The National Catholic Review

If she’s not careful, Susan Wise Bauer will wind up a guru on PBS. Her maiden name doesn’t hurt her chances, but neither do her ideas, which are both erudite and down-to-earth, wise yet in touch with the commonplace. If she talks the way she writeswith spark and flair but also the right amount of patience for a mass audiencethis professor of American literature at William and Mary may be facing floodlights in her future.

Bauer’s book is not just sagacious, but also aptly timed. She has already writtenwith her mother, Jenny WiseThe Well-Trained Mind, on how to make K-12 home schooling work fruitfully. Now she taps into the tremendous contemporary hunger for adult learning, especially about the classics of the Western past. In the last two decades, such figures as Mortimer Adler, William Bennett and even David Denby (see his racy New Yorker article, Does Homer Have Legs?) have helped to create this market. Bauer threatens to corner it.

Bauer devotes much of her new book to telling us what to read and, even better (in a knockout opening), how to read. But the subtext of her enterprise involves whynot why one should read, but why there should be such a hunger for guidance about it, especially the great books. There is more to it than the wiseacre charge that folks need crib notes for cocktail parties.

A clue to why is her answer to how. Keep commonplace books or journals for special notations on your reading, Bauer advises would-be readers, citing models from women’s history, especially many self-educated women of letters (e.g., Lydia Sigourney and Mary Wilson Gilchrist), who in earlier times had little access to higher education. Now more women go on to college than men; far more finish it. Today, self-education for women, or anyone, would seem moot. Why should anyone need a book about self-education when more Americans are getting more degrees than ever? Bauer’s enterprise assumes that many intelligent people know that something is askewdespite (or because of?) this golden age for universities.

Bauer recognizes the challenges facing anyone hungering to read better books. To help, she lists several score of her favorite novels, memoirs, histories, dramas and poems, recommending in all cases the best and/or cheapest editions to buy. She is also sage enough to provide a guide to the best videos and DVD’s of varied plays, something that any playwright would understand. Bauer knows that for true intellectual understanding, plays must not only be read, but also seen and heard.

The author’s lists of choices for great books are gutsy. Anyone can debate such lists; provocation is part of the fun of drawing them up, and Bauer is no slouch at it. For good reason, Mein Kampf makes the autobiography list, but she says she cannot finish Moby Dick and wants none of Joyce’s Ulysses, called too brutal to read. (I would draw the line elsewhere, but could Bauer be right? Is Joyce so wonderful, or have we just been relentlessly intimidated into believing it?)

Bauer provides good synopses for her selections and runs them right up to the present (inlcuding such novels as A. S. Byatt’s Possession). She also adds short but spicy histories of her five genres. The history of the novel, she writes, is one grand circle, from the self-reflexivity of Cervantes to the metafiction of today. Her chapter on history is highly rewarding, beginning with Herodotus and ending with current works like Battle Cry of Freedom (which put race back into civil war historiography) and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s women’s study, The Midwife’s Tale. For Bauer, history is both a literary pleasure and requirement for good citizenship.

Throughout the book, Bauer also tackles the challenges posed to each genre by postmodernism, but demurs from its First Commandment, There is no god but Theory and thou shalt have no intellectual respectability without it. Bauer is a real rebel; she does not mistake the last century of cranky half-truths from Frankfurt garrets and Sorbonne cafes for 2,500 years of philosophical aesthetics. All her genres include not only Dead White Males but also authors far beyond that usual cast of suspects. In contrast to both extremes of the culture wars, she proves you can speak two truths at once.

Bauer is concerned not only with the major challenges posed by postliterate culture but also the minor ones. She engages not just Theory but nitty-gritty problems like finding the time to read and focus, on which she provides pleasant little vignettes from her harried (and married-with-children) life. She advises readers not to be surprised that sustained reading is hard work: We all walk, yes, but putting one foot in front of the other is not the same as running a marathon. A good coach, she wants her trainees to be realistic about the need to quiet the kids, turn off the television and, above all, resist the temptation to check e-mail.

In the best sense, Bauer is a neoclassicist. She wants to bring back the trivium. Her solution for the intimidated would-be reader is to divide the challenge of reading into three parts: grammar, logic and rhetoric. Read for basic understanding; then analyze and evaluate; then take a stab at forming your own opinions. She outlines the relevance of the trivium at the beginning, and then shows how grammar, logic and rhetoric apply specifically in her five chosen genres. She also demonstrates methodically that by small steps, a little learning can actually get you a long way.

Odds are one group is going to buy this book out of stock: college teachers. Bauer has given them a bonanza of crib notes for courses. One only prays that her politically incorrect moderationnot conservatism, but a capacious tolerance of books, ideas and philosophies past and presentwill infect them as well. That will be the day.

Tom O’Brien is managing editor of Arts Education Policy Review in Washington, D.C.