Is self-education a good idea? The greatest of my teachers, Walter Starkie, in his delightful autobiography Scholars and Gypsies, recalls a comment made in 1914 by his godfather, J.P Mahaffy, the legendary provost of Trinity College, Dublin, about W.B. Yeats: “Poor fellow! He is an autodidaktos—he never worked under a Master.”
Yeats did not end up too badly, though; and, in these days of narrow academic specialization and unthinking left-wing nonsense, you must be able to think and read for yourself. The task is not easy, but, as Samuel Butler remarked about the verse “Ye cannot serve God and mammon”: “Difficult, no doubt. But then nothing worth doing in life is easy.”
In what follows, I shall recommend a few books that I have found valuable and then offer some suggestions on how to analyze critically what you are reading. You do not need me to tell you to read Aristotle and Shakespeare; the books on my list certainly are no substitute for the classics. You may find, though, that reading them will help you to understand the great books better.
Those who are starting a reading program need to avoid a mistake. People often begin with very ambitious goals: “I think I’ll read all the dialogues of Plato the first week; then on to the Summa Theologica and the Critique of Pure Reason in the rest...