Literary Saturday: The Foundations of a Lifetime Reading List
Published on: April 18, 2010
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  • peter38a

    I would love to ask a question (wringing his hands and looking down in adorably boyish manner) that is a might off topic but where else than from such as well read as all of you? I read a quite a while back that when the Jews left servitude in Egypt that only 20% elected to actually leave. Anyone know anything about that number, truth or falsety?

  • In 2005 I first wrote about this 80/20 rule and each year at Passover I update the post. According to the Talmud, only 20% of the Jews left Egypt during the Exodus. I have found echoes of the 80/20 rule in other places.
    My 2005 post is here:
    My 2010 post is here:

  • Stacy

    Most homeschoolers are familiar with Susan Wise Bauer’s book The Well Trained Mind. Susan was homeschooled herself and now schools her own children. She is also a Professor of English at William and Mary. Her book outlines a neoclassical education. It utilizes the three classical phases of education: grammar, logic and rhetoric. It breaks these three phases down into a four year rotation. History is studied from Ancients to Middle Ages to Pre-Modern to Modern in three cycles with increasing levels of complexity. She’s written history texts for young children called The Story of the World. She also emphasizes Latin studies.

    Just a suggestion for those looking to self educate or educate their own children.

  • Mrs. Davis

    Thank you. It would be nice if you kept these posts accessible, perhaps through a link in the Resources area on the right.

  • Luke Lea

    I recommend reading the Bible from beginning to end, Old and New Testament together, the same way you would read a complex novel such as James Joyce’s Ulysses, looking for the over-arching theme, trying to fit the disparate and seemingly inconsistent parts together into a coherent vision of history with a constant theme. The conflict between the Abrahamic and Mosaic visions of God, for example: we are told (in Exodus?) that Adonai (or El) and Yahweh are the same God, but the very claim, the fact that it was necessary, tips us off to the different historical circumstances in which they arose and makes us conscious of their very different moral emphasis (one universal, the other tribal), both of which turn out to have been essential to the survival of the Jewish people right on up to the present day as it turns out. Nowhere is the tension greater or more revealing than in the later prophets, and nowhere is the original vision found more wanting than in the New Testament, when faith in the reality of “the next world” became a necessary addendum to God’s justice, which otherwise seems wildly contradicted by the facts of history after the fall of Jerusalem.

    Of course this is just my reading. But I am convinced that those who put these books together into a single canon — or rather into two canons — were guided by a consistent vision, sometimes at war with itself, but whose over-riding consistency we can sense in a single reading.

    That said the Bible is also to me at least a very dry book like the world that produced it: a vast desert with widely spaced oases of green shade and cool water to drink. Read it whole before you are thirty.

  • fw

    James Kugel is supposed to be an excellent guide to interpreting the Bible in the light of modern historical studies. He is religious himself. This is his website:

    A psychiatrist once told me that the expressed desire of the Israelites to return to the known evil of bondage in Egypt from the uncertain wandering in the wastes of the desert was a powerful metaphor for fear of and resistance to change. It’s a theme of Walter’s in God and Gold, insofar as religion offers a sense of security in the face of change at the same time it offers a vision of radical change.

    Finally, classical history has a bearing on our lives today greater even than providing a narrative context for a lot of the ideas that inform our political culture. When I was walking through the ruins of the Forum in Rome, I was stunned to walk through the Arch of Titus and see what amounts to a photojournalistic account of an event that still reverberates through our lives, and is discussed frequently on this blog. This was no poetic trope or metaphor:

  • joe

    Don’t forget Polybius for early Roman history and political science and Marcellinus Ammianus for late Roman history! Or Ovid to help with Shakespeare; Juvenal for rancour and spittle; Petronius Arbiter for a grifters’ road movie; and Apuleius for magical fiction.

    On a related note, one should be familiar with the Greeks: the Illiad, Aeneid (not Greek), Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes,and Aeschylus at the very least. There are so many first–refutations of slavery, the dangers of demagoguery and a sophisticated poltical class, sexual politics, existential ruminations about conflicting familial and civic duties, and so on

  • John Barker

    Since I agree with James Joyce that history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awaken, I preface my reading with poetry and spiritual teachings.

