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Books That Have Made History: Books That Can Change Your Life  By  cover art

Books That Have Made History: Books That Can Change Your Life

By: Rufus J. Fears,The Great Courses
Narrated by: Rufus J. Fears
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Publisher's Summary

Why do "Great Books" continue to speak to us hundreds and even thousands of years after they were written? Can they deepen our self-knowledge and wisdom? Are our lives changed in any meaningful way by the experience of reading them?

Tackle these questions and more in these 36 engaging lectures. Beginning with his definition of a Great Book as one that possesses a great theme of enduring importance, noble language that "elevates the soul and ennobles the mind," and a universality that enables it to "speak across the ages," Professor Fears examines a body of work that offers extraordinary wisdom to those willing to receive it.

You'll study dozens of works, from the Aeneid and the book of Job to Othello and 1984 - works that range in time from the 3rd millennium B.C. to the 20th century, and in locale from Mesopotamia and China to Europe and America. Professor Fears approaches each of these works from an entirely different direction, considering philosophical and moral perspectives that superbly complement a purely literary understanding.Grasping these philosophical and moral perspectives is crucial to the education of every thoughtful person. These works that have shaped the minds of great individuals, who, in turn, have shaped events of historic magnitude. You'll study the underlying ideas of each great work to see how these ideas can be put to use in a moral and ethical life."History is our sense of the past," Professor Fears says. "And these Great Books are our links to the great ideas of the past. They educate us to live our lives in a free and responsible way."

PLEASE NOTE: When you purchase this title, the accompanying reference material will be available in your Library section along with the audio.

©2005 The Teaching Company, LLC (P)2005 The Great Courses

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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

A course that will open you to new ideas.

This course is about exploring the greatest books ever written that changed the world.
It also explains why they are great and how they affected those around them. Professor Fears is a great lecturer and always keeps things interesting. Each lecture is around a half hour each so great to listen to on your commute or when you have a short time to devote to the lecture.

The books per Prof. Fears are:
1. Letters and Papers from Prison by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
2. Homer 's Illyiad
3. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
4. Bhagavad Gita
5. Exodus by Moses
6. The book of Mark in the New Testament
7. Koran
8. Gilgamesh
9. Beowolf
10. Job
11. Oresteia by Aeschylus
12. The Bacchae by Euripides
13. Phaedo by Plato
14. The Divine Comedy by Dante
15. Othello by W Shakespeare
16. Prometheus Bound
17. Gulag Archipelago by Solzhenitsyn
18. Julius Caesar by W Shakespeare
19. 1984 by George Orwell
20. The Aeneid by Virgil
21. Gettysburg Address by A Lincoln
22. Pericles Funeral Speech
23. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
24. Confucius
25. The Prince by Machiavelli
26. Plato's Republic
27. On Liberty by John Stuart Mill
28. Le Morte d'Arthur by Thomas Mallory
29. Faust Parts One and Two by Goethe
30. Walden by Henry David Thoreau
31. Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire by Gibbons
32. Lord Acton's History of Liberty
33. On Duties by Cicero
34. Autobiography of Mohandas Gandhi
35. My Early Life, The Second World War series and Painting as a Pastime by Winston Churchill
The last lecture goes over the books quickly and talks about the lessons taught and that the best way to pursue knowledge is to open your minds and meditate on each book in order to let what the author is trying to tell you sink in.
I highly recommend this class. It opened up a whole new world to explore for me.

318 people found this helpful

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Summary of canon from conservative perspective

Prof. Fears clearly has a lot of fans, and I can't argue with that, but want to post a contrasting review so that someone can decide if this is for them.

I have enjoyed some of Fears' other courses (Churchill the most) but in this one his weaknesses come through strongly:
- Summarizes these books in his own words; his summaries seem to consume most of the lectures
- his conservative and Christian perspective comes through strongly
- he moralizes and tells the listener what to think.

If this is your jam, go for it, but it was a struggle for me to get through, as opposed to some of the other Great Courses on literature which I have greatly enjoyed. I could imagine that he is a "go to" for conservative homeschoolers, and if this is you, you may be pleased. Homeschoolers from more of a centrist or liberal perspective may want to beware.

