The Course

This site originates in a proposal for a course at Shimer College under the title “Why – and What – Should We Read?” Below you can read the narrative submitted to the National Endowment for the Humanities (in Fall 2012) as part of an application for a grant to support the course and this website.

Here you can review the syllabus for the first offering of the course at Shimer College in Fall 2013.

Look back here for another iteration of this course in Spring 2016.

Why – and what – should we read?

Stuart Patterson, Associate Professor of Liberal Arts, Shimer College

Intellectual Rationale and Teaching Value

The questions motivating this course emerge directly from Plato’s dialogue the Phaedrus. There, Socrates recounts a brief legend on the invention of writing. The Egyptian God Theuth, his story goes, presents writing as a gift to King Thamus, calling it an “elixir of memory and wisdom” for its ability to fix and preserve human thought. But Thamus remonstrates with Theuth that writing will lead us only to remind ourselves of what we would otherwise have to remember, causing forgetfulness rather than serving wisdom. And Socrates agrees. Writing cannot be true wisdom, he argues, as it remains silent, sterile in the face of readers’ inevitable questions and objections to whatever it says. Wisdom comes, he asserts, only in the dialectic, the living give-and-take of careful, committed conversation.

But what does Plato mean by putting these arguments into a piece of writing? Is he inviting his readers to disdain reading and instead to turn to one another in search of wisdom? But Plato’s own writing, his carefully wrought image of the dialectic between Socrates and Phaedrus, is so compelling and even pleasurable that we find it difficult to conceive of abandoning reading altogether. So, we are left with other questions: What is our relationship to what we read? How does it inform and shape our relationships to others? Does it make a difference what we read, and how? The intellectual and ethical self-examination these questions promote is the goal of this course. Through both critical reading and discussion, students and I together will question the very means and ends of a liberal arts education. Further, we will examine ourselves as readers generally, asking how what we read shapes us as individuals and as a community and how it guides our conduct with each other both within and beyond the limits of our shared educational context.

Shimer College is ideally suited to such a course. At Shimer, two thirds of the credits our graduates receive are earned in a required core curriculum of “great books” in the Humanities and Social and Natural Sciences. The remaining third are earned in electives on special topics in which we often make room for works that are not universally canonical but widely acknowledged to have made significant contributions to the many fields we study. The habits of inquiry our curriculum inculcates tend inevitably to self-examination. We at Shimer ask ourselves often what, why, and how we should read. But our students especially are only able to pursue these questions in relatively incidental ways. This course will provide a focused, devoted venue for inquiring into how our canon is formed and maintained and how it defines us to ourselves and others. Further, as our students tend naturally to be “bookish,” the course will challenge them personally to ask what they seek in reading and how their reading teaches them to act, think and feel. And I myself will face similar questions, including how my reading self interacts with my teaching self.

Envisioned Course Design

The structure of the course reflects these aims. We will meet twice a week, to afford extended reading time between classes, and for two hours per class, to afford opportunities for extended conversation. The thirteen weeks of the semester will be divided into a series of themes on the following plan.

First we will spend a week examining the Phaedrus and especially what is written there about writing, reading and speaking, all in order to begin generating the fundamental questions and themes of the course.

We will then turn for two weeks to begin asking what we should read, given Plato’s at least tacit endorsement of reading as a worthy, if questionable, activity. We will begin by putting Shimer’s own curriculum under examination, beginning with Robert Maynard Hutchins’ The Great Conversation. Like Plato, Hutchins questions the distinction between written texts and living social discourse in order to arrive at the definition of a good education, namely, the great books curriculum followed at Shimer, which was first designed under his leadership at the University of Chicago. We will use Hutchins’ work as a basis for examining Shimer’s curriculum directly, looking not only into its pedagogical rationale but into how it has been adapted over the years through catalogues and periodic reports from the faculty on changes to it since its inception in the 1950s. Further, we will extend our conversation with Hutchins and Shimer’s past to include debates from eighteenth century England to the contemporary U.S. about what – if anything – should be required reading, all collected in Lee Morrissey’s Debating the Canon: A Reader from Addison to Nafisi.

