A Note Before You Start: In the spring of 2005, I assigned my students in English 102: Literature And Composition a final project. That project was to compile an annotated bibliography of the 25 books they thought everyone who graduated from college should have read, preceded by a short explanation of the criteria they'd used to choose the books. I also promised them to do an annotated bibliography of my own. That is what you'll find below.
THE WESTERN CANON
ACCORDING TO ME
The first thing to ask, given an assignment such as this one, is: what is education for? In a college like this one, the answer is almost always given in practical terms. Do a survey of all the students eating lunch in the cafeteria one Wednesday afternoon, and 99 out of 100 of them will tell you that the purpose of an education is to get a good job, or earn more money than you could have earned otherwise.
But for most of history, especially history in the West, education has not had anything to do with employment, or money, or the practical professions. Acquiring the skills to get a good job or earn a good income was a matter for training. You could pick that up as an apprentice even if you never learned to read. If you did learn to read, you could read in a law office and be admitted to the bar, or in an accountancy office and be on your way to a partnership in business.
Education had a different function--or, to be precise, two. First, it was meant to pass along the accumulated wisdom of civilization, the "best that has been thought and said" by men and women in the several thousands of years since Sumeria rose out of the sands between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, in what is now known as Iraq.
All civilization begins in Sumeria--all of it, West and East, European and African and Asian--and from that time to this, men and women have been asking pretty much the same questions about life, and having pretty much the same problems with living.
We like to think that things are very different now, that our lives are nothing at all like the lives lived by people six hundred years ago--never mind six or seven thousand years ago--but any look through the literature will tell you that people haven't changed a bit. The men and women of Sumeria cheated on their spouses, fought over popularity and power, strove for success, lusted after things and each other, made war and peace in terms that sound eerily as if they'd been spoken yesterday on CNN.
What's more important, the basic problem of human life--how to make it meaningful, or find the meaning in it; how to live without nihilism and without despair--hasn't changed at all. If anything, we seem to be farther from an answer than the Sumerians were, because unlike them, and all the civilizations that followed them until our own, they were confident that the meaning was there to be found.
The second purpose of education was more personal--it was to teach men and women how to be better human beings, to point to the "good life" and how to live it. I put the words "good life" in scare quotes, but the Sumerians would not have. Neither would the Greeks, or the Chinese at the time of Confucius, or the Indians in the time of the Buddha.
Here's something else that was true of every civilization until our own, and that is still true of most of the civilizations on this planet right this minute: it was the conviction that morality is objective, out there, outside of us, and not dependent on our likes or dislikes or wants or needs. The good, the right and the true--the righteous and the morally needful--were not invented by cultures or different for different people. They were not a matter of "values."
Instead, every human being ever born was subject to what the Middle Ages would call the "natural law." This wasn't the law of Nature, but the law of God as written on the human heart: the instinctive inner feeling that some things were just not right.
What's more, not only were all men subject to the natural law, but they could, by applying reason and knowledge, figure out what that law was, discover its particulars, and live better lives by following in the path of virtue. These people took virtue very seriously, because they knew that if they didn't work at being good, they would fall into evil as surely as they would fall physically sick if they didn't work to keep their bodies well.
A few weeks ago, I read an article about American college students where a young woman, a student at an Ivy League university, told the interviewer very anxiously that she "just couldn't" condemn the Holocaust, because the Holocaust might have "been right for Nazi society."
Seneca never saw a television set, or even a printed book. He couldn't own a car, because they hadn't been invented yet, and it was still an open question as to whether the earth was round or flat. Seneca was still light years more knowledgeable than that young woman, because he would have known instinctively that there was no sense in which the systematic murder of eleven million people could ever be "right for" any society at all.
This is the job of education: wisdom and virtue.
Wisdom tells us how men and women have lived on this planet and what resulted from the choices they made. That helps us not to reinvent the wheel every time war breaks out in the Middle East or a cop goes bad in Detroit.
Virtue tells us how to live in our day to day lives, how to tell right from wrong, how to fend off our worst impulses and strengthen our better ones. That helps us to look in the mirror every morning without wishing we were seeing someone else.
You are part of a nearly seven thousand year long experiment in the theory and practice of being human. It encompasses art and music and literature, war and peace, sex and celibacy, honor and duty, joy and pain, wealth and poverty, gain and loss. You need to know how to live well, and how to die well, and how to be on the side of the angels.
You need to be able to say, with Cicero: Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.
So that's the basis of this list, my twenty-five books that everybody on earth should read. And yeah, okay, I cheated a little. There are a few extras in the commentaries. You'll just have to live with it.
1) Aristotle. Nichomachean Ethics.
This is not the first book in Western civilization to attempt to outline a moral code based on reason, knowledge and experience rather than God's will, but it is certainly the most influential in the way we think and live now.
You have to understand that Aristotle was a Greek from an era more than three hundred years before the birth of Christ. To the Greeks of classical antiquity, the idea that morality could be derived from religion would have been ridiculous. Nobody ever went to the Greek gods for moral advice.
But Greece was overthrown by Rome, and the Roman empire was first overthrown by great waves of invasions from Germanic tribes to the North of them and then converted to Christianity. Aristotle might have disappeared into the mists of time without having any effect at all on any of us, except for a man named Thomas Aquinas.
Aquinas was a Dominican priest and monk working in Italy in the thirteenth century (1225-1274), who made it his life's work to show Christians that the Greek and Roman philosophers, and Aristotle most of all, were not in any way contrary to Christian teaching, that they were "virtuous pagans" who had discovered with their reason the same moral law that Christ had come to teach.
