Category Archives: Well-Educated Mind

The Fastest 300 Years EVER!

Sancho and the donkey.  Christian.  Yahoos and Houyhnhnms.  Elizabeth and Darcy.  Oliver.   Bertha-in-the-attic.  Hester and Pearl.   Moby Dick.   Uncles and Madams.  Rascal.   Anna-Kitty-Levin-Vronsky-oviches.   The Heath.   Isabel.   Huckleberry.   The Journeys of Henry and Marlowe.   And now Lily, whose outcome, at least for me, is still uncertain.

While paging through the Well-Educated Mind list of fiction books, I realized that Don Quixote was published in 1605 and House of Mirth in 1905.   300 years!  I congratulate myself and you, fellow readers, on plowing through 300 years of literature.   May the crop be plentiful!  I suggest a glass of red wine and some good chocolate to celebrate.



WEMever the Twain Shall Meet

Despite what Samuel Clemens implies about the usefulness of a well-read education, I’m inclined to believe he followed a curriculum very similar to ours.  Just look at all of the places that there are parallels between The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the rest of our reading list:

Don Quixote

  • Tom mentions reading the first of all novels, and even suggests acting it out.
  • The self-appointed Duke and King reminded me of our self-appointed knight errant.
  • Huck and Jim are on quite a quest, with a fairly foggy future outcome.  I found myself often asking, “Where are they going with this,” just as I did inDQ.
  • Tom sets out in the most complicated fashion to help someone who didn’t need his help.  Let’s just face it, Tom is Don Quixote.

Pilgrim’s Progress

  • Slough.  Not of Despond, but I know I read about one, although I’ve lost the page number.
  • The Grandersons, for all their good Christian living, have a copy of this moral tale on the coffee table.  I don’t remember Bunyan having characters named Family Feud and Kill Thy Neighbor, but maybe I just missed a page.

Gulliver’s Travels

  • Can you say “satire?”

Oliver Twist

  • We haven’t encountered a story about a young boy since Oliver.  As a mother with four of her own, it was nice to get back into familiar territory.
  • Did anyone else think the plot tied up a little too miraculously at the end.? Huck just happens to stumble on the Phelps farm when they are expecting his best friend’s arrival?  Miss Watson just happens to die and free Jim?

Moby Dick

  • Water plays anhe important role of water in the lives of the characters.  The river is practically a character itself.
  • Superstitions abound in both situations.
  • Both authors tackled slavery in an indirect manner.
  • At the very end their is a character named Brother Mapple, which seemed just too close to Father Marple for me.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

  • Slavery
  • Okay, I can be more specific.  Both use male slaves as the moral centers of their works.

Crime and Punishment

  • Huck’s internal struggles between right and wrong, action and inaction, and societal norms and the pull of his heart reminded me of the time we spent inside Raskolnikov’s brain.

The Return of the Native

  • The Mississippi River seems to be the kinder, gentler, yet still important younger cousin of Egdon Heath.

Did I miss any?  Are there any references to P&P, JE, SL, MB, AK, or POAL?


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Study Skilz Syllabus

Yesterday was like a WEM class reunion.  Adriana, our honorary class president, got everyone organized to write posts about their reading, note-taking, and learning process.  If you’re looking to get more out of your DIY Masters Degree, these posts are a great place to start.

                    Adriana at Classical Quest

Chapter Summaries

Fanda at Fanda Classlit

Ruth at An Experiment with The Well-Educated Mind

Jean at Howling Frog Books

Tonia at the Sunny Patch

And the three of us here:



                                Christina Joy

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Posted by on February 20, 2013 in The Blog, Well-Educated Mind


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New Year, Same Old Story – Part 2

Okay, yesterday we covered the easy stuff – grammar and logic stage questions.  Today, we dive into the rhetoric.

WEM Ornament 4

Oh, look at that pretty glittery ornament.  It’s so sparkly!  Did you remember to identify the novels in yesterday’s ornaments?  You can do the same with today’s pictures – they’re different.

Oops, sorry, I’m easily distracted by shiny things.  Plus, answering the rhetoric questions can be just plain difficult, but we did it, and I’m hear to report the facts.

