|Ten Pages a Day in 2017? “The best-read man is the one who has oftenest read the best things; who goes through Homer, Plato, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, and the Bible, once a year.”|
"[Cornell Professor Lane] Cooper always urged his best English majors to learn Greek well enough to read it with pleasure. (He expected them to know Latin already.) In his essay “The Teaching of English and the Study of the Classics,” published in 1915, Cooper was nonetheless already worrying about the declining enrollment in programs devoted to ancient languages: “If Greek were ultimately to disappear from the curriculum of all the schools, Latin in no long time probably would make a similar exit, and sooner or later the serious study of modern languages and literatures would be discountenanced too.” We have seen the sad truth of his warning.
But why was ancient Greek so important to Cooper? His views now strike us as belonging to a lost world. “Literature,” he maintained, “represents human life at its best.” He argued that “the Homeric age transmitted to that of Pericles ideals of human conduct—bravery and endurance in time of war, good counsel and fidelity in time of peace; at all times courage for individual achievement, coupled with reverence and an instinctive feeling that communal interests are supreme.” The age of Pericles represented for him both the beginning and the perfecting of philosophy, eloquence, drama, and much else. “In this period,” he wrote, “Athenian life was characterized by the dominance of a regulated imagination in every sphere of activity, and by a complete interpenetration of theory and practice.”
Cooper’s picture of a regulated imagination and a harmonious culture, however idealized, contained an ethical as well as an esthetic dimension. More important than what the Greeks wrought were “the men themselves” and “their unlimited capacity for contemplation and construction, for the highest kind of action, the orderly life of the spirit.” Little wonder that Cooper frequently recommended an essay by his own Yale teacher, Albert Cook, entitled “The Artistic Ordering of Life.”
In those days it still seemed obvious that the Homeric poems, the tragedies of Sophocles, the dialogues of Plato, and the Old and New Testament should stand at the center of an educated person’s interior life. Cooper blamed their neglect on the elective system, the notion that “one subject is just about as good as another.” As he complained, “the main principle in a general education no longer is ‘Let a man deny himself, and take up his cross daily,’ but ‘let every man follow his bent.’ ” Study, he believed, should actually be hard work, while familiarity with the classics obviously provided a foundation for every sort of humanistic learning. As he wrote:
To an age that is eager for almost any short cut to the intelligent reading of our English poets, we might say that a hundred hours devoted to Ovid and Virgil, even read in translations, would be worth thousands of hours spent upon most of the books in the lists that have been adopted for “entrance English.”
In that pamphlet Literature for Engineers, Cooper stressed the power and confidence that derive from knowledge of great books. For those whose time is limited, he urged a grounding in just a half dozen works. “The best-read man is the one who has oftenest read the best things; who goes through Homer, Plato, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, and the Bible, once a year.” (He calculated that it would take just ten pages a day.) Ideally, one should own these books, so that their sentences can be underlined, margins scribbled in, endpapers covered with comments and reflections. Serious reading, after all, should be active, focused, engaged—and Cooper suggested some ways to make it so.
First, read aloud—at least some of the time. “Every line of Shakespeare, every line of Milton, is meant to be pronounced, cannot be duly appreciated until it is pronounced.” Second, read slowly. “Take ample time. Pause where the punctuation bids one pause; note each and every comma; wait a moment between a period and the next capital letter. And pause when common sense bids you pause, that is, when you have not understood.” This led to the third dictum: “Read suspiciously. Reread. What a busy man has time to read at all, he has time to read more than once.” Elsewhere, he added another piece of advice: Learn by heart at least a few poems and passages of prose."