This was a very important thing to do. Because Aquinas did it, the works of classical Greece and Rome were taught in European universities from the Middle Ages onward, and it became a dogma of the Catholic Church and a principle in European civilization that God's creation (both nature and reality) could be known "by reason alone."
What's more, it was seen as a very good thing to apply reason to the world to acquire knowledge. Since God had made the world and made it good, investigating that world was a way of knowing God.
If you think this is a minor point, consider what happened in Islam. The counterpart to Thomas Aquinas in the Muslim world was a man named Ibn Rushd, who lived in Cordoba (now Spain) about a hundred years before Aquinas and who brought Aristotle to the Islamic world.
Although he spent his life arguing that there was no incompatibility between Aristotle and Islam, he was a secular man, and known to be one. He was widely considered to be a skeptic. To far too many people, he did not look like a good Muslim at all, and the reason for that seemed to be his immersion in philosophy. If philosophy was a danger to Islam, it would have to go--and it did.
In the 12th century, Islam was far more knowledgeable about the ancient world than Christianity. In the 13th century, the positions were reversed, and the results were dramatic in the history and development of science in the two branches of civilization.
Of course, Aristotle isn't the only person who wrote a book on how to be moral. If you've got a chance, you should try a few more: the Enchiridion by Epictetus, for instance, and Cicero's De Officiis, both books by Roman writers who knew Aristotle well.
There are also the other Greeks: Plato's The Republic, plus several of the dialogues of Socrates, especially the Crito.
There are also several more modern philosophers: Kant in the Critique of Practical Reason; Kierkegaard in Fear and Trembling and The Sickness Unto Death; even the Nietzsche of On The Genealogy of Morals and Beyond Good And Evil.
But if I had to pick just one, it would be Aristotle.
2) Darwin, Charles. The Origin of Species.
The first and most important reason to read this book is that everybody thinks they know what evolution says, and almost nobody actually does. If expanding your understanding of modern science was the point here, however, it would make more sense to ask you to read a good elementary textbook on evolutionary biology.
But this book is here for another reason--as the first and seminal representative of what became not only a new era in science, but a new era in everything else as well. Charles Darwin went to the Galapagos Islands and found species that existed nowhere else. He spent years examining, describing and cataloguing them before he started to put two and two together and realize that the only explanation for the difference in animal populations had to be some form of differing development over time. The rest is now the foundational truth of all modern biological sciences.
The Origin of Species is also important for what it does not say. It does not say that life arose on earth as a matter of chance. In fact, it doesn't say how life arose in the first place at all, only what happened after life began. It does not say that God does not exist. It does not say that God's hand couldn't have guided evolution over time. It does not say that evolution can be, or should be, the basis for morality.
Most important, nowhere in The Origin of Species will you find the phrase "the survival of the fittest." It wasn't Darwin's phrase. It was invented by the "social Darwinists," non-scientists looking for a basis for various anti-Christian systems of law and morals, an excuse to leave the poor and the sick to their own devices, to starve in the street if it came to that.
Darwin wasn't a social Darwinist. In fact, he couldn't stand them.
3) Smith, Adam. The Wealth of Nations.
There are people who say The Wealth of Nations is the book that launched capitalism, but that's not entirely accurate. Capitalism is the default mode. If a society has no economic policy at all, what it will get is capitalism, because buying and selling is as natural to human beings as eating and sex.
What this book is is the most important reasoned argument in favor of doing away with the old mercantile system, in which business and government lived in a symbiotic relationship set up against the outside world, and replacing it with at least some form of "laissez faire." That is, capitalism without restraints and without government support in the form of subsidies or tariffs to raise the price of imported goods and "protect" national industries from competition from outside.
This book was published in 1776, and it became one of the two ends of an argument about how to order society that we're still having. This was the free-market end.
So if you're going to read this one, you should read, as well, Karl Marx and Frederich Engels' The Communist Manifesto. Published in 1848, the Manifesto purported to stand up for the working class against the capitalist "bourgeoisie," and to prescribe a cure for worker misery: Communism, the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, the end of private property and the reconstruction of society on an entirely egalitarian basis.
We all know how well that worked out--there are students here who came to the States after leaving the countries of the former Soviet Union, so if you're not sure, you can ask them--but the argument hasn't gone away. There are still plenty of people who believe that although Communism didn't work in Russia, we could make it work someplace else, and plenty more who think we should protect American industries against foreign competition by putting taxes (tariffs) on goods imported here from low-wage countries like India and China.
And maybe we should. I personally think that the argument about Communism is over--it doesn't work, it causes more harm than good, and any sane person would run like hell from anybody who suggested building a Communist society--but the argument about how much capitalism is good for us is not over. Do we want tariffs? Do we want social security, welfare, unemployment insurance? What?
Oh, and while you're at it, check out another book by Adam Smith. It's called The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and it's about how morality affects economic behavior, as well as society as a whole.
Adam Smith was a lot of things, but he wasn't at all like a 20th Century libertarian.
4) The Holy Bible.
I'm going to go out on a limb here and say you should definitely get the King James Version. It's not the most accurate translation of the Bible, or the most authoritative one, but it is the one that was used by the vast majority of English speakers until very recently, and all English-speaking Protestants. For almost two centuries, it was the one book every schoolchild in America had at least had read to him before he ever showed up at the schoolhouse door. It was the way our poets and novelists learned the beauty of the English language and the rhythm and meter of good English prose. You can find its effects in Melville and in Winston Churchill's wartime speeches. It's beautiful to read.
