The Well-Educated Mind by Susan Wise Bauer


86145Susan Wise Bauer provides a welcome and encouraging antidote to the distractions of our age, electronic and otherwise. In her previous book the author provided a road map of classical education for parents wishing to home-school their children, and that book is now the premier resource for home-schoolers. In this new book, Bauer takes the same elements and techniques and adapts them to the use of adult readers who want both enjoyment and self-improvement from the time they spend reading.

The Well-Educated Mind offers brief, entertaining histories of five literary genres—fiction, autobiography, history, drama, and poetry—accompanied by detailed instructions on how to read each type. The annotated lists at the end of each chapter—ranging from Cervantes to A. S. Byatt, Herodotus to Laurel Thatcher Ulrich—preview recommended reading and encourage readers to make vital connections between ancient traditions and contemporary writing.


I think a lot of readers, myself included, have a nagging voice running through their heads – you still haven’t read War and Peace. You haven’t touched any Greek drama since high school. You always meant to study Shakespeare’s sonnets… why aren’t you doing that?

The Well-Educated Mind is a starting point for anyone interesting in tackling the “great books” of the Western canon. Bauer breaks the books into five categories – fiction, plays, history, autobiography, and poetry – and provides a mini-history and study guide for each. Twenty plus works are listed for each category, to be read in chronological order.

If you were to sit down and follow her plan to the letter it would take a long time, even for just one of the areas. You would have a notebook filled with timelines and chapter summaries and family trees. And you would know someone, preferably in the flesh, that would be doing the same thing at roughly the same time so you could discuss each work in detail and debate the finer points.

Needless to say the thought of all this gave me hives. A list of things I “ought” to read, answering questions a la middle school, the need for a friend just as crazy to join me.

Nope, not happening.

That being said I learned a lot from this book – how autobiographies evolved over time, questions to keep in mind when evaluating an argument, books I’ve never heard of that I’m now interested in. But I also felt a lot of guilt, as I’ve only read a few of the many titles she lists. Does that make me a bad reader? Am I lacking?

No, of course not. But it’s a hard feeling to shake. I self-justified – This is the sort of thing to tackle once I’m retired. I work in a science-y field so my time would be better spent reading journals than classics. And if I did read classics it would make more sense for me to read from the Eastern tradition because I live in Japan. So on, and so forth.

What I need to do is get over myself and own the fact that I will never read most of these books, and that’s okay. I will be partly read in the classics and more deeply read in romance, Japanese literature, and medical non-fiction. I will tackle the Russian greats and British poets if, and only if, the mood strikes.

And that will be enough.