The 10 Books Nobody Should Be Allowed to Die Without Reading: Dr. Peter Kreeft (Transcript)

Full text of author Dr. Peter Kreeft’s lecture titled ‘The 10 Books Nobody Should Be Allowed to Die Without Reading’.

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Dr. Peter Kreeft – Professor of Philosophy at Boston College

I thought I would give you something practical rather than theoretical today, since philosophers are usually very good at theory and very bad at practice, which is why every philosopher needs a wife.

BOOKS. The number one piece of educational technology that has ever been invented. The only thing that might rival books as a means to the end of education would be asking honest but dumb questions. Many of the greatest discoveries in history were made by asking really stupid questions.


A book is a way of connecting with another person’s mind. We have two ways of sharing our mind with other people: speaking and writing.

And speaking transcends space. What I’m doing now is communicating something of my mind to you through my mouth and your ears, which are separated by a considerable space.

Writing does more than that. Writing also transcends time. You write something down, and then you send it through the mail, or you print it and have people read it years later, or sometimes centuries later. And it’s almost as if you’re still alive. When you’re reading a book written by a dead person, you’re in contact with his ghost, that is, with his spirit, with his mind. It’s a marvelous invention.

Well, there are TWO KINDS OF BOOKS. There are ordinary books, which are usually kind of small and kind of stupid, and then there are great books. And I don’t know why the term great books is so controversial and why great books education is so rare, and why at many education conferences, when you say you teach great books, they look at you as if you had two heads and say, oh, you’re one of those.

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I have no idea. My response is, oh, you prefer stupid, crummy little books to great books.

I think the main reason great books are so rare, is that our society is increasingly believing in a kind of relativism. Not only is beauty in the eye of beholder, but so is truth and so is goodness.

The one thing that our society is judgmental about is judgmentalism. You may not make value judgments. Well, in that case, you have the end of all ethics, the end of all virtue, and the end of all education.

Because in order to educate, you have to make a judgment about what is worth educating someone about. I think this is the main reason why all the sciences are radically improving and all the humanities are radically decaying, because you can’t be a successful scientist without believing in objective truth. Science is about the real world.

But increasingly in the humanities, especially in literature and philosophy, the fashionable view now, in order not to be judgmental, is that truth is our own creation, our own invention, that you create your own reality, that nothing is a mirror and everything is a window. So you only see your own mind reflected in what you say.

Well, ultimately, I believe that’s the philosophy of hell. My notion of hell is that it’s more scary than the usual. The usual one is that it’s a terrifying fire pit where demons insert hot pitchforks into unrepentant posteriors. That’s not so terrifying, because the demons are outside of you, and so is the pitch fork, and so is the fire.

But suppose it’s inside you. Suppose there’s nothing outside at all. Suppose you’re totally lonely. Suppose the only person there is yourself. You’ve rejected God, therefore you’ve rejected all these creatures, and you’re all alone forever, with no hope. I think that’s the most horrible scenario I can imagine.

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Well, if you believe that truth is subjective, that’s one step towards that. What’s out there is just what I hear you saying. Whenever anybody says, what I hear you saying is, I get very suspicious.

In other words, if you were in my position, this is what you would mean by these words. But you’re not in my position. You’re not you.

The basic principle of reading any book is, listen, don’t please, ever interpret a book by your own personal, sincerely held beliefs. That’s a mistake.

Whether you’re reading the Bible or the Communist Manifesto, interpret the book by the author’s beliefs. Get outside of your mind into his mind, and then respond. The book is almost like a person. It’s somebody else.

All right, WHO DO YOU WANT TO LISTEN TO? Who is worth learning stuff from?

Well, big people. Spiritually big people who write spiritually big books.

What books?

When I asked the people who invited me here what they wanted me to speak about, they said, well, choose your own topic. And I said, no, give me a topic, and we dickered for a little while. And I don’t know whether it was me or them that came up with the idea: The 10 Books I would want you not to die without having read. Ten great books that you may be a little surprised about.

And we agree that that’s a good topic, because that gives you something you don’t already know.

For me to simply tell you what you already know, for me to simply pat you on the head and say, look how wise you are, you agree with me. That makes you go home with a smile. But it doesn’t put anything new in your mind.

I guarantee that all the books that I’m going to talk about today will put something new in your mind and in your heart, because the heart and the mind are always connected.

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But I cheated. I first made a list of 10, and then I said I’ve got to expand it a little bit. So I expanded it to 13. And then I noticed that they could be divided into categories. The categories are autobiographies, novels, plays, epics, fantasy, science fiction, spirituality, apologetics, classic philosophy, popular philosophy, history, theology, and poetry.

That’s 13 important divisions.

And then I discovered that I had a difficult time picking between two great books in each area. So I said, what the heck? I’ll make it twice each category. So two times 13 is 26. So instead of the ten books that I’m recommending, it’s 26.

And the standard that I used was not simply which books are classics, which books have rightly guided Western civilization the most. You probably already know that, but books you maybe haven’t read before and you absolutely must read because I know they are going to stretch your heart and your mind and your spirit. And I know they are food that you want to chew on.

So here they are… even if I say nothing that’s worth remembering. You’ve got a piece of paper that’s a reading list for you and you’ve got 26 great educational experiences in front of you.

The last standard is I didn’t want to make these books too difficult. I didn’t want to recommend books that could be read only by college professors or even only by people who have a college degree.

On the other hand, I wanted to make them challenging books that if you’re a fairly intelligent and thoughtful person and have a good high school education, you could understand.

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