But it's also a long book, and I've got priorities within it. First, make sure you read the book of Job. This is the story of a good and righteous man whom God allows the Devil to torment--although he has committed no fault and no sin, he loses his house, his children, his wife, his property and even his health, and is left sitting on a dung hill covered with sores. Some of you have read a book called When Bad Things Happen To Good People. This is the original attempt to treat that subject, and unlike the modern self-help tome, it's neither fatuous nor facile.
You should also read Genesis, since Genesis is the repository of many of the religious stories most people used to learn as children but many people no longer do. Genesis has Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden, the tower of Babel, Noah and the Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah.
In the New Testament, you need to read The Gospel According to Saint John and at least one of the other (called the "synoptic") gospels. My favorite is The Gospel According to Matthew, but your mileage may vary. You also need to real The Revelation of St. John the Divine, which is the scary one about the end of the world. You need to do that especially if you've been reading the popular fiction that claims to be based on it, so that you'll know what it says.
But if you're going to read the Bible, you should also read The Holy Koran, The Analects of Confucius, the Tao Te Ching, and The Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. That won't come close to covering all the world's religious traditions, but at least it will make a start.
5) Shakespeare, William. King Lear.
The truth, of course, is that I would actually like you to read all of Shakespeare. When I was in college, you had to do that--to pass a year-long course that read every single one of the plays--in order to graduate as an English major.
But Shakespeare wrote major and minor plays, and among his major ones King Lear is the least likely to be assigned to non-English majors during their college careers. Most of you will get Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet. A good number will get Macbeth. King Lear seems to fall by the wayside.
It's too bad. In many way, it's a play many of you can "relate" to, as students like to say. And although why education should be reduced to what you're familiar with is beyond me, in this case I think the issue at the heart of the play is one most of you will have some familiarity with.
How do we know if somebody loves us? Can we trust what they say to us? What's the best indication that somebody has our best interests at heart, and isn't trying to scam us or harm us? Lear made the wrong choice, and in doing so ruined himself and his family together.
Read this one, then stop being so lazy and go back and read the rest.
6) Hitler, Adolph. Mein Kampf.
All the rest of the books on this list are here because they are great books. This is anything but a great book, and Hitler was anything but a great man. He certainly wasn't a great mind, or even an original one. Like most psychopaths--and Hitler was most assuredly a psychopath, as was Stalin, and probably Mao--Hitler had one mental impulse, and that was to get what he wanted the way he wanted it, and to hell with everybody and everything else. The will to power was the beginning and the end of the story.
If you want to find out where Hitler got his ideas, you should read Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit and Nietzsche's The Will to Power, Also Sprach Zarathustra, and The Genealogy of Morals. The Hegel is a slog, but it's good for understanding Marx as well as Hitler. And the Nietzsche will help you with Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and dozens of other unsavory characters.
So, why read this book? First, so that you know what it says. Over the last two decades I've listened to dozens of arguments on contemporary issues--on assisted suicide, on relativism vs. absolutism in morality, on abortion, on how to handle child abuse--that sound eerily similar, and are sometimes identical, to the ones Hitler uses in this book. This doesn't make support for assisted suicide or abortion necessarily wrong, but it's a good indication that the thought processes behind the arguments being used in some of these cases is wrong, and that should give us something more than pause.
Which brings us to the second reason to read this book. Evil is not a cartoon. It doesn't show up in a red cape wearing horns and cloven feet. Evil happens gradually, and it is almost always perpetrated by people who mean well. The only way to guard against it is to know it inside out, and reading this book will help you do that.
While you're at it, though, you should read a few more. Try Vladimir Lenin's "What is To Be Done" (more a pamphlet than a book) and Mao Tse Tung's The Little Red Book. And Nicolo Machiavelli's The Prince, just so you know how far back this goes.
Then get hold of another one: Stephanie Courtois, et al, The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1999).
That list ought to keep you up nights for a month or two.
7) Locke, John. Second Treatise on Government.
John Locke is the beginning of a theory of politics that resulted, eventually, in the Constitution of the United States, although Locke was English and not American, and no fan of rebellion and revolution.
The American revolution, and the United States of America as a nation, are the children of the English Enlightenment, and the fault lines of that discussion on what makes a government a good (and legitimate) one haven't changed from the 18th Century until now.
In his day, Locke and his compatriots were known as "liberals." Today, in the United States, we call them "secular conservatives" or "libertarians," to distinguish them from the people we now call "liberals," who would have been called radical egalitarians in Locke's time.
Needless to say, in the United States at the moment it's the Republicans who are quoting Locke, but not the Republicans known as the "religious right."
You might also want to look into a few of Locke's contemporaries and descendants, including Thomas Hobbes (Leviathan), David Hume (An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding), Edmund Burke (Reflections on the Revolution in France), and John Stuart Mill (On Liberty). Finally, check out Ayn Rand's very bad, but mind-numbingly influential, novel, Atlas Shrugged.
8) Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract.
If John Locke is the great-grandfather of all the people we now call "conservatives," Jean-Jacques Rousseau is the great-grandfather of all the people we now call "liberals." He thought of himself as a revolutionary, and he was one. John Locke was the father of the English Enlightenment. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was the father of the French Enlightenment. The gulf between the two Enlightenments was something like a grand canyon.
