Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Gulliver's Travels, Socratic Method, the Interwebs, and That Big "Light Bulb" Moment

I have been interested for some time in the Ignatius Critical Editions series. This interest began when I read Uncle Tom's Cabin and then later was researched the book for reading it aloud on Forgotten Classics. I was intrigued by this description.
The Ignatius Critical Editions represent a tradition-oriented alternative to popular textbook series such as the Norton Critical Editions or Oxford World Classics, and are designed to concentrate on traditional readings of the Classics of world literature. While many modern critical editions have succumbed to the fads of modernism and postmodernism, this series will concentrate on tradition-oriented criticism of these great works.
I was not really sure what "tradition-oriented criticism" meant but I thought it would be interesting to  compare with the other materials I came across. [Turns out they are talking about traditional classical education style materials.] However, I wasn't sufficiently impelled me to pursue a copy at the time because there was so much material to cover for UTC.

I never could shake the series from the back of my mind, however, and recently got the Ignatius edition of Gulliver's Travels because my interest was piqued upon having a discussion on an SFFaudio podcast where one of the participants claimed it was a celebration of existentialism. That was far from my understanding of the book. Satire, yes. But existentialism? I last read Gulliver's Travels when in high school (on my own though, with no deeper understanding than that of enjoyment). This critical edition with several essays and some excellent contextual information seemed just the ticket for revisiting the book with a critical eye as to just what Swift was really talking about. I also got the study guide which looks very interesting at first glance.

This has proven incredibly fruitful from the beginning .... and I admit that I am just getting started by perusing various essays and the study guide. Understanding the context in which Swift wrote is invaluable in having a proper perspective on whether we can trust Gulliver as a narrator. Additionally, without knowing about the real world events with which Swift was in heavy debate, we can't properly understand the four countries that Gulliver visits.

However, it was when reading the Study Guide's introduction, Why a Great Books Study Guide?" that a big light bulb went on for me.
This manner of learning is greatly facilitated when the reader also engages in a dialectic exchange—a live conversation (in person or now online)—with other readers of the same books, probing and discussing the great ideas contained in them and, one hopes, carrying them a few steps further. This method of learning is often referred to as the Socratic method, after the ancient Athenian philosopher Socrates, who initiated its use as a deliberate way to obtain understanding and wisdom through mutual inquiry and discussion. This same "questioning" method was used by Christ,* who often answered questions with other questions, parables, and stories that left the hearers wondering, questioning, and thinking. He already knew the answers, as Socrates often did. The goal was not merely indoctrination of the memory with information, facts, and knowledge, but mind- and life-changing understanding and wisdom.
This may seem blindingly obvious to many but for me, as I said, it was a new idea in terms of my own participation. I suddenly realized that the internet and podcasts especially had plunged me head-first into mind-broadening inquiry through dialogue and considering other's questions or information. A few examples that sprang to mind:
  • Heather Ordover at CraftLit is the one who began it all for me with her thoughtful commentary on classics. Heather gives background, thematic information and more, and then plays a few chapters of the classic under discussion in each episode. She is a teacher who loves facilitating conversation with her many listeners. They in turn give plenty of feedback and raise thoughtful questions of their own. Thanks to Heather, I revisited the dreaded Scarlet Letter that high school had ruined for me ... and found it to be good. Very good. Right now, in going through A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain, Heather is raising significant points about satire and the necessity for readers' to remember that the protagonist is not the author and not necessarily trustworthy. These points are especially timely for me as they will weave into my reading of Gulliver's Travels, which is just such a story.
  • SFFaudio from Scott Danielson and Jesse Willis is a spot where I actively am engaged in Socratic method as I often participate in their "read alongs" where a few people connect via Skype to discuss a book that everyone read. Those who read science fiction know that more likely than not the good reads also are discussing larger issues. They are not afraid to delve deep into themes and how they resonate through life today. In fact, it was a discussion of Mindswap by Robert Sheckley that led me to pursue Gulliver's Travels and the existentialist claim. If that isn't an example of mind broadening, I don't know what is. Plus, their other episodes are just as likely to open larger vistas as they interview audiobook producers, narrators, authors, and anyone else of interest who comes their way.
  • ChopBard (the cure for boring Shakespeare) from Ehren Ziegler is a newer addition to my podcast listening but I now have a completely new way of thinking about Shakespeare, thanks to Ehren's enthusiasm and practical comments as we proceed act-by-act through these great plays. I have listened to Hamlet and am about halfway through Romeo and Juliet (the play he began the podcast with). First, Ehren provide the context and translation we need in modern times (warning: Romeo and Juliet deserves an R rating if you are reading it right). More importantly, he uses the works themselves to delve deep into people, motivations, and big issues of love, existence, happiness, and suchlike. This necessarily makes listeners ponder and respond, leading again to Socratic method in my own thinking about how this is communicated not only in these great works but in others I have read, and in my life itself.
All this is by way of recommending that you sample the Ignatius Critical Editions, into which I am now digging with even greater enthusiasm. In fact, they have Macbeth available and ChopBard will be covering that after the next play (which will be The Tempest, beginning Oct. 27... hey, that's today! ... c'mon Ignatius, get me something on that play!). These books are the perfect gateway into enjoying classics, whether for the first time or rereading, and having at least one "light bulb" moment on the way.

*I suppose we might also call this the rabbinical method as well as Christ was following that teaching method.


  1. I'm still only halfway through the podcast of Assam & Darjeeling (a story I am absolutely loving) and my blog is long neglected - sigh.

    Seriously Julie, how do you find time to read, podcast, blog, work, and have a family life?

    I'm thinking there has been some cloning going on.

  2. Tante Léonie10/28/10, 7:07 AM

    Thanks for the link to ChopBard. I started to listen to Hamlet this afternoon.
    Very entertaining with lots of great analysis!

  3. Jason ... I have a very supportive husband and a not-very-clean house! :-D

    So happy to hear that you are liking Assam & Darjeeling. I was surprised to find the book even richer than the podcast.

  4. To be fair, a lot of books we have to read in school are ruined by forcing teenagers to read books that they aren't all ready to approach. Tons of the classics are targeted toward readers with more miles on the odometer than a high school kid, and it's unfair to book and reader to attack them so early.

    Shakespeare's for everybody; but then, he wrote for all ages and conditions of audience. Not every writer does.

    Of course, the real reason we have required reading is that public schools can't require Bible reading or reading the Latin and Greek classics. Catcher in the Rye is a substitute for Seneca.

  5. I was always so thankful that I wasn't forced to read Catcher in the Rye. Though both of the girls were. As I recall, it was not reviewed with favor over the dinner table in our household.