Speeding Through the Great Books on the Road to Higher Learning

Speeding through the Great Books on the road to higher learning

On the wall of my mental library hangs a small poster with the following advice: "Read Great Books." The notice was hung there by My Mother the Teacher. Whenever I see it, the dutiful son in me awakens. "I will!" I shout. "Allons! I'll tackle Ivanhoe or the Iliad! I'll read a classic a week!"

But I'm only kidding myself. Some of those Great Books have hundreds of pages. Their mere titles contain words like "nichomachean," "wuthering," even "miserables." Who needs that kind of pressure? So I close my mental library, asking, "If they can put a man on the moon, why can't they devise a way to know Great Books without actually reading them?" Now they have.

The scene is somewhere on the Interstate. Traffic is thicker than the prose in Silas Marner. Other drivers are listening to talk radio, but Allons! I'm getting an education. Above the idle of engines a soothing voice on my tape deck recites: "Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself within a forest dark, for the straight-forward pathway had been lost. . . ." And beside me sits a box labeled "100 Great Books on Tape."

Dante's Inferno, Bleak House, War and Peace — each taped classic is streamlined into just 22 minutes, the exact length of the average commute. Why fuss with frills like adjectives or adverbs? Why diddle with metaphor or meaning? With "100 Great Books on Tape," I get the entire Western canon shot straight into my ear. I can "cram a lifetime of learning into 22 short minutes!" just as the ad promises.

My Mother the Teacher would scoff. How can a Great Book fit into 22 minutes? I admit I had doubts. Could I absorb Don Quixote while merging into the fast lane? How romantic would Keats sound on the Jersey Turnpike? But it's amazing what you can master while yielding the right-of-way. Ask me a classic, any classic. Moby Dick? It's about whaling. Beowulf isn't about a real wolf. And Treasure Island has something to do with treasure. And an island. Mom might scoff, but this is more than I remembered when I didn't read these tomes in high school.

Now I'm cramming down two classics a day. When one tape ends, I just pop in another. No threatening tests, no embarrassing class discussions. At first, this took some getting used to. Finishing a tape, I'd roll down my window, pull alongside another car and shout, "Hey, listened to any good books lately?" Most drivers ignored me, but one guy held up his box of "Great Books on Tape." "I'm doing Thucydides today!" he shouted. "Know anything about it?" There on I-95, just south of Exit 17, we discussed the Peloponnesian War. Passing cars honked a Greek chorus.

The mark of a classic is discovery, my mother always said. Every time you pick up a Great Book, you see something different. The same is true on tape. One afternoon, absorbed in Pride and Prejudice (it concerns a woman who changes her mind about a guy), I failed to notice an "Exit Only" sign. Soon I was seeing a whole new world — strange streets, angry buses, a cast of characters straight out of Dickens. I should have turned off the tape and concentrated on making it back to the Interstate, but I had to know whether Elizabeth was going to accept Darcy's proposal. So I kept driving . . . To make a long story short, I ended up far from the madding crowd. I polished off Jane Austen, made short work of the Aeneid and was well into the Critique of Pure Reason just before I found an onramp. Literature marches on.

After I'd digested most of the classics, I bought other tapes for intellectual commuters. I hummed along with "100 Great Symphonic Minutes." I struggled to envision "100 Great Landscape Painters." "100 Great Surrealist Poets" was baffling, but "100 Great Nuclear Physicists" was more fun than it sounds. Turning to the practical side, I bought "100 Great Handyman Projects" and threw some tools in the car. Right there on I-95, I built a pretty decent whatnot shelf and a spice rack.

I was doing "100 Classical Aerobic Workouts" when I realized that a little learning can be a dangerous thing. The scene is still the Interstate, now homeward bound. My car is lurching in rhythm. Working on my calves, I'm flooring the accelerator in time to Mozart's "Eine kleine Nachtmusik". DUM (lurch) da-DUM (lurch), da-dum-da-dum-da DUM (lurch). I'm not the only aerobic driver. The Lexus next to me is also doing Mozart. A couple of pickups up ahead are lurching to the Brahms Biceps Burn, and that guy in the Audi must be doing the Tchaikovsky Tummy Tuck to the tune of the "1812 Overture." The cop could have pulled any of us over, but he picks me. "I couldn't have been doing over 80, officer," I tell him. "Even Mozart doesn't go that fast." I paid the ticket. But when I got another for doing 75 in a "William Tell Overture" zone, I decided to end my days as an autodidact. (See "100 Great Vocabulary Lessons on Tape," tape 3, side 2.)

Last month I gave all my tapes to the local library. On the wall was a poster. "Read Great Books." "Read?" I said to the librarian. "Interesting idea. Allons! Do you have Ivanhoe?" Sorry, she said, but people prefer listening to classics these days. Had I seen "100 Great Children's Books on Tape?" The first was Treasure Island. No thanks, I said. I've heard that one before.

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