It was Rousseau who first came up with the idea of the Noble Savage--the vision of a world in which peoples who lived outside civilization, who had neither writing nor science nor proper government, were somehow better, finer, and more moral than peoples who lived in developed social orders.
At base, this was a rejection of the Christian doctrine of Original Sin, which says that human beings all have a flawed nature that tends to do evil because the first people, Adam and Eve, disobeyed God and passed their fault to all their descendants.
For Rousseau, all men were born good. If they did evil things, it was because society--civilization--had corrupted them. Therefore rape, murder, greed and cruelty did not occur in primitive societies. They were the product of societies that had developed things like writing, science and law.
Now, as far as I know, there is absolutely no empirical evidence whatsoever that would support Rousseau's idea, but it's been a very popular idea nonetheless. Maybe it's just that we all want to believe that there are solutions for our problems--that there is a way to rid the world entirely and forever of the evil human beings do to each other.
There's even a grain of truth in the mess of idiocy that is the idea of the Noble Savage. Education and child rearing do have an effect on the way children grow into adults. We are not all nature, we are at least some nurture.
Of course, Rousseau never met a "savage," noble or otherwise. His knowledge of what went on in societies without writing or architecture was less than minimal, since it depended on travel reports written by people in an era when such memoirs were as likely to be made up as reported. And it would be tempting to think that if only he had had access to our own store of knowledge on primitive peoples--the anthropological studies on tribes in South America and Africa, of Australian aborigines--he would have abandoned this idea in favor of something more sensible.
The fact, however, was that Rousseau didn't really care one way or another how "savages" lived. What he cared about was how Frenchmen lived, and how they could be made to live if only the revolution he hoped for could be brought about. Liberte, Egalitie, Fraternitie--an entirely new kind of society, where all men would be brothers, no man would be above any of his fellows, and freedom would mean not only freedom from an oppressive monarchy, but from the Church and its moral laws as well.
If you want to know how it worked out, get a good book on the French Revolution. If you want to see Rousseau's descendants among you, look at the people who run off to a new Third World country every year or so, desperately seeking Authenticity. Or look at John Walker Lindh.
But you need also to look at the educational system on the elementary and high school level, and on at least some kinds of feminism, and at Marxism, and at Naziism, all of which assume that human beings are infinitely malleable and infinitely perfectible, and none of which behaves too well when faced with the evidence that they're wrong.
9) Madison, James, et al. The Constitution of the United States.
Also The Declaration of Independence, The Articles of Confederation, The Federalist Papers and The Anti-Federalist Papers.
In other words, the main body of the evidence the Founders of the United States of America left behind to tell us what they intended to do by setting us up the way they did. If you're serious about knowing, you should also check into the Library of America editions of the letters of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, and others. You might also check out a little document commonly called "The Treaty of Tripoli," signed by President John Adams and ratified by the United States Senate during his term of office.
First, this is a good reality check on the relative contributions of the French and English Enlightenments. While the French Enlightenment assumed that human beings were infinitely perfectible and ended in a bloodbath forever afterward known as The Terror, the English Enlightenment assumed that human beings weren't ever going to change much and ended in George Washington taking the oath of office on the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City. The French Revolution ended when Napoleon took over and brought back the monarchy. The American Revolution ended when we founded the country and got down to business.
Second, reading what the Founders actually said and did is a good check on what we think they said and did. And the fact is, both Liberals and Conservatives will end up being disappointed.
Conservatives will end up being disappointed because the Founders really did intend to set up a separation of Church and State, even if that wasn't the phrase they used. It's there in the fact that the president's oath of office does not include the words "so help me God" or any requirement that the oath be made on a Bible, and in Article VI of the Constitution promising that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States," and in the eleventh clause of the Treaty of Tripoli which declares that "the Government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion." It's there in John Adams' refusal to stop mail delivery on Sunday because that would be an "establishment of religion" (favoring those Christian sects that observed Sunday as the Sabbath and disfavoring the ones that observed Saturday, as well as disfavoring the Jews and other who were not Christian).
But Liberals aren't going to be much happier, because using the same method that will end up showing you the Founders' support for separation of Church and state will also end up showing you that the Founders did indeed mean to give individuals the right to own guns under the Second Amendment. The idea was that each man would have a musket of his own at home and could therefore be called up at a moment's notice to defend his state against the incursions of a federal government turned tyrannical.
But as fun as it may be to beat your political opponents over the head with "Federalist 10," there's a much more important reason to read all these things: to rid yourself of the fashionable pseudosophistication that has infected the high schools lately that says that the Founders were nothing but a lot of venal old white European males who didn't really care about liberty but only wanted to secure their property and put themselves in power, that they were racist/sexist/probably homophobic/definitely greedy and venal little turds who should be spit on rather than looked up to.
The standards of the 18th century were a lot different than ours, but these were truly remarkable men, intellectually, morally and spiritually. They had a vision for the country and her citizens that no generation since has been able to live up to, and that too many of you are now taught not to even try.
Well, I think you should try. I think we all should. Go read and find out what to do, and how to be.
10) Siegel, Jerry and Joe Shuster. Superman.
Siegel and Shuster created the comic strip, and wrote it for many years, but it would be hard to put a finger on just which version of Superman I think you ought to see. It's the idea of the Superhero that matters here--a modern and thoroughly American version of the Messiah paradigm where a single extraordinary individual, possessed of extraordinary powers received almost always through bad luck or bad fate, goes on to save the world over and over and over again.
