Books With Spines: The End

National Association of Scholars

We’ve reached the end of our Books With Spines series—21 weeks of suggestions from you, and several hundred books—all of which we are keeping on our Books With Spines Complete List. [Please also go to the bottom of this page to see just the list of Books About Good Teachers.] Thank you for all your suggestions over the last several months.

We’ve had fun with this series—and the staff at NAS has added an awful lot of good books to our personal reading lists—but we want to end by remembering that this effort to collect Books With Spines does have a serious point. We were inspired to start this project by yet another list of Books to Read that included the latest narrowly identitarian book list for our narrowly identitarian times, the Association of American University Professor’s (AAUP) Academe blog’s reposting of New York magazine’s listing by “28 People on the Lesbian-Culture Artifacts That Changed Their Lives.” We wanted to suggest better books—books that aspired to be good literature and not just the latest iteration of fictionalized political advocacy—and we wanted to learn from our members what those betters books might be.

There’s a polemical edge to our project. We think Books With Spines provides better books than those chosen by the Progressive Establishment—not just different books, but better ones. This is because the Progressive Establishment is an emperor with no clothes—cuckoos in the university who have taken over the academic routine, but chucked out real education and replaced it with dreary and formulaic repetitions of the political campaign of the day. There are various ways to argue that point, but one of the simplest is to compare the books the Progressive Establishment recommends and the books recommended by real educators. Show, Don’t Tell, as they say in the fiction-writing classes; and your selections for Books With Spines have shown the point nicely.

Less polemically, Books With Spines is also an exercise in canon formation, an exercise in doing what professors are supposed to do at a university—to pass on good books—the best books—to educate students. In a sense, the syllabi are reading lists with discussion sections and essays attached. Our 21 Books With Spines posts doubles as NAS’s Summer Session Open Air University—21 courses, 21 syllabi.

If you are a pessimist who takes the universities for lost, then you will say that we had best start practicing the procedures of the Academy in Exile now, since the exchange of reading lists on the web is the future of true education. If you are an optimist, you will say that our list of Books With Spines will indeed help form the syllabi of tomorrow, when our Fisher King universities recover at last from their wounds.

In either case, the friendly conversation about good books—the eager recommendation, You have to read this!—is and always will be the heart-blood of education. NAS members have been doing this all their lives—as have all members of the broad Republic of Letters. Beyond its use as polemic and as canon formation, Books With Spines is a formalization, and an appreciation, of your everyday habits.


