The Great Conversation (I’m looking for a pupil!)

I am looking for a school-age student who has the time and inclination to read a Great Book with me online via Skype. Please leave a comment or email me if of interest.

The idea is expanded in this link, which begins as follows…

“The Good Books are food for a wholesome imagination. They are well-written. They introduce young people to characters they will never forget. They soar beyond easy cynicism or nihilism. They soar beyond the sweaty halls of politics. They may well have villains in them, there may be warfare, but there will not be the creepy relish for bloodshed—no itch for the base, the sick, the bizarre, the filthy, the evil. We know where to find these Good Books. They are everywhere, or they used to be. It almost does not matter in what order the children read them, and many of them can be read again and again, and are as satisfying for grownups as they are for the wide-eyed little ones.”

Professor Anthony Esolen


Certain books are as pertinent to our day as they were to the day in which they were written. They are so significant that their influence continues to be felt in our writing, thought and conversation today. Reading these books brings great joy and wisdom, but being part of this “great conversation through the ages” also gives a tremendous cultural leg-up. And for one of the first times in history… most of these books are free!

Inspired by the work of  E D Hirsch, which shows not only the great cultural benefit of the knowledge contained in such works but also the cultural deficit suffered by those who remain ignorant of them, we feel there is an opportunity to bring these books to children – especially to those who might not otherwise encounter them – in a considered sequence. We have chosen 56 books – an achievable 4 per year for children from the ages of 5 – 18 – and arranged them in a rough age order below. A link to a free version of the book is also included.

Such selections are necessarily arbitrary and are further compromised by their inevitable Western and English-language bias. It is important to note that, for the reasons noted above, they have been chosen for their cultural, more than their literary, significance. They can be read independently or – especially with the younger ages in mind – with the aid of a tutor, teacher or parent.

Read the selection here.


… one of the brilliant inventions of the paper bureaucracy was the idea of the margin. The margin is a place on a paper form, which is designed for writing things down that are outside, both physically and conceptually, the form that “the system” expects. The thing about the margin is that it is connected to the form in such a way that the form carries the stuff that goes beyond the form along with the form.

Austin Henderson, quoted in chapter 4 of Software Design & Usability (Klaus Kaasgaard): ‘Beyond Formalisms: The Art and Science of Designing Pliant Systems’.

Link via David Smith

Literary historians get excited about the margins from writers’ own book collections – and rightly so. Geoff Dyer is surely right that the most interesting critics are writers themselves:

On the other hand, it’s really, really exciting reading what other writers have said about Lawrence. It seems to me as well, that is the kind of thing which would encourage people when they have left university to go on to be writers as opposed to going on to be academics.

It’s part of GD’s wider criticisms of academia, which reach a frothy rant in Out of Sheer Rage:

Walk around a university campus and there is an almost palpable smell of death about the place because academics are busy killing everything they touch.

Some of the most poignant (and famous) marginalia are Sylvia Plath‘s on her copy of The Great Gatsby. They range from the banal (‘good’) to the majestic. When Nick leaves the Buchanan house, passing Gatsby in the driveway, Plath underlined the final sentence in the chapter (“So I walked away and left him standing there in the moonlight watching over nothing”), and wrote in the margin:

knight waiting outside dragon goes to bed with princess

A melancholy comment.

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