I always did think it was interesting that Americans, unlike the rest of the world, could never be content with saving the world once and having it stay saved. But we can't. Even our more ordinary heroes--the Lone Ranger, for instance--have to save their worlds week after week. The good work is never done.
You ought to check out some of the other American superheroes, too--Spiderman, especially. I always thought Batman was just some silly guy in a suit.
11) Homer. The Odyssey.
And The Iliad, of course. And Virgil's Aeneid. And while you're at it, some work by unknown authors that has been around for a while, like Beowulf and Gilgamesh. And at least one book by a known author, Cervantes, called Don Quixote.
These are the great epics of Western civilization, the heroic stories that celebrated ourselves. They range from the attempting-to-be-accurate (like The Iliad) to the really-out-there (like Beowulf) to the self-consciously ironic (like Don Quixote), but they all have one thing in common: they are stories about courage in the most elemental, unambiguous forms imaginable.
In more ways than one, these epics have more in common with Superman than they do with what we usually think of as "literature" in the sense of what we read in school. They're plot-heavy, action-oriented, full of sex and violence and intrigue and treachery,
This is the tradition from which a number of other books come, some of which you might like to look into: Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, and Frank L. Baum's The Wizard of Oz.
But first on the list has to be James Joyce's Ulysses, in which Joyce uses the structure and plot outline of the original Odyssey to tell the story of a day in the life of one Leopold Bloom and his wife Molly in early twentieth-century Dublin.
12) Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol.
This is the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserable miser who went to bed one night only to be awakened by the ghost of his dead partner, Jacob Marley, and then sent the spirits of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Future so that he could regain the spirit of Christmas and keep it all the year round.
This was one of a small set of 19th Century fiction works that fundamentally changed the cultural landscape in English, by bringing an entirely new set of paradigms and archetypes into common use. It's not an accident that all the books and stories that did so were popular works, written not for the well-educated upper classes but for the general public.
Dickens himself is the author of several of the most vivid characters in English literature, especially the orphan Oliver Twist of Oliver Twist (please, sir, can I have some more?), the suffocatingly back-to-basics schoolmaster Thomas Gradgrind of Hard Times, the forever-out-of-financial luck Mr. Micawber and that heap of iniquity, Uriah Heep, in David Copperfield.
Here's the sea change of modern life--by this era, most people could read. So what did they read? Well there was:
13) Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein.
This is the story of Dr. Frankenstein, who snatched a body and some parts and tried to bring it back to life. Frankenstein wasn't the original mad scientist--that would be Faust, long a legend in all Western cultures, best seen in Goethe's Faust or Christopher Marlowe's Dr. Faustus--but he's the one who stays with us. Two year olds in the Trobriand Islands can do lurching Boris-Karloff-like impressions of Frankenstein's monster lumbering through the countryside.
As a story of science gone wrong, though, it's less complex than another famous mad-scientist tale, Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Read that one, too.
14) Stoker, Bram. Dracula.
When the French Revolutionaries talked about the blood-sucking aristocracy, they were speaking metaphorically. Stoker took an ancient Eastern European legend, based on the real-life career of a charming 15th century nobleman named Vlad Dracul and called "Vlad the Impaler," and made it literal. Stoker's Dracula sucks blood, and evil can never die. It doesn't exactly live, either, but it can never die.
In a way, this book takes evil in the opposite direction from that assumed by the writers of mad scientist tales. Evil is not part of ourselves (as it is in Jekyll and Hyde), and it's not a matter of our hubris and overreach (as it is in Frankenstein and Faust). Evil is something supernatural, in the world but not of the world, a malevolent force that stalks us in order to make us less than human.
But there's a catch--you have to invite it in.
If this all sounds vaguely familiar, it is. For one thing, it's the basis of a religion called Manicheanism, which said that the world was divided between two gods, one good, one evil, and it was man's mission on earth to join up with one side or the other and help it win. For another, it's the basis for the philosophy and theology of St. Augustine, who said pretty much the same thing except that he called it God and Satan and pointed out that God was stronger than Satan and therefore destined to win in the long run.
Check out some of the works by Augustine's most prolific and famous ambassador: Stephen King. The very best is actually a movie, not a book, called Storm of the Century.
15) Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan. The Hound of the Baskervilles.
Or any of the other Sherlock Holmes novels or stories. Most of them are stories, and they're interesting, and sometimes funny, to read in this day and age.
The point of putting this book on this list, though, and of urging you to read as much Sherlock Holmes as you can get your hands on, is that the detective-rationalist is probably the premiere character-stereotype of this age. If the Superhero is a Messiah story, a trust in faith in powers greater than ourselves, Holmes represents the modern reader's other cherished response to the chaos and uncertainty of modern life: not faith, but reason, will see us through.
In Sherlock Holmes--as in later writers' attempts to reproduce his effect (see Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot and Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe, for instance)--we see the archetype clear. When the social order and public safety is upset by criminality, the hero responds with reason, intelligence, and science. Nietzsche declared war on civilization, and civilization responded with the Great Detective.
And civilization won, too.
You should also try at least one of those Agatha Christie novels about Hercule Poirot, maybe Murder on the Orient Express or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Christie didn't write very well, and any sophomore English major could give you a long list of her sins in the areas of character, plot and prose, but when she had Poirot die at the end of Curtain, the obituary--that's Poirot's obituary, the obituary of a fictional character--appeared on the front page of The New York Times. There's something to be said for being a cultural icon.