We started by going through the list of characters.  Did we sympathize with Eustacia?  Nope.  How about Clym?  Not so much at the end.  What about Mrs. Yeobright?  She was kind of that annoying mother-in-law and not so quick to forgive.  Well, Thomasin then?  She did choose to get herself into that mess.  Wildeve?  Absolutely not.

It’s true.  We didn’t really sympathize with anybody.  There were some glimmers of characters that we could relate to, but mostly we found them all sort of unlikable.  But don’t worry, we had a theory about what caused our detachment:  we’re pretty sure that we couldn’t sympathize with the characters because we can’t sympathize with Hardy’s argument.  Or maybe it’s visa versa.

As we approached the second rhetoric question about Hardy’s technique this section from Susan Wise Bauers’s description leaped off the page, as if it were written for this very novel.

What does the setting of the book tell you about the way human beings are shaped?  If the novelist believes that we are produced by our environment – that the place and time in which we live determine who we are – she will pay close attention to the physical landscapes.

Hello?  Paging Mr. Hardy.  Wow, does he ever think people are formed by their environments.  He goes to great lengths to describe the background of each character, and then watches as they are remolded and shaped by their present situation on the heath.  As Christine so succinctly put it, “It’s Nature vs. Nurture, and Nature always wins.”

As we dealt with that tricky question about the novel’s self-reflectiveness Jeannette pointed out that Clym is the only one on the heath with an education, and that he is the character mostly closely associated with Hardy himself.  Clym tries to expand his education and bring learning to the heath-folk.  That is a no-go with Egdon.

Changing the heath, or even trying to leave it, is not that easy.  You can’t learn your way out, you can’t spiritualize your out, and you can’t love your way out.  Resistance is futile.

WEM Ornament 2While Hardy’s story seems to take place in a very tight sphere (did you notice that we never left the heath, not even once?) there were some signs that he was influenced by the changing world around him.  The play between characters and their class and background was certainly still a topic on the minds of the English.  In addition Hardy’s work takes place on the cusp of modernism and its move away from faith.

That’s right, folks, welcome to modernism.  Here’s how Susan Wise Bauer sums Hardy’s argument (and who are we to argue with SWB, well, except for where she made a mistake or two in her summary of the ROTN plot.)

Thomas Hardy’s hapless characters struggle against the implacable natural forces that continually push them down into the much from whcih they strive to rise.  They always lose.  And so, Hardy wants you to know, will the rest of us.”

Cheerful, right?  But we’re afraid she’s on to something.  The best you could hope for if you were one of his characters is the outcome that befell Thomasin and Venn.  And even their end was not so bright and chipper until Book Sixth was forced out of Hardy’s pen.  The heath giveth, and the heath taketh away, but blessed is not the name of the heath.

In addition to the heath exacting its desires, there is a healthy dose of human pride, vanity, passion, self-love, lack of forgiveness, lust, and scheming to go around as well.

And while we may agree with SWB about what the argument is, we don’t agree with Hardy about it’s greater truth.  For what the novel lacks is hope.  Sure, the world is full of rugged, ugly, dark terrain.  Absolutely, sin abounds.  But outside of a scheming Venn Diggory, where does one find the good on Egdon heath?  Where is Raskolnikov’s Sonia?  Where is Rochester’s Jane?  Where is Levin?

They’re not here.  Instead we find we’re left on a hill of dead bones listening to the guilt-ridden sermons of one lost in despair.  Yes, Hardy, I’m talking about you.


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Don’t miss this!

Friends, don’t forget to go over to Adriana’s blog today and read the wonderful things she has to say about The Well-Educated Mind.

You’ve been to Adriana’s blog before, right?  Good, because our dear reading companion keeps a splendid looking place at Classical Quest, full of insight and beauty.

