Last week we discussed how reading the Great Books fosters the growth of “the moral imagination.” This week, we take a look at what I’ve come to call a glance at the Great Books, a list of forty-eight great authors and their best known works.
The authors and works listed below are those recommended by all three of the reading lists I consulted—Adler’s How to Read a Book, Bloom’s The Western Canon, and Fadiman and Major’s The New Lifetime Reading Plan--organized chronologically and numbered by Adler. For the sake of convenience, I’ve divided these works into the conventional categories of Fiction and Nonfiction. Some of these writers belong in both categories, but to avoid redundancies I have included each author only on the list where I felt most readers would look for them.
We spoke last week mainly about Nonfiction: philosophy, the natural sciences, foreign languages, and civics. But this week I’d like to preface the list with some brief thoughts on Fiction. The list starts with Fiction for two reasons. On one hand, this corresponds closely with most people’s actual reading experience. As children we (hopefully!) began reading fiction for fun, and then later on shifted to reading for learning. But in an even deeper way Fiction stands first because, as Russell Kirk once said, “Fiction is truer than fact.” As he continues:
I mean that in great fiction we obtain the distilled wisdom of men of genius, understandings of human nature which we could attain—if at all—unaided by books, only at the end of life, after numberless painful experiences. I began to read Sir Walter Scott when I was twelve or thirteen; and I think I learnt from the Waverley novels, and from Shakespeare, more of the varieties of character than ever I have got since from the manuals of psychology.
And Fiction’s edifying role is not limited to the social sciences. “In certain ways, the great novel and the great poem can teach more of norms than can philosophy and theology.” Think for a moment of the Bible: God did not reveal himself to mankind merely through lengthy discourses (although there is much of that, about 24 of the 66 canonical books) but also in poetry (17 books) and narrative (25 books). In other words, the One who made us and knows us best reveals himself in a way that is not only good and true, but beautiful (Ecc 12:10). In the same way, the Great Books’ blend of poetry, prose, and discourse reflects the image of the Creator and His creation. So while a well-rounded education will certainly include some good, no-nonsense discourse, “miscellaneous browsing in the realm of fiction rarely does mischief,” and often does far more.
So as you take a glance at these great books, remember not to hold them as an end-all-be-all, but as a glimpse of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. Instead, find something that interests you and dig in, let it shape how you see the world around you, and let it launch you onto other literary endeavors (whether those works made the list or not!)
Lord willing, next week we’ll continue with quick looks at some of my own areas of interest: ethics, epics, and the Christian ekklesia.
1. The Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer
3. The Oresteia by Aeschylus
4. The Theban Plays by Sophocles
6. The Baccae, Hippolytus, and Medea by Euripides
9. The Birds and The Clouds by Aristophanes
18. The Aeneid by Virgil
37. The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
38. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
45. Gargantua and Pantagruel by François Rabelais
49. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
52. The Poetry and Plays of William Shakespeare
58. Areopagitica, Paradise Lost, and the Sonnets of John Milton
67. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
68. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
78. Tristam Shandy by Laurence Sterne
86. Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
89. The Poems of William Wordsworth
90. Biographia Literaria, Kubla Khan, and Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
91. Pride and Prejudice and Emma by Jane Austen
93. The Red and the Black by Stendhal
99. Pére Goriot and Eugenie Grandet by Honoré de Balzac
101. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
105. The Pickwick Papers, David Copperfield, and Hard Times by Charles Dickens
109. Middlemarch by George Eliot
110. Moby Dick by Herman Melville
111. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
112. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
113. Hedda Gabler by Henrick Ibsen
114. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
115. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
117. The Ambassadors by Henry James
5. The Histories by Herodotus
7. History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides
10. The Dialogues of Plato
11. The Nicomachean Ethics and Poetics by Aristotle
17. On the Nature of Things by Lucretius
32. Confessions by Augustine
40. The Prince by Niccoló Machiavelli
47. The Essays of Michel de Montaigne
56. Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes
60. The Pensées of Blaise Pascal
61. The Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison (which I plan to read chronologically alongside the Anti-Federalist Papers)
73. Candide and Letters on the English by Voltaire
82. The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. by James Boswell
103. On Liberty by John Stuart Mill
107. Civil Disobedience and Walden by Henry David Thoreau
116. Pragmatism by William James
118. Beyond Good and Evil and On the Genealogy of Morals by Friedrich Wilhelm Neitzsche
~ Adler, Mortimer J. & Charles Van Doren. How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading. New York: Touchstone, 1972. Print.
~ Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. New York: Riverhead, 1994. Print.
~ Fadiman, Clifton & John S. Major. The New Lifetime Reading Plan. 4th Ed. New York: Harper Perennial, 1999. Print.
~ Kirk, Russell. “The Moral Imagination.” The Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal. Web. 12 Apr. 2015.