16) Clausewitz, Karl von. On War.
Clausewitz (1780-1831) was a Prussian military officer of enormous reputation during the Napoleonic Wars, where he distinguished himself as a tactician both in the service of his native Prussia and later in the service of Russia (1812-1814). He brokered the treaty between Prussia, England and Russia that led to Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo. Eventually, he was appointed Director of the Prussian War College--sort of their version of West Point.
This book was never finished, and what there is of it--and there's a lot--was published after Clausewitz's death and without the benefit of any editing he might have intended to do. Even so, it is still the preeminent theoretical work on the conduct of war and the basis for military strategy in all Western nations.
Interestingly enough, Clausewitz spends much time in this book discussing what war actually is, and how we should think about it, before going on to the details of how to prosecute a war and winning one. And winning was his objective. It's war as an intellectual discipline.
There are a fair number of online editions of this book, and I've got a citation to one in the Extra Resources section. But you should also look up a work by the ancient Chinese tactician Sun Tzu, called The Art of War. At nearly 2500 years old, it's the oldest work on warfare known to be in existence. The Internet Classics Archive (see (d) in Extra Resources) has a text online.
Less well-known, and not online that I know of, is Miyamoto Musashi's Japanese classic The Book of Five Rings, which approaches war strategy in a martial arts tradition.
17) Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "Self-Reliance."
There are times when reading Emerson that it's possible to imagine that the New England Transcendentalists--of which he was a founding member and a productive part--had discovered not only granola before the rest of us, but bongs, too. Emerson can be infuriatingly vague and self-contradictory. This is the man, after all, who said that "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."
This is also the man, however, who was the finest mind of his generation, the founder and first working pastor of the Unitarian Church (now the Unitarian-Universalist Association), and the leader of the first distinctly American intellectual and artistic tradition after the Revolution. Along with Thoreau (see 18), Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, and other writers and reformers, Emerson was responsible for the founding ideas that undergirded the abolitionist side in the American Civil War.
The self-reliance Emerson is talking about in this essay is not the get-a-job-and-stop-living-off-your-parents kind, although he probably would have approved of that. He's talking here about being independent of mind, about being willing to hold beliefs, ideas and principles that the vast majority of your fellow citizens reject or condemn.
Like Madison, Jefferson, Washington and Adams, Emerson saw the great evil of a democratic Republic as conformity and majoritarianism. He was looking for a way to inculcate the desire of men and women to be independent in mind and spirit.
Of course, if you're going to read Emerson, you might as well look into a few of his other, and equally famous, works, including both "Nature" essays and "The American Scholar."
18) Thoreau, Henry David. "Civil Disobedience."
If Emerson is often maddeningly vague, Thoreau--his closest friend through most of his life--is often so much like a Flower Child Hippie that you want to throttle him. We read one essay by Thoreau in class ("Life Without Principle") and the work he is most known for is not this one, but On Walden Pond, his account of the time he spent "going back to nature" and living in the wild on the banks of a muddy little puddle near Concord, Massachusetts.
On Walden Pond has been legitimately ridiculed both for its romanticism (nature is all good, civilization is all evil) and for its author's less than stellar adherence to his own principles: while going back to nature and living outside civilization, Thoreau found it necessary to send his laundry into town to a proper laundrywoman. He wasn't about to risk ruining it by cleaning it with pond water and rocks.
This essay is something else--the first account in American literature of an act of political protest, specifically of an act of defiance in the face of an unjust law. In it, Thoreau established the principles that would come to be used by generation after generation of political protestors, from abolitionists trying to get slavery abolished to college student draft card burners trying to bring and end to the Vietnam War.
Nor was Thoreau the only member of his circle to go in for what we would now call radical politics. Bronson Alcott--father of Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women--founded a utopian socialist community in the Massachusetts wilderness. Many others of the circle became ardent abolitionists.
19) Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom's Cabin.
It's always hard to know where to start, or what to choose, when talking about the American Civil War. Passionate politics not only makes for bad art, but often for bad philosophy as well. If you're in a hurry to get something done, you don't sit down and take five years to write a book thoroughly outlining the basis in fact and reason for your principles.
This is, in many ways, a really terrible book. It's badly written, and Stowe was a creature of her time. She was no more capable of seeing African-Americans as human beings just like anybody else than she was of initiating space flight. Of course, all the characters in this book--white as well as black--are stereotypical and one-dimensional, so it's not as if she did much better by her racial compatriots than she did by anyone else.
Still, this is the book that changed the conscience of the nation, that tipped the scales against slavery once and for all, and for that reason it is an enormously important work for Americans to read. Sometimes bathos, simplistic ideas and emotional hysteria work better than reason, and this was one of those times.
You might want to check out a decent history of the Civil War and what led up to it--Bruce Catton's three-volume Civil War is good. You might also try some of the memoirs of the period, like John Ransom's Andersonville Diary.
20) Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself.
Frederick Douglass is where African-American literature begins. He was the first in a long line of witnesses to the lives of slaves, former slaves, and descendants of slaves. Born into slavery himself, the son of a white father he never even knew the name of and a mother who was herself a slave, he escaped from a brutal master in rural Maryland on his second attempt. He was caught the first time, and the results weren't good. Mostly self taught--he didn't learn to read until he was eight--he became one of the most popular and accomplished public speakers in the country both before and after the Civil War.