Week 21: Good Teachers


  1. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery: Miss Shirley recognizes Anne’s quick mind and gives her advanced work to prepare her for college. At Miss Shirley’s urging, Anne sits for the entrance exam to Queen’s College and earns a scholarship.
  2. Cheaper by the Dozen by Ernestine Gilbreth Carey and Frank B. Gilbreth Jr. Dad Gilbreth, a "motion expert" and pioneer in modern efficiency, can teach his twelve kids to do everything better and faster and still have fun. He paints Morse code over their beach house, trains the toddlers to complete complicated math problems in their heads, quizzes geography at the dinner table, and plays French lessons on the phonograph while they bathe.
  3. Goodbye, Mr. Chips by James Hilton. Okay, fine, it's a treacly novella. But its core is solid. Mr. Chipping teaches Latin and Greek at a public, i. e. private, boys' school in England, between 1870 and 1933. What makes Chips so good is that he learns, from his own mistakes and his private suffering, why he is a teacher at all and what his teaching offers to boys and young men in a world changing with horrible swiftness for the worse. At the fictional Brookfield Grammar School, decency and decorum, bourgeois they may be, are the bedrock of social life. Chips personifies the power of traditions, customs, manners, and especially learning, learning about the past when modern civilization itself seems bent on suicide. [2 recommendations]
  4. Institutes of Oratory by Quintilian. Quintilian, a first century teacher, offers a textbook for training a rhetorician prepared for public service. Quintilian demands of his students both skill and character, advising teachers to nurture “the good man speaking well.”
  5. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. Miss Temple is the one kind teacher at Lowood School. She defends Jane’s reputation when Jane is wrongfully punished, and she treats the students with gentle compassion, in strong contrast to the capricious wrath of Mr. Brocklehurst.
  6. Prince Caspian by C. S. Lewis. The magic and talking animals that once graced the land of Narnia have been suppressed for generations by tyrannical King Miraz and the Telmarines. Royal tutor Doctor Cornelius secretly instructs Miraz’s nephew Prince Caspian in the ways of Old Narnia and exhorts Caspian to rule virtuously when he takes the throne.
  7. The Confessions, by Augustine. Bishop Ambrose meets Augustine while the young rhetorician, disillusioned by Manichaeism, is searching for substance and truth. Ambrose’s faith and deep theological thought persuade Augustine to consider Christianity. Later, at the prompting of a voice urging him to take and read (“tolle lege”) Paul’s epistle to the Romans, Augustine is converted, and Bishop Ambrose baptizes him.
  8. The Corn Is Green by Emlyn Williams. English schoolteacher in poverty-stricken nineteenth-century Wales.
  9. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. In prison Abbé Faria teaches Edmond Dantes mathematics, science, history, Spanish, English, and German. From the start he admonishes Dantes, “To learn is not to know; there are the learners and the learned. Memory makes the one, philosophy the other.” The education Abbé Faria provides equips Dantes to take on the role of the Count of Monte Cristo—a wise, mysterious, self-styled “cosmopolite.”
  10. The Great Tradition by Richard Gamble. Gamble collects in this massive anthology important pieces by master teachers and philosophers reflecting on the meaning and purpose of classical education.
  11. The Old Man and the Boy by Robert Ruark. Robert Ruark’s old man acts as both teacher and guide to his grandson as they hunt and fish the lakes and woods of the Carolinas.
  12. The Palace Thief by Ethan Canin. William Hundert, a classics teacher at an exclusive boys' prep school, actually succeeds at instilling lifelong learning for the sake of it in many of his students. The novella itself is about a time he failed. In addition to the often very delicate relationship between a teacher and a favored (or disfavored) student, The Palace Thief also explores questions about the relevance of traditional learning that make it a sentimental favorite of this young academic. Made into a movie, The Emperor's Club, starring Kevin Kline as Hundert.
  13. To Serve Them All My Days by R. F. Delderfield. A somewhat updated version of Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Delderfield’s novel focuses on the experiences of an unlikely schoolmaster, David Powlett-Jones, the son of a Welsh coal miner.  “PJ” as he comes to be known, gets mustered out of the British army towards the end of WW I, as a result of wounds and shell shock sustained in the horrific trench warfare in France.  He winds up at Bamfyld, a fictional and archetypal English public school situated in Devon on the south coast, where he accepts an offer to teach history from Algy Herries, the school’s headmaster, who fingers him as a “born teacher.”  To his surprise, PJ discovers that he is fact a natural in the classroom, notwithstanding some awkwardness due to the fact of his coal mining background.  The novel follows his ups and downs during the interwar years up to the outbreak of WW II in 1939, at which time he is appointed headmaster, thus fulfilling Algy’s fond hopes for him.  A nice, somewhat idyllic look at the public school ethos back in the day, masterfully dramatized by the BBC in 1980 with actor John Duttine in the title role.

Tom Horrell provides an instructive list:

Good Teachers? There are several in the traditional sense: Sylvia Barrett, of course, the teacher who dares to go Up the Down Staircase in Bel Kaufman’s classic work. And Miles Calendar the hard-edged army scout who educates young Prentice as they pursue Pancho Villa in David Morrell’s Last Reveille. Merlyn, who teaches Wart in T.H. White’s  Once & Future King. Aaron Weisfeld, the music store owner, who opens Music to the precocious Claude Rawlings in Frank Conroy’s Body & Soul. The rather unusual Jenny Fields who conjures & educates her son in The World According to Garp….mirrored, in many ways, by Sibylla (of Helen DeWitt’s Last Samurai) who teaches, via Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai her even more precocious son, Ludo. And, of course, the Devil himself, who pulls the aged Jurgen aside (in James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen, A Comedy of Justice) and proceeds to progressively enlighten him as to his Heart’s Desire. There are also the teachers we may not fully acknowledge or accept. Perhaps Alyosha, perhaps Ivan in the Brothers Karamazov. Or, from an entirely different perspective, we find Larry Darrell who walks Maugham’s Razor’s Edge, learning from a multitude of teachers (directly & indirectly) -- becoming, in turn, a teacher himself. Similarly, in Flowers for Algernon, there is Charlie Gordon who learns, with great difficulty, from dear Miss Alice Kinnian….and then post-surgery comet-blazes to unimaginable heights only to Fall, and in that Fall teach us once again.

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