69 people found this helpful

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Fascinating, Entertaining, Impactful: Best Course

Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

Having listened to 15 Great Courses over the last couple months, I took this course with a little trepidation, largely based on the mediocre Teach Company reviews. Yet something strange happened right from the first lecture: each book was fascinating, his lecture style became more contagious, and most importantly, I began to see the crucial importance of his underlying messages. The first statement of the course title is pretty clear cut and these books have accomplished the claim of making history because they're still around (much to the dismay of many students) hundreds...thousands of years after being written. I can make no universal claims for the second part of the title but I can speak for myself--this part was true as well. Similar to the way I felt after reading the last (to date) of George RR Martin's Song of Fire and Ice series, I grieved to be done with this course. What could top this, I wondered? Thankfully, J Rufus has several titles to choose from, so all is not lost. I loved this course and am wiser for it.

Who was your favorite character and why?

I thought J Rufus was at his best--and most endearing--when summarizing a story by providing the voices of its pivotal characters. His drawl and enthusiasm was comical, fun and surprisingly effective in demystifying and contemporizing often ancient characters...so the Gilgamesh lecture was particularly enjoyable.

What does Professor Rufus J. Fears bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?

J Rufus takes 30+ books and weaves the strands of their shared virtues, overarching themes, and contemporary relevance into critically important message for today's society. That would be a tough feat to duplicate by reading any one, two or dozen of these books on my own. By experiencing J Rufus's course as a whole, I came to understand that so much of what is portrayed in this course seems to be missing--though is seemingly not missed--from our 21st century.

If you were to make a film of this book, what would the tag line be?

Antiquity's Plea

55 people found this helpful

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OK if You Haven't Read Them Yourself

My mistake in selecting this audiobook was believing (hoping) that there would be deeper or more insightful discussion of each topic. Instead, these lectures only introduce the books and might indeed inspire listeners to actually read rather than hear about these works, many (but not all) of which are as Prof Fears says, masterpieces. Of the 33 books covered, I had read 24 previously, so only learned a bit more than I already knew. I gave the course 3 stars overall rather than 2 only because the wrap-up lecture is masterful.
Below are a few overarching comments and specifics on some of the lectures:
I found it rather pretentious to throw in various phrases in Greek, Latin, Old English, German, and Italian. We have no doubt that he is learned and erudite and had read and studied each of his topics. What’s the point of reciting the wonderful opening lines of the Iliad in Attic Greek (and not even properly inflected) when these words are so powerful in English. His German is pretty good, but the rest?
Huge focus on democracy and cites Athens so often that you might miss the few references to the Athenian governments that were tyrannical, and no reference to the monarchies or aristocracies.
Prof Fears’ style of presentation is off-putting and is like that of an old-time preacher, especially when he is laying out the plot of a book. When narrating a book’s story, e.g., Gilgamesh, Beowulf, the Oresteia, The Divine Comedy, Julius Caesar, 1984, etc., he simplifies the text. These are glorious books and stand tall with their own words.
He often espouses the notion of putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, times, or culture, and yet subtly describes right actions in terms of present day democracy and a Christian-centric culture.
Thoughts about some of the lectures:
Iliad – somewhat sketchy; little about Hector and nothing about Menelaus, Ulysses, or Ajax. If Prof. Fears is going to impress us by speaking the famous openings of the Iliad, then he should do so recognizing that Attic Greek is an inflected language.
Meditations – A good lecture that captures nicely the role of Marcus Aurelius in contemplating a good, ethical life.
Bhagavad Gita – An excellent portrayal of the central message of the Gita and a nice presentation of the often misused word - karma.
Koran – Only a few dictates from the Koran itself and mostly telling the story of the life of Muhammad. He gave a nice presentation of the Islamic sense of “One God”, but left out the great schism arising after Muhammad death and its spiritual consequences.
Gilgamesh and Beowulf – Interesting from a historical perspective but without many lasting lessons.
Job – One of the best lectures by Prof. Fears – the listener can feel the pain, piety, confusion, and faith of Job. Well done.
The Oresteia – Pretty well done given the complexities of describing three plays in 30 minutes
The Bacchae – great play but the plot is described in too “cute” a way that makes it hard to see the moral lesson.
Prometheus Bound – a good discussion of tragedy
Aeneid – This has never been an enlightening book for me and Prof. Fears did not convince me otherwise. Not his fault.
All Quiet on the Western Front – on of the best lectures in the book. He captures the book’s tone superbly.
The Prince – accurate portrayal of power.
Republic – focus on the organization of society/government rather than how that organization provides insight on the individual and morality which is what lies at the heart of the book. Despite our modern use of the word republic, the book is not about republican government. Plato’s title is Πολιτεία, which is the relation of the citizen to the state. In Latin it became res publica; and in English, republic.
On Liberty – OK, but is vague about defining the arena within which the individual may claim protection from political infringements on his individual freedom of action. Mills fails to align his case for human freedom with the right to private property and its use in all ways that do not violate the comparable individual rights of others.
Morte D’Arthur – waste of time to get at love and redemption
Faust. Two lectures spent trying to explain and clarify Goethe, and it would take even more. This is a masterpiece of writing and Prof Fears could have spent more time on the meaning of the actions of the characters. Goethe was to the German language what Shakespeare was to English.
Walden – So Thoreau claims that letters sent to you will not enrich your soul and that reading newspapers will prevent you from learning about yourself. Did he really believe that each person should live the way he did? This is a lecture that could have been devoted the ideas of more profound great thinkers, e.g., Aristotle, Kant, Hume, Descartes, Buber, or even Simone de Beauvoir.
Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire – very well done.
Lord Acton. Not as worthy of an entry as the other authors; is Prof. Fears enamored of Lord Acton because he wrote a book collating his notes (ideas)