Douglass was known especially for his later work showing how the Constitution was not meant to be a pro-slavery document, and how it might be used to bring slavery to an end. Maybe the South was listening: it was over fear that the U.S. government would find a legal means of ending slavery that the states of the Confederacy seceded.
While you're at it, check out some of Douglass's intellectual colleagues and descendants: Booker T. Washington's Up From Slavery; W.E.B. DuBois and his book The Souls of Black Folks; James Baldwin's novel of one day in the life of a black church (Go Tell It On The Mountain) and his essays on civil rights in America (The Fire Next Time); Claude Brown's Manchild in the Promised Land; Malcolm X's The Autobiography of Malcolm X; and even, God help us, Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice. Cleaver is more than a little off the wall and over the top, but, what the hey, it was the Sixties, and so was everybody else.
21) Dostoyevsky, Feodor. The Brothers Karamazov.
Personally, I think this is the greatest novel ever written, bar none, but the point of putting it here is to give you some acquaintance with the Russian novel in general and the Russian novel of ideas in particular.
Dostoyevsky was among the first "existentialists," thinkers who believed that man was condemned to face life in despair, because modern men could not have the simple and undoubting faith of their ancestors. Unlike Tolstoy, however, he was concerned to find a way to make the Christian alternative work.
His most famous novel is probably Crime and Punishment, whose anti-hero, Raskolnikov, commits a murder to test out the proposition: if there is no God, everything is permitted. He finds that his conscience is deeper than his philosophy. His inner voices will not let him rest, and they will not relieve him of guilt.
The Brothers Karamazov is a broader and more complex novel than the rest of Dostoyevsky's work, and all of it is broad and complex. Besides, it's also a murder mystery.
You should also try The Idiot, Notes from Underground, and a short story (actually a chapter in The Brothers Karamazov) called "The Grand Inquisitor."
Personally, I think Tolstoy has been overrated, but if you want to give him a shot, try Anna Karenina and "The Kreutzer Sonata" rather than War and Peace. Eat nails before you try War and Peace.
Also look into Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard and Three Sisters, Maxim Gorky's Dead Souls, and for something more modern, anything by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, including Cancer Ward, First Circle, and The Gulag Archipelago. When Cancer Ward was smuggled out of the Soviet Union and published here, the Soviet government issued an official statement that said, "There is no cancer in the Soviet Union, and all our cancer patients are very well treated."
22) Kafka, Franz. "The Metamorphosis."
Somebody once said that Kafka is what Nietzsche would look like in fiction--but it's much worse than that. Kafka is paranoid schizophrenia as an art form.
"The Metamorphosis" is the most famous of his works, a very long short story about a man who wakes up one day to find himself changed. Or, as the first sentence says, "Gregor Samsa woke up one morning to find that he had changed into a gigantic cockroach." The story is eerie as much for what doesn't happen in it as for what does. For one thing, his entire family is mad at him, as if he did this on purpose to ruin their lives.
You might also look into The Trial, a longer work about a man--called Joseph K--who finds himself on trial for a crime nobody will explain to him, in a courtroom he doesn't recognize, just out of the blue. Think about Raskolnikov in 22, above: the guilt remained, even when the meaning had gone out of life. But at least Raskolnikov had committed a murder. As far as we can tell, Joseph K. has done nothing at all except to go to work every day as a low level bureaucrat.
Kafka wrote before the Nazis came to power. Maybe he could sense something in the wind. For a look at German literature trying to come to grips with Hitler and all he stood for, try Gunter Grass's The Tin Drum. There's also Bertholt Brecht, especially Mother Courage and Her Children.
For more existentialism, you might want to look into the French postwar writers. Jean-Paul Sartre gives us No Exit, a play with the theme "hell is other people." Albert Camus gives us a series of novels, starting with The Stranger (a modern take on Raskolnikov, complete with murder), and also some nonfiction about the nature of modern life in The Myth of Sisyphus. Then try Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot.
Don't forget Louis-Ferdinand Celine, preferably Journey to the End of the Night. Celine was one of the best and most forceful of the French existentialist writers before World War II, but he lost his reputation because he was considered to have been a collaborator with the Nazis instead of a resister. Like Paul de Man, he wrote anti-Semitic propaganda during the German occupation of France. Unlike de Man, he didn't "redeem" himself after the war by becoming the next best thing to a Stalinist.
It doesn't hurt to remind ourselves that the totalitarian impulse looks pretty much the same on the right and on the left, and for that particular life lesson, the French existentialists are definitely the way to go.
23) Ginsberg, Alan. Howl.
It's always hard to know what to do with modern works. It sometimes seems inevitable that anything we ourselves value as "good" work will be largely forgotten by future generations, and what will instead become an exemplar of Great Art will be something nobody had any time for while its author was alive.
Howl is the most famous of a set of poems by the Beat writers of post-World War II America, and really should be read as part of a total package that covers the entire era. They were writers who found it difficult--often impossible--to settle down to "normal" American life, to home and family and work and the everyday routine of daily existence. As such, they have resonance with all of us who find being adult and responsible sometimes too boring and disheartening for words. Thoreau would have understood. "Life Without Principle" pretty much rings the same bell.
Still, the bottom line is that adulthood and responsibility always win out, and it's a good thing, too. We need doctors and teachers and construction workers to make our lives--and the lives of Beat poets--possible.