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Posted by on April 30, 2012 in The Blog, Well-Educated Mind


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A Different Kind of Reading Guide

It all started when I typed three words in my internet search engine: “Moby-Dick jokes.”  Oh, yes.  I was brave.  Brave, but still cautious.  I scanned the results and when I saw a link starting with npr, I happily clicked.  It wasn’t a joke but a story from National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” Three Book Series.  This series has a writer recommend three books on one theme.  The story was called “Mining the Classics for Laughs (Even Moby-Dick)”.  In this installment the author is Jack Murnighan.  He holds a Ph.D. in medieval and renaissance literature from Duke University, and he’s the author of a book called Beowulf at the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature’s 50 Greatest Hits.

Did your ears perk up like mine did?  One sentence made me immediately hop over to my library website and request his book.  Here’s the sentence:

But here’s a secret key to finishing — and actually enjoying — these all-time intimidators: You have to realize how much humor is packed into each, and let laughter get you over the humps.

Laughs in Moby-Dick?  Laughs even after the first thirty chapters?  I am in. Here’s the book.

The preface to his book says that its a “field guide, helping you read and relish fifty of the biggist woulda-coulda-shoulda classics of all time.”  Readers, there are lots of WEM novel titles on his list.

Don Quixote
Pride and Prejudice
Jane Eyre
Madame Bovary
Crime and Punishment
Anna Karenina
The Trial
Native Son
One Hundred Years of Solitude

Murnighan’s 50 Greatest Hits also include poetry and plays (some of which are also on the WEM list).

Now it gets complicated.  I want a field guide.  I need a field guide, but SWB says, “Remember: don’t read the preface unless it was written by the author (or translator); otherwise you’ll get an interpretation of the book before you’ve had a chance to form your own idea.” (WEM p. 69)

hmmmmm.  Is a field guide a preface?  No, but I know what Bauer intended.  No cheating.  Rats.  So, this is what I’ve done.  I’ve read Murnighan’s chapters on books I’ve finished: DQ, PP, JE.  I like the book; it’s an enjoyable read.  I feel rather smart since I’ve read the books!  The writer has drafted a nifty cheat sheet at the end of each chapter that breaks down the book in discussion: The Buzz, What People Don’t know (But Should), Best Lines, What’s Sexy, Quirky Fact, What to Skip.

You can understand my temptation and since I’ve shared… now your temptation.  I’ll make sure to tell you if I jump the stile and spend a little time with the field guide off the path.  You do the same.

Did I ever find a whale joke appropriate to share?

Why did the whale cross the ocean?
To get to the other tide.


Posted by on April 16, 2012 in Moby-Dick, Well-Educated Mind


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Renaming The Scarlet Letter

By now you know that the WEM First Level of Inquiry Questions require me to retitle the novel.  I’ve talked about the task here and here.  These are the two questions that will help me with that assignment.

1. Who is the central character in this book?
2. What is the book’s most important event?

Let’s tackle the second question.  Can we agree that the adultery was the most important event in the book?  Or at least Chillingworth witnessing Hester’s ignominy on the pillory?  The entire book centers on the adultery, so that’s the answer I’m using.

Now for first question.  Instinctively I want to say that Hester Prynne is the central character, but part of me wants to say that Rev. Dimmesdale comes in a close second.  I don’t want to leave anyone out, so can I include Roger Chillingworth as well?  Let’s face it.  Other than a few governors and the occasional townsperson (Mistress Hibbons), who was on your character list?  These three.  Oh, and Pearl.  We can’t forget the living representation of the scarlet letter.

Back to the retitling…
The WEM says, “Now give your book a title that mentions the main character, and a subtitle that tells how that character is affected by the book’s main event.”

So readers, here’s your assignment.  Give The Scarlet Letter a new title using one of the three main characters’ names and a subtitle explaining how that character was affected by the main event of the novel.

Here’s my attempt at using Chillingworth.

Roger Chillingworth: a husband returns to find his wife publicly shunned for having another man’s child, so he dedicates his life to seeking revenge upon his wife’s lover by concealing his identity and befriending the man in order to torture him psychologically at the cost of the husband’s own spiritual and physical destruction.

Your turn.


Posted by on March 20, 2012 in The Scarlet Letter, Well-Educated Mind


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Nothing but the Truth!

I’m beginning to think that Jane snuck a look at my WEM book.  Remember the homework that I must complete at the end of each novel?  In the Third Level of Inquiry: Rhetoric-Stage Reading section of the WEM book there are two little question at the very bottom of the page. 