35 people found this helpful

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Just about ok

Would you say that listening to this book was time well-spent? Why or why not?

Yes it was since I got a wikipedia style introduction to some great books.

Who was your favorite character and why?

That question is not applicable amazon! Why don't you just let us write free style reviews?

What three words best describe Professor Rufus J. Fears’s voice?

Southern drawl. I was amusingly distracted by his pronunciation of "dooty".

Was Books That Have Made History: Books That Can Change Your Life worth the listening time?

Yes.

Any additional comments?

I liked the treatment of the non-fiction books better than that of the fiction. For example, discussion of Othello, 1984, All is quiet on the Western front etc was nothing more than a dramatic rendering of the summary. What I expected to hear more was a discussion of the underlying themes. For the non fiction works such as the works of Winston Churchill or Gandhi, the treatment was much better. All in all, it was an average course. I do not regret listening to it, but I was not enthralled by it either.

35 people found this helpful

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STORY-TELLER

Rufus Fears is an excellent story-teller. “Books That Have Made History” is a series of lectures given by Professor Fears that dwells too much on God but delightfully entertains all who are interested in living life well. (Professor Fears died in October of 2012.)

An irony of Fears lecture series about “Books that can Change Your Life” is his most revered historical figures, Confucius, Socrates, and Jesus, never wrote a book. He thematically presents a story that argues these three figures are witnesses to the truth. Fears believes Confucius’s, Socrates’, and Jesus’s truths have been played out and proven over centuries of writings and doings. Those writings and doings are recorded in secular and religious texts that range from Homer, to Plato, to the “Bible”, to the “Koran”, to “The Prince”, to Winston Churchill, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

This is only a smattering of the many books Fears talks about in his lectures. Fundamentally, one takes from Fears lectures, a belief that to live life well one must internalize a moral compass and have courage to follow truth in seeking justice, regardless of its cost to your person or possessions. And finally, one should live life in moderation, neither in excess or deficiency.

27 people found this helpful

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Good if you don't mind the Christian-centric bias

The performance is very good, though. Lots of passion for the material.

Mostly centered around Western values, with a few token efforts to mold Eastern thinking into the Western "canon" of antiquity.

Still enjoyable, despite the caveats, and a very decent intro to the material.

