Shimer College

Elective Course : Why and What Should We Read

At Shimer, we study what are sometimes called “the Great Books.” This elective course explores the philosophical questions behind what makes reading and writing foundational to the way we think about the world.

This course presents the question of its title as one that has endured over the millennia since writing was invented. Indeed, it begins with a myth concerning the invention of writing told by Socrates in Plato’s Phaedrus, which dialogue deals at length with the role of writing and reading in human civilization. 

We will then turn to the social, cultural, political and, more specifically, educational and religious dimensions of reading through the process of canon formation, both in the context of Shimer College itself and in that of early Christianity.

From there, we turn to questions concerning reading as a specifically individualized activity with the advent of books as private possessions in the early modern period. We will read three works - Montaigne’s essays “Of Books” and “On Some Lines of Vergil” and Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote - each of which presents reading as a key activity in the formation and presentation of a personal self.

From there, we proceed to contemporary developments in literary theory by Bakhtin, Kristeva, Borges and Derrida that will develop new perspectives on the formation of selves through reading by examining the political, social, imaginative and metaphysical structures and assumptions that underly our approaches to what we read.

Then, in the end, we return to issues raised by Plato in the Phaedrus concerning the impact of technologies of communication on both our individual and social lives, this time through McLuhan’s exploration of the rise and passage of print culture in The Gutenberg Galaxy.

Finally, we will be entertaining some of these questions on two field trips: to the Art Institute of Chicago and to the Newberry Library, the first to consider visual art in the guise of “texts” to be “read,” the second to meet with one of the Newberry’s librarians and discuss the past, present and possible futures of texts and our reading of them.