  • fw

    A maxim I find myself returning to frequently was the great Norwegian mathematician, Niels Henrik Abel’s response when asked how he had achieved his remarkable insights into the nature of mathematics: “Read the masters, not their students.” I think that there is a value in studying the classics, rather than secondhand, if expertly written, interpretations by scholars from succeeding generations.

    Incidentally, for anyone interested in delving into mathematical literature, Leonhard Euler, a dominant figure in the history of the subject, wrote a book titled, “Algebra”, for the edification of a domestic servant, and like-amateurs with an interest in broadening their knowledge of math. Allowing for a few idiosyncrasies now obsolete, it’s a great way to start at the beginning, and is available for free, in translation, online. Just try Google books.

  • Gad


    Regarding that 1/5:

    What *really* happened, we have no extra-religious information on.

    The Bible itself says nothing explicit about this (or at least doesn’t seem to).

    Ancient Jewish sources do indeed mention that only 1 out of every 5 Jews in Egypt left (with the remainder either staying behind or dying for their sins). In typical fashion, this is “read into” the Bible. Exodus 13:18 reads “And the children of Israel went up armed out of the land of Egypt.” The word “armed” in Hebrew is related to the word five or fifth, so…

    In short, there is such an ancient tradition. Whether you accept it or not depends on whether you accept ancient extra-Biblical Jewish sources.

  • Gad

    Going back to the original post, my previous comment reminds me that Jewish tradition believes that there is a “Written Teaching” (the Bible) as well as an “Oral Teaching,” which expounds on it, and that merely reading dead trees is not sufficient; in order to gain knowledge, one must join the “learning community” and immerse oneself in a living interpretive tradition.

    (Keep in mind that the preceding was an extremely simplified, off-the-cuff, one-sentence exposition.)

  • Luke Lea

    I’ll check out Euler. Thanks, fw.

  • fw

    Luke, I’m a mathematical plodder myself, but I’ve spent a lot of time looking for analogues to the literary classics in the sciences, math in particular, and this book was intended to be a primer for someone with no math background, and still holds up well, excepting a few things like his treatment of complex numbers.

    Andre Weil, the great 20th Century French mathematician, said today’s calculus students would profit more by studying Euler’s “Introduction to the Analysis of the Infinite,” than by reading any modern day text. It’s available in translation by John Blanton from Springer. It’s regarded by many as the greatest math text ever written, surpassing Euclid’s Elements. Euler’s entire corpus runs to something close to a hundred volumes, and they’re still working on the official edition.

    Having tried “The Analysis of the Infinite”, and found that it makes some significant assumptions about the reader’s prior knowledge, I’ve gone back to the “Algebra.”

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  • peter38a

    Thank you for responsing to my question and Shrinkwrapped I’ll be heading to your blogs next.

  • WigWag

    Mead mentions “The Iliad” but I think both “The Odyssey” and “The Aneid” are more interesting; they have certainly been more influential on subsequent literature. The late Robert Fagles did wonderful (and very readable) translations of both,

    For something truly foundational, readers are sure to enjoy and learn from “The Epic of Gilgamesh” which actually predates any of the terrific recommendations made by Mead.

    Not only are the themes explored by Homer foreshadowed in Gilgamesh, but the story of Noah and the story of Nebuchadnezzar’s madness in the book of Daniel draw on the “Epic of Gilgamesh.”

    The story is about the relationship of Gilgamesh and his best friend Enkidu (some people think that the story of these two friends is highly reminiscent of the friendship between King David and Jonathan). They travel the ancient world on a hero’s quest displaying great acts of bravery. When Enkidu is killed, the distraught Gilgamesh takes a long and perilous journey to the nether regions in search of the secret to immortality; a quest which of course is futile.

    The tale goes back at least as far as (and probably longer) than 2300 BC. It is rather startling to discover how little the human personality and human aspirations have changed in all that time.

  • Robert

    “Ideally, Latin would be part of the package and it would start early. In the UK, they introduced us to it at age 11; this seems about right. Sitting here in my de rigeur Brooks Brothers blogging pajamas”
    Ideally, French would be part of the package and it would start before Latin. “De rigeur”???

  • John

    Dr. Eliot’s Five Foot Shelf

  • Gad

    Robert: And he’ll stay in his pajamas until he dies, and rigeur mortis sets in.

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