My attempt at a well-educated mind

Harriet Jacobs
Harriet Jacobs
Harriet Jacobs

I’ve shared before how I absolutely love books about books so it’s no surprise that I was delighted to comb through the list of books laid out in Susan Wise Bauer’s book, The Well Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had, with a few ladies who recently attended the Keep Calm and Read On program held at Anythink Wright Farms. The premise of Bauer’s book is to read “the great books” of literature in chronological order. For example in chapter 5 – "The Story of People: Reading through History with the Novel" – the list of to-read classic novels starts in 1605 with Cervantes' Don Quixote and ends in 1990 with Possession by A.S. Byatt . Thirty-one classics make up Bauer’s list in chapter 5, all of them listed in chronological order, helping the reader to gain a better understanding of history through novels. Chapter 6 – "The Story of Me: Autobiography and Memoir" starts with Augustine’s The Confessions (400 A.D.) and ends with All Rivers Run to the Sea by Elie Wiesel (1995). This chapter contains 26 titles – also to be read chronologically.

Here I must confess: when I first read The-Well Educated Mind 10 years ago, I was determined to read through the novel list in order. I rushed out to buy Don Quixote, being sure to get the exact edition/translation recommended by Bauer. As many good intentions go, there it sits on my bookshelf unopened 10 years later. I hope you won’t think too badly of me if I tell you I have only read four books on her classic novels list mentioned in chapter 5.

This month, after perusing the list during Keep Calm and Read On, I was once again motivated to read at least one title on those lists. After some discussion with the ladies, I chose Incidents in the Life a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs (1861).  Harriet’s story of her slavery experience and escape from it is almost too difficult to believe. After choosing to compromise her virtue and reputation in an attempt to ward off the vulgar advances of her master, Dr. Flint, her staged escape left her hiding for seven years in a small, dark attic that was too small for her to stand in. Her eventual trek north to the free states, where she was still in hiding due to the fugitive slave law, Harriet eventually obtains freedom when she is purchased by a sympathetic white friend and set free. “Freedom” though was bittersweet for Harriett, who by this point in her life can longer see herself as chattel to be sold: “A human being sold in the free city of New York!...I am deeply grateful to the generous friend who procured [my freedom], but I despise the miscreant who demanded payment for what never rightfully belonged to him or his.”

Harriet Jacobs has recorded a stirring account of life in antebellum America. Reading Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl has been an educational experience for me and one that I have felt deeply and will never forget. I wish my children were younger and still under my tutelage – I would definitely assign them this book to read – I would want it to be a part of their “well-educated mind.”


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