era and changed the novel for all time. But the genius of Ulysses was also its danger: it omitted absolutely nothing. All of the minutiae of Leopold Bloom’s day, including its unspeakable details, unfold with careful precision in its pages. The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice immediately banned the novel as “obscene, lewd, and lascivious.” Joyce, along with some of the most important publishers and writers of his era, had to fight for years to win the freedom to publish it. The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses tells the remarkable story surrounding Ulysses, from the first stirrings of Joyce’s inspiration in 1904 to its landmark federal obscenity trial in 1933.

Literary historian Kevin Birmingham follows Joyce’s years as a young writer, his feverish work on his literary masterpiece, and his ardent love affair with Nora Barnacle, the model for Molly Bloom. Joyce and Nora socialized with literary greats like Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, T. S. Eliot and Sylvia Beach. Their support helped Joyce fight an array of anti-vice crusaders while his book was disguised and smuggled, pirated and burned in the United States and Britain. The long struggle for publication added to the growing pressures of Joyce’s deteriorating eyesight, finances and home life.

The Great Books Movement: Ulysses

Ulysses by James Joyce.

Ulysses is a novel by Irish writer James Joyce. It was first serialised in parts in the American journal The Little Review from March 1918 to December 1920, and then published in its entirety by Sylvia Beach in February 1922, in Paris. It is considered to be one of the most important works of Modernist literature, and has been called “a demonstration and summation of the entire movement”. “Before Joyce, no writer of fiction had so foregrounded the process of thinking.” However, even proponents of Ulysses such as Anthony Burgess have described the book as “inimitable, and also possibly mad”.

The Great Books Movement: The Iliad

The Iliad by Homer.

The great war epic of Western literature, translated by acclaimed classicist Robert Fagles

Dating to the ninth century B.C., Homer’s timeless poem still vividly conveys the horror and heroism of men and gods wrestling with towering emotions and battling amidst devastation and destruction, as it moves inexorably to the wrenching, tragic conclusion of the Trojan War. Renowned classicist Bernard Knox observes in his superb introduction that although the violence of the Iliad is grim and relentless, it coexists with both images of civilized life and a poignant yearning for peace.

Combining the skills of a poet and scholar, Robert Fagles, winner of the PEN/Ralph Manheim Medal for Translation and a 1996 Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, brings the energy of contemporary language to this enduring heroic epic. He maintains the drive and metric music of Homer’s poetry, and evokes the impact and nuance of the Iliad’s mesmerizing repeated phrases in what Peter Levi calls “an astonishing performance.”

The Great Books Movement: The Odyssey

The Odyssey by Homer.

The great epic of Western literature, translated by the acclaimed classicist Robert Fagles

Robert Fagles, winner of the PEN/Ralph Manheim Medal for Translation and a 1996 Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, presents us with Homer’s best-loved and most accessible poem in a stunning modern-verse translation. “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy.” So begins Robert Fagles’ magnificent translation of The Odyssey, which Jasper Griffin in the New York Times Book Review hails as “a distinguished achievement.”

If The Iliad is the world’s greatest war epic, the Odyssey is literature’s grandest evocation of an everyman’s journey through life. Odysseus’ reliance on his wit and wiliness for survival in his encounters with divine and natural forces during his ten-year voyage home to Ithaca after the Trojan War is at once a timeless human story and an individual test of moral endurance. In the myths and legends  retold here,

Fagles has captured the energy and poetry of Homer’s original in a bold, contemporary idiom, and given us an Odyssey to read aloud, to savor, and to treasure for its sheer lyrical mastery. Renowned classicist Bernard Knox’s superb introduction and textual commentary provide insightful background information for the general reader and scholar alike, intensifying the strength of Fagles’s translation. This is an Odyssey to delight both the classicist and the general reader, to captivate a new generation of Homer’s students.

The Great Books Movement: The Republic by Plato

The Republic by Plato.

Often ranked as the greatest of Plato’s many remarkable writings, this celebrated philosophical work of the fourth century BC contemplates the elements of an ideal state, serving as the forerunner for such other classics of political thought as Cicero’s De Republica, St. Augustine’s City of God, and Thomas More’s Utopia.

Written in the form of a dialog in which Socrates questions his students and fellow citizens, The Republic concerns itself chiefly with the question, “What is justice?” as well as Plato’s theory of ideas and his conception of the philosopher’s role in society. To explore the latter, he invents the allegory of the cave to illustrate his notion that ordinary men are like prisoners in a cave, observing only the shadows of things, while philosophers are those who venture outside the cave and see things as they really are, and whose task it is to return to the cave and tell the truth about what they have seen. This dynamic metaphor expresses at once the eternal conflict between the world of the senses (the cave) and the world of ideas (the world outside the cave), and the philosopher’s role as mediator between the two.

High school and college students, as well as lovers of classical literature and philosophy, will welcome this handsome and inexpensive edition of an immortal work. It appears here in the fine translation by the English classicist Benjamin Jowett.

The Great Books Movement: The Most Dangerous Book