We will then spend two weeks examining another canon, the Christian Gospels, adding the factor of religious devotion to questions concerning the social and political dimensions of what we read. The Christian Gospels are some of the most important texts in Shimer’s curriculum. Yet our typically unmediated reading of them does not allow us to consider directly the forces that shaped them into the now-received body of “true” as opposed to apocryphal accounts of Christ’s life. We will read all the canonical Gospels themselves in this course, in part to ask why there are precisely four of them, and whether this makes a difference to their meaning. But we will also reflect on these questions in light of other, apocryphal texts and scholarship on them by Elaine Pagels in The Gnostic Gospels, Karen King in The Gospel of Mary of Magdala and Bart Erhman on Lost Scriptures.

From questions on how reading shapes communities, we will turn for the next four weeks to consider our personal relationships to books, focusing on early modern Europe, when printed literature was becoming widely available as private possessions. We begin with Michel de Montaigne’s essays “On Books” and “On Some Lines of Virgil.” Both essays offer searching meditations on how reading is integral to his lifelong self-examination, in part as it lends authority to his individual experience, which we as readers in turn receive through Montaigne’s invention of the personal essay. We then turn to Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, written within a generation of Montaigne’s death. In this epochal novel, Cervantes is as self-aware, playful and adept an author as Plato in the Phaedrus, and is just as acutely concerned with the complicated ethics of reading and writing. Cervantes revels in authoring (even while disclaiming as his own) a highly absorbing tale of a character by turns clownishly maladroit and sincerely noble in his devotion to the ideals he conceives through what he reads.

For the next two and a half weeks we will take up contemporary theories of “texts” even as we look back previous course materials. We will begin with Mikhail Bakhtin’s essay on “Discourse in the Novel,” which considers Don Quixote as exemplary of how novels immerse readers in a social discourse beyond their authors’ intentions. Bakhtin will lead us directly to essays by Julia Kristeva in Desire in Language and her idea of “intertextuality,” the thesis that relationships between people are inevitably patterned on references between texts. Beyond new insights into the complex systems of reference within the canons we read earlier and how these shape our own conversations, Kristeva’s work will also point up Jacques Derrida’s challenging thesis in “Plato’s Pharmacy,” his reading of the Phaedrus. There Derrida contends that speaking cannot be the clear alternative to writing and reading that Plato’s Socrates presents, insofar as what we say to one another in speech is always in some way a text that has already been authored. Continuing this investigation of the intertwined roles of author, text and reader, we then take up Jorge Luis Borge’s playful but unsettling parable “Pierre Menard: Author of the Quixote.” We will spend our last session in this section in the Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago to explore Kristeva’s notion of works of art as texts, considering how we can apply our experience of reading to the activity of viewing artworks (and their contexts).

The last week and a half will center on Marshall McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy and its trenchant analysis of how whole social orders and individual psychologies have been shaped by the material forms available to us for communicating. Returning to Socrates’ story of Theuth’s gift of writing, we will review all our course materials to test McLuhan’s creative presentation of the thesis that “the medium is the message,” i.e. that what impacts us most in our reading is not what it says but its technological character. We will consider these questions finally on a second field trip, to Chicago’s Newberry Library, where we will meet with their librarians to learn about how what we read is and has been created and preserved, and what possible futures lay ahead for libraries as we make our way into the “digital age.”

Students will reflect on the form not only their reading but their writing as well by creating and maintaining a website for the course, which will include postings of their weekly reactions to our readings and discussions online, both for each other and for the public at large to read. This website will in fact serve both sections of this course I plan to offer during the grant period (i.e. over a period of three years), giving the course a kind of written longevity that may well redound on our discussions and readings both. In addition to their work on this website, students will each prepare a separate 7-10 page final paper, either directly on course readings or on independent research into some wider aspect of the course.