Is this book an accurate portrayal of life? Is it true?”

Now back to Jane…

In chapter 12 she seems to have a thing for truth-telling. She goes so far to use the word “truth” twice in two pages.  The first time she’s discussing Adele.  It seems Adele is making noted progress but that she does not posses “great talents, no marked traits of character, no peculiar development of feeling or taste, which raised her one inch above the ordinary level of childhood.”  A few phrases later Jane says it.

“I am merely telling the truth.”

The next section finds Jane describing Grace Poole.  Jane mentions her “eccentric murmurs” and her strange laughter.  Then she goes on to describe how she witnesses how Grace would “go down to the kitchen, and shortly return, generally (oh, romantic reader, forgive me for telling the plain truth!) bearing a pot of porter.”

Did you catch it?  “oh, romatinc reader, forgive me for telling the plain truth!”

Jane seems to want us to believe in the accuracy of her descriptions.  Is Jane establishing her trust-worthiness? I think Jane needs us to believe her.  Later will things happen that will make us doubt her?    Hmmmmm

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Posted by on February 3, 2012 in Jane Eyre, Well-Educated Mind


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Jane’s Turning Point

Remember when I said that part of my “homework” when I finish a novel is to give the book a new title?  The WEM book says that I need to answer two questions before I can rename the story.

1. Who is the central character in this book?
2. What is the book’s most important event?

I am here to proclaim that after reading four chapters of Jane Eyre, I can already answer those two questions.

1.  Jane Eyre  (This one was rather easy!)
2. The moment when Jane stands up to her Aunt Reed in 
    chapter 4.

Do you remember that chapter?  Oh, it’s a good one.  Aunt Reed tells terrible untruths about Jane to Rev. Brocklehurst, the director of the Lowood Institution.  Jane is horrified, and when Brocklehurst leaves, she lets her aunt have it.

… ‘People think you are a good woman, but you are bad, hard-hearted.  You are deceitful!’
     Ere I had finished this reply, my soul began to expand, to exult, with the strangest sense of freedom, of triumph, I ever felt.  It seemed as if an invisible bond had burst, and that I had struggled out into un-hoped-for liberty.

When I finished reading this section, I gleefully wrote in the margins “Turning point!” and drew several stars.

Surely nothing more important than this can happen in the novel.  Right?  

There’s only four hundred more pages to read. 

On second thought maybe I should hold off on crafting a new title until I’ve read a few more chapters.


Posted by on January 26, 2012 in Jane Eyre, Well-Educated Mind


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Renaming Oliver Twist

You’ve finished Oliver Twist?  Great!

But for those of us following the WEM guidelines, we still have an assignment.  Remember when I said that I was required to take notes?  Keep a character list?  Fold down corners?  Look up definitions of words?  All of those things are suggestions by Susan Wise Bauer in her section titled “How to Read a Novel”.  Upon completion of the latest classic, I grab three things: my copy of the novel, my journal, and my copy of WEM.  I then do my best to answer the thoughtful questions Bauer has crafted.  One of the things she asks me to do is to give the novel a new title and subtitle.

“Now give your book a title that mentions the main character, and a subtitle that tells how that character is affected by the book’s main events.” WEM pg. 70

Here’s my attempt at titling Dickens’ sad story:

Oliver Twist: an innocent orphan is abused and manipulated by evil characters and, finally, rescued from his sad life by kind, wealthy people who are related to him.

It’s rather wordy and not very catchy.  But check this out.  According to the WEM synopsis for Oliver Twist, the book “was originally subittled The Parish Boy’s Progress in a satirical play on Bunyan’s title.  Christian is a grown man who can pursue his own destiny, but Oliver Twist is entirely dependent on the kindness of strangers.”

Whoa!  The classic novels are so intertwined!  Remember the Don Quixote references?  And way back when we started Oliver, I felt Dickens was making allusions to  Pilgrim’s Progress .  It makes me wonder what we’ll find in Jane Eyre.

Blog friends, here’s an assignment for you.  I’d love to read your attempts at renaming Oliver Twist in the comments section.


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