Saturday, April 28, 2012

Timeline Chart

I've attempted to get a feel for what periods of time supported the most Great Books writers.  If I had slick graphic skills, this would look very nice, but alas, I don't.  Anyway, here is a link to the chart that I made for myself.  Starting in 525 BC, with Aeschylus, the chart shows 25 year increments.  It simply has an X for each Great writer that was alive in that period.  The whole thing is much blockier than I'd like, but the overall picture is still worthwhile.  (This chart ignores Homer, who was alive in the 800s BC.  Space limitations!)
There are four (or five) periods here:
  • The Ancient Greeks - Starting with Aeschylus and involving the two heavies in philosophy, Plato and Aristotle.  You could argue that the second half of this, post-Aristotle, deserves it's own period.  The later writers were scientists and mathematicians. 
  • The Roman Period - This one starts with Plutarch in the first century and runs into the third century, ending with Plotinus.  Augustine was later by about 70 years but could be considered as part of this group.  Probably should be.
  • The Renaissance - Our first writer here is Machiavelli (May's reading!), born in 1469.  This one runs into the 1600's and I'm not sure how to define the end of it, or if any such definition is really meaningful. 
  • The Enlightenment - Picks up where the Renaissance left off, somewhere late in the 17th century.  The high water mark of the project is here.  There were more Great writers alive between 1750 and 1775 than any other period. 
There are about a hundred quibbles you could make with this timeline, but the general outline is about right.  I think it's worth asking why certain time periods (and regions!) were so fertile while others really weren't.  A few preliminary thoughts:
  • Great writers need durable and plentiful materials in order for their writings to survive and spread.  Oral tradition can work, but it's obviously not as good.  Also, even the most brilliant writer is effectively erased if all of their works are destroyed.
  • I want to say that a culture has to have a sufficient excess to support non-productive work, like writing and thinking.  But I'm not so sure how true that is.  During the glory years of Athens, there was often war and brutality.  Plenty of other writers on this list wrote during fairly violent times.  In other words, I like the theory but I'm not sure that reality agrees with it.
  • I don't know how to categorize the 19th century writers, or even if there is a need to do so.  Is Melville part of the Enlightenment?  How about Freud?  And while we're talking about the 1800's, how confident are we that these are the right authors?  We are so close to that era.  Do we really know who will still be read in 1000 years?  In contrast, I'm very confident that we don't know who the most important writers of the 20th century are yet.
These are some things that I want to keep in mind while I read through the project.


  1. Samuel Johnson says at least 100 years must pass before we say something is a classic. I don't know if he is right. I can't say whether any books, including Shakespeare, will be read in 1000 years, but I will say that I can think of some 20th century authors that are really good.

    1. I'd say that 100 years is the bare minimum we should use when making this kind of judgment. The exception would be when a work is obviously transformational, like the works of Einstein.
      The 20th century has been very busy with fiction but I'm not sure what will really stand the test of time. The works of Orwell, perhaps, but off the top of my head I can think of a couple of dozen authors that might be as worthy. To be honest, I don't think we have a good handle on the 19th century either. GBWW includes Melville, and I have no argument there, but are his works more important than those of Austen, Dickens, Hugo or Twain? And yet, if all of the important authors of the 9th century are included, the set becomes unwieldy and impossible.