Plan of Work

My plan of work is encapsulated in my Bibliography. Reading the works there (in whole or part, mainly over the time before the course is first offered) will help me refine my understanding and appreciation of texts that I have taught before or have read more than once (the Phaedrus, the Christian Gospels and Don Quixote) and to gain a deeper and wider sense of works and issues with which I am conversant but less familiar (almost everything else in the course). I also mean to draw liberally on the expertise and experience of my colleagues at Shimer, continuing conversations with them that have already significantly helped me in the preparation of this proposal.

Faculty Preparation

I completed my undergraduate degree at another “great books” school: St. John’s College. The breadth of that education has reflected my life as a reader before and since, but it also determined me to do more focused work in graduate school, where I took my Ph.D. in American studies with a dissertation on the New Deal era and its legacy. Still, not having abandoned my scholarly interests in that area, within five and a half years of joining the faculty at Shimer, I had successfully taught every course in our core curriculum. I might joke that I am thus unable to “expand my scholarly range,” but of course this really only indicates how at Shimer one’s scholarly work is never done. That is, I am new in purely scholarly terms to much of the proposed materials, but have a commitment to having a serious engagement with all of what we ask our students to read. In this way I aim to meet the commitment we have to self-critical teaching at Shimer, on which we put an even higher premium than most other small liberal arts colleges. Part of my aim in proposing this course is to enhance my teaching by engaging in questions that look directly at the terms of our commitment to teaching itself.

Why – and what – should we read?


Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, How to Read a Book, New York: Touchstone Books, 1967.

Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, translated by Willard Trask, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Roland Barthes, S/Z, London: Jonathan Cape, Ltd., 1973.

____________, Image-Music-Text, London: Fontana, 1977.

Harold Bloom, How to Read and Why, New York: Touchstone Books, 2000.

____________, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2001.

Peter Burke and Asa Briggs, A Social History of the Media: from Gutenberg to the Internet, Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2002.

Manuel Castels, The Rise of Network Society, Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.

Robert Darnton, The Case for Books: Past, Present and Future, New York: Public Affairs, 2009.

Roberto González Echevarría, Cervantes’ Don Quixote: A Casebook, New York: Oxford University Press USA, 2005.

Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Simon Eliot and Jonathan Rose, A Companion to the History of the Book, Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

Bart Erhman, Lost Christianities: The Battle for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew, New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Eusebius, The History of the Church: from Christ to Constantine, edited by Andrew Louth and translated by G. A. Williamson, New York: Penguin Books, 1965.

Craig A. Evans, Studies in Scripture in Early Judaism and Christianity, London: T&T Clark, 2009.

R. F. Ferrari, Listening to the Cicadas: A Study of Plato’s Phaedrus, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary, Translated by Lydia Davis, New York: Viking Adult, 2010.

Charles Griswold, Self-Knowledge in Plato’s Phaedrus, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.

Robert Maynard Hutchins, “The Idea of a College” in Engaging the Humanities at the University of Chicago, edited by Philippe Desan, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

____________________, The University of Utopia, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953.

Harold Innis, Empire and Communications, Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2007.

St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, translated by Dominic J. Unger, Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1992.

Holbrook Jackson, The Fear of Books, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001 [1932].

Carroll B. Johnson, Cervantes and the Material World, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

Ulrich Langer, T, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Ulrich Langer, The Cambridge Companion to Montaigne, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading, New York: Viking Penguin, 1996.

_____________, A Reader on Reading, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

Michael Oondatje, Linda Spalding, Esta Spalding, and Michael Redhill, Lost Classics: Writers on Books Loved and Lost, Overlooked, Under-read, Unavailable, Stolen, Extinct or Otherwise Out of Commission, New York: Anchor Books, 2001.

Michael Rifaterre, “The Intertextual Unconscious” in The Trial(s) of Psychoanalysis, edited by Françoise Meltzer, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1988.

Michael Worton and Judith Still, Intertextuality: Theories and Practices, Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1990.

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