Along with this, look at Lawrence Ferlinghetti's A Coney Island of the Mind, William Burrough's really strange novel Naked Lunch, and, of course, On the Road by Jack Kerouac.
The Beats were often silly, sometimes criminal, and largely irrelevant to the wider culture, but they sound a distinctly American strain of the revolt against the bourgeoisie and set the stage for the Hippies and free love in the Sixties.
24) Seuss, Dr. How The Grinch Stole Christmas.
Children's literature tends to be dismissed as not really serious enough for adults to bother with, but children's literature is incredibly important to a culture. No matter how much reading we may do in our mature years, what really sticks with us is the stuff we read, and had read to us, at bedtime.
Seuss is the premiere children's writer of post-World War II America, and along with the Grinch, you should look at The Cat in the Hat. There's also Horton Hears a Who, which seems to have a message on the abortion wars ("a person's a person no matter how small") and The Butter Battle Book, which is his take on the Cold War arms race, right down to nuclear proliferation. Of course, it's all done in Seuss's style, and generations of children have read these books without the faintest idea that they contained any message about the adult world at all.
While you're looking at children's books, don't forget P.L. Travers's Mary Poppins. It will be a long time before we know if J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series will stand the test of time, but for your generation, it's imperative to read it.
25) Levy, Andrew. The First Emancipator: The Forgotten Story of Robert Carter, the Founding Father Who Freed His Slaves. New York: Random House, 2005.
This is the only really new book on this list. Everything else here is at least thirty or forty years old, and a lot of it is hundreds or even thousands of years old. This is here because it tells a story nobody knows, and it's important for Americans to know it.
Robert Carter was one of the generation that fought the American Revolutionary War. He was the picture of the "rich white slave owner" that a lot of modern American histories are pleased to sneer at. He owned a large and prosperous plantation in Virginia, and 450 slaves. Like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, he found himself espousing--and fighting for--freedom and equality with one hand and buying and selling human beings with the other.
Unlike Washington and Jefferson, Carter was unable to live with the contradictions between his ideals, and the ideals of the new American republic he supported so passionately, and his own actions. So, in 1791, just two years after the new Constitution was signed, he freed all his slaves, sold his plantation, and went to live in relative poverty in Maryland and Virginia for what would turn out to be a fairly long life.
Many of the Founding Fathers truly hated slavery and everything it implied, but most of those were from New England and the mid-Atlantic states, where slavery had been abolished anyway. Others, like Washington and Jefferson, had arrived at the conviction that slavery was wrong, but couldn't bring themselves to face the kind of life they would have to lead without their slaves. Washington freed his slaves only after his death, as part of his will. Jefferson didn't do even that. He was so deeply in debt when he died that his slaves were sold to pay his creditors.
Carter shows us what could have been done, if his contemporaries had been better men than they were. Carter was not a Great Man, as Jefferson was. He wasn't a political genius, or an intellectual giant. He was, however, a good man, and if we'd had more like him the history of this country would have been a lot different than it has been.
Some Extra Resources You Might Like To Look At:
a) Sumeria: A History of Ancient Sumer and Its Contributions. At:
http://history-world.org/sumeria.htm. A good resource site on the First Civilization, complete with pictures, samples of writing, maps, a dictionary, you name it.
b) Major Scriptures, Religious Texts and Influential Books. At: http://www.adherents.com/adh_influbooks.html. A good source for online copies of religious literature from all religious traditions: Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Shinto, you name it. You can find the entire King James Version of the Holy Bible at http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/kjv.browse.html.
c) Superman Homepage. At: http://www.supermanhomepage.com/news.php. Yeah. Just what it says it is.
d) The Internet Classics Archive. At: http://classics.mit.edu/index.html. It's got 441 classic texts (Iliad, Odyssey, Aeneid, etc) that you can read online, if it's prohibitive to buy them.
e) The Classics Pages. At: http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~loxias/oldindex.htm.
That's a British site, but as well as the texts of the various poems, etc, it's got commentary and background information, as well as games, puzzles and other amusements. Oh, and it's got an insult page--that is, a list of insults in Latin. Plus the beginnings of a translation of the Harry Potter novels into ancient Greek.
f) Vlad the Impaler. At: http://www.vladtheimpaler.com/. Everything you ever wanted to know about the real-life basis for the Dracula legends.
g) The Clausewitz Homepage. At: http://www.clausewitz.com/CWZHOME/CWZBASE.htm. A site about all things Clausewitz, including an online copy of his book On War.
h) American Transcendentalism Web. At: http://www.vcu.edu/engweb/transcendentalism/index.html. A web resource on "The New England Renaissance," including online editions of various works of Emerson, Thoreau and others, articles and essays about the ideas and people in the movement, and images.
i) Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. At: http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/Literature/Douglass/Autobiography/. This is the entire book, online, and only one of many sites devoted to Douglass and his life and work. There's a short bio at http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/Literature/Douglass/. There are also online archives of his papers at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/doughtml/doughome.html.
j) W.E.B. Dubois. At: http://www.duboislc.org/html/DuBoisBio.html. Good outline of the man's life and work, especially good on how his experiences developed his ideas. With links to other sources and information.
k) Alan Ginsberg: Howl. At: http://www.people.virginia.edu/~jng2d/enlt255/texts/howl/howl.htm. The complete poem online. Also try The Beat Page for more comprehensive information on all things having to do with the Beat movement. At: http://www.rooknet.com/beatpage/index.html.
Copyright © 2006 Jane Haddam. All rights reserved.
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