25 people found this helpful

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Not so good great books

Professor Rufus was an enthusiastic and somewhat lively narrator, but the problem relies in his conception and canon, limited by his own views. Instead of analyzing great books and quenching our thristy to read them, he decides to tell the story in his own words, what is silly and defeats the whole purpose of the course. Scarce details are given about the central ideas, often misguided. For instance, troubled by the fact that Gibbon blames extensively Christianity for the fall of the Roman Empire, pious professor Rufus drops it all - for him, the book gives as the main reason the failure to deal with conflicts in Middle East, which is a puzzling interpretation. To be precise, his canon is a mess (Gettysburg Address, Gulag Archipelago and Chirchill's Memoirs steal the place that could belong to Balzac, Proust, Marx, Rousseau, Descartes, James Joyce...). If you want to save the work (and pleasure!) of reading great books, pick this course; he is a passable narrator. Otherwise, most of the books are in public domain; by all means read/listen to them and seek a better analysis (or read Wikipedia).

19 people found this helpful

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Not What I Expected

This was my second "course." As much as I absolutely loved the first one, this course was a huge disappointment. I expected more of a literature appreciation type discussion of great titles. This, however, was the instructor just telling the story of his favorite books. Yeah, every so often he brings up his list of characteristics of why a book is great, but there is not the literary discussion I craved. His narration was animated, for sure telling a good story. But when bringing up the discussion points was awful.

14 people found this helpful

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Superior listen

Wow! Excellent lectures on literature but also on history and ethics. I learned so much from this man and he has inspired me to search further. I especially appreciated the last few lectures. They really spoke to me. I highly recommend this series.

11 people found this helpful

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  • Mr Henry
  • 04-11-17

'Don't give up' - a powerful message down the ages

Lots to mull over here. Cicero, Ghandi, Churchill, Homer, Dante, Lord Acton ... the message from a rich cast of literary stars seems to be - know yourself and don't give up. Either on yourself or your dreams.
Powerfully and thoughtfully delivered.

4 people found this helpful

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  • Roisin Deighan
  • 02-01-20

Fascinating

An eclectic mix of books across time and cultures, which are sympathetically presented to get to the core of the authors' messages and values. The lecturer gives interesting comment and at times judgement, which I found helpful, even if I didn't always agree, for reflecting on the works.

1 person found this helpful

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  • Terry Gorry
  • 08-28-19

Very disappointed

hated this, narrator into amateur dramatics rather than great books. could not go on anymore

1 person found this helpful

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  • Benjamin Beech
  • 06-22-17

Enlightening, engaging, endearing, entertaining...

Dr. Fears shares a lifetime of study and consideration over how great books have spoken about timeless themes for humanity.

3 people found this helpful

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  • Luke_Vidler
  • 04-20-21

Worth the Investment

At first I didn’t really warm to Rufus but over the centuries of books his opinions became more insightful and his takeaways more valuable. These books are foundational to western thought and Rufus pinpoints important insights these books uncovered and even how they continued to influence thought throughout time. How different books introduced concepts and values we take for granted is a powerful lesson. The Greeks first proposing the immortality of the soul. The evolution of governing systems. The evolution of ethics and morality, bitter lessons from histories monsters, the motivations of histories heroes. Every book covered is valuable for some reason and as a whole the course is very worthwhile.

1 person found this helpful

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  • Anonymous User
  • 12-05-22

Secret Message?

Strange how Rufus’ description of Stalin’s gulags mirrors the stories of Guantanamo Bay and his portrayal of the MGB ‘arrests’ so closely aligns with the ‘extra judicial renditions’ under Bush. This parallel seems to continue through out the lectures.
Is Rufus giving us a critical review of modern US policy under the guise of criticising historical regimes?

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  • Anonymous User
  • 09-10-22

Highly recommended!

Rufus is a great story teller, the way he tell about each books & authors, makes you so interested in each one of them, as soon as a chapter finishes I research more about it, definitely worth a listen!

  • Overall
    2 out of 5 stars
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  • Michael
  • 10-30-21

"I believe"

...is not a phrase I want to hear over and over and over in secular education.