Once a staple on the bookshelves of middle-class American homes, The Great Books of the Western World originally comprised 54 volumes of readings selected as essential to a liberal education. The series, with its notable exclusion of women and writers of color, fell out of favor with the advent of political correctness and a more inclusive cultural view. Yet, as Matt Burriesci suggests in Dead White Guys, there is still much that can be learned from these white European males. “The Great Books of the Western World are not interested in promoting our illusions, and they do not care about authority,” he writes. “They are neither gentle nor polite. They teach you how to see through illusions, and they demand that you question both yourself and your masters.”
Dead White Guys is at heart a series of letters to Burriesci’s daughter, Violet, written for her to open when she turns 18 in 2028. It began as he cleared his own set of Great Books, acquired years before at a flea market for $50, to make way for the nursery for baby Violet. Taking a break, he picked up volume one and started reading. What he discovered in its pages was timeless, sometimes challenging wisdom that he knew would one day serve his daughter well. The result is 26 lessons about values—from Plato on doing right and wrong to Plutarch on leadership to Marx and Engels on whether capitalism works—that he hopes will allow the future Violet to find her own place in the world.
Each letter begins with Burriesci sharing some personal history or truth with Violet—tales of his own misguided ambitions, career failures and youthful indiscretions, as well as happy memories of his own childhood in a gentler, vanishing time. These thoughts then spur a visit to one of the seminal Great Books texts, distilling key points to their fundamentals. Far from stuffy or academic, Burriesci’s brief essays are often witty, iconoclastic and disarmingly frank (he does not shy away from calling Aristotle a racist, for instance, or from musing about the Founding Fathers, “What idiot would pick a fight with the British Empire?”).
Burriesci’s reading tour skews toward the ancients (the book is nearly half done before he gets to St. Augustine), with Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch and Montaigne getting the lion’s share of consideration. Shakespeare is represented singly by Hamlet, and, by necessity, there are many other omissions: Thomas Aquinas, Chaucer, Dante, Cervantes, Kant and Freud, among them. Indeed, with the exception of Hamlet, the book steers away from fiction and drama entirely, focusing instead on philosophical and political works.
Still, these are Burriesci’s letters to his own daughter, so he gets to choose whatever dead white guys he finds most germane to the lessons he hopes to impart. The point, after all, is for Violet, and each of us, to find our own way through the great books and through life.