I have been working on this list for a while, and wanted to get it finished this weekend. It is thirty-six books, plus a few extras. Essential books. One a month for three years. All of these are books you should know, and know well. Read them in a cycle, or pick and choose. If you do read them all, and know them, you will have a deep, well-grounded understanding of much of what makes us who are.
1. The New Testament. Christian or not, you cannot understand Western culture without being familiar with the New Testament. It is about 180,000 words – as many as a long novel, and slightly fewer than Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Emptiness, sickness, despair and death, replaced by brightness and joy, by forgiveness, hope, healing, and peace. This is the foundation stone of Western aspirations, culture, and identity.
2. Shakespeare – Julius Caesar. You could substitute Othello or Hamlet or King Lear or Antony and Cleopatra or The Tempest or Henry V, or read them all in a cycle. Any one of them has as much of value to say as the entire literary output of many nations. I chose Julius Caesar because it has the best quotes, and one for almost every situation, enabling you to sound brainy and learned without too much effort.
3. Chaucer – Canterbury Tales. Not as hard to read as you might think. The tales are great fun, Chaucer’s characters are delicious, and offer useful insights into life and philosophical debates which are still current, like that between nominalism and realism. Go on, look it up.
4. Dickens – Bleak House. Possibly the best novel ever written in English. Honoria Dedlock is kind, rich and beautiful, but her fear creates a bleak house indeed, while Esther Summerson, who appears to have nothing and is disfigured by smallpox, lives in Bleak House, but makes it anything but bleak by her warm hearted generosity. Mrs Jellyby makes her house bleak by ignoring her own family in favour of distant charities. Horace Skimpole is the archetypal character of the irresponsible and self-indulgent 21st Century.
5. Emily Bronte – Wuthering Heights. Another contender for best novel in English. In modern terms, this is a discussion of dysfunctional families and ‘nature vs nuture,’ but unlike many modern attempts to deal with these issues, Wuthering Heights is truthful about the cost of rebellion and selfish passion.
6. Emile Zola – L’Assomoir. Number seven in the twenty volume Rougon-Macquart series, L’Assomoir combines Zola’s beautiful writing and carefully drawn characters with an even now startlingly harsh and realistic picture of poverty and alcoholism. Perhaps one of the most depressing books ever written. There is no romance in being poor.
7. Stendhal – The Red and the Black. Many of the problems of youth could be forestalled by reading and absorbing this book. Except that those who would benefit most from it are least likely to read it. Julian Sorel is from a poor family. He is talented and ambitious and wants to be important. He is also lazy and naïve, and in the end is destroyed by his lack of self-discipline. The red and the black are the colours of the uniforms of church and army.
8. Lewis Carroll – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Cheating a little with two novels here, but neither is terribly long, both have wonderful insights into language and nature of reality, and both have characters (Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the Cheshire Cat, etc) which have become part of Western language and culture.
9. Clive James – Cultural Amnesia. A series of essays of the ideal length to be read while sitting on the toilet. To read, mark, learn and inwardly digest it is to be instantly and though-provokingly informed on many of the most important personalities, events and ideas of the twentieth century. Even if you remember just one key fact about each of the people discussed you will feel very brainy, and you will be entitled to.
10. George Orwell – 1984. If you read this book you will understand why ‘political correctness’ is so dangerous. “Who controls the present controls the past. Who controls the past controls the future.” Star Wars’s ‘Greeto shot first’ heresy is a perfect example of the petty re-engineering of history, symptomatic of a desire to bring the past into conformity with a vision of a perfect future. But the creation of such futures, and of a perfected humanity, whether borg, socialist or islamic, must be forced. The cost is human life and freedom. Stalinist Russia has been defeated, but state attempts to control our thinking are expanding even in Western democracies which claim to value freedom of thought and speech.
11. Anthony Trollope -The Chronicles of Barsetshire. Six books, so this really is cheating. These are easy to read and have perfectly defined characters who develop through the series. What makes this essential reading, though, is his realistic depiction of day to day life, society, money, the little temptations to compromise. Trollope was enormously influential. George Eliot said she could never have written Middlemarch without having read the Barsetshire novels. And Dorothea, the hero of Middlemarch, is one of my favourite characters. So there’s that. If you can’t read all six, at least read The Warden.
12. H Rider Haggard – King Solomon’s Mines. This is wonderfully fun to read. It is the fruit of a five shilling bet between the writer and his brother, was rejected by numerous publishers, became an instant best-seller, and has remained popular ever since. It was the first English adventure story set in Africa, the first lost world novel, and one of the first to use first-person narration, as opposed to the god-like third person view.
13. Edgar Rice Burroughs – Princess of Mars. John Carter, Confederate soldier, is teleported to Mars where the lower gravity gives him super-human strength. He rescues Dejah Thoris, a fierce princess, wins her heart and becomes Prince of Helium where they live happily for nine years until he is transported back to Earth after saving Barsoom (Mars) from a catastrophe. Yes, it is ridiculous. But it is great fun, and has had vastly greater influence on subsequent science fiction, especially cinematic science fiction, than Verne or Wells.
14. Fyodor Dostoyevsky – The Brothers Karamazov. The last and greatest of Dostoyevsky’s novels. Told from a variety of points of view and in a variety of styles, there is no particular voice of authority. This challenges the reader to engage with the story of the three brothers; Dmitri, Ivan, Alexei, and their relationships with each other, women and the authorities. Like all Dostoyevsky’s work, it is sometimes difficult, but more than worth the trouble. You will come away from this book with a deeper understanding of free-will, morality, and the influence of belief on action, and of action on consequences.
15. F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Great Gatsby. There has never been a good movie of this great book. Baz Luhrmann’s recent extravaganza was moderately enjoyable, but it was Luhrmann not Fitzgerald. Where does Gatsby’s money come from? Anyway, it doesn’t do him any good. He is in love with Daisy, who is married to Tom, who is a dick. The story, told by neighbour and former war comrade Nick Carraway, ends with Gatsby being murdered after taking the blame for the death of a young woman killed by Daisy while driving Gatsby’s car. Makes you wonder what it’s all about, really, and that’s why you should read it. Also, Fitzgerald’s style is crystal bright.
16. J.R.R Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings. Elves, elves and more bloody elves. And orcs. And the meaning of hope and leadership. This is a deeply, though not obviously, Catholic novel, with themes of self-sacrifice, providence and sacrament. But even if you miss those things, and Peter Jackson did, you will still find much to enjoy and ponder. And LOTR sets the rules for almost every subsequent fantasy book, game and movie of the twentieth century.
17. A.A Milne – Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner. Yeah, yeah. Two books again. You could probably read each one in half an hour, so stop complaining. The thing is, you won’t want to. You will want to read them slowly, chuckle, then back up and think for a minute. First published in 1925, six years later Pooh marketing – songs, dolls, games, etc, was worth $50 million a year. Pooh tells us we don’t have to be strong or clever to make a difference. Little things matter, just be kind. He is the Therese of Lisieux of children’s literature. If you don’t love these books you are probably a psychopath.
18. Gustav Flaubert – Madame Bovary. Enough of happy. Emma Bovary is beautiful, intelligent, well educated, married to a kind and hard-working man, Charles Bovary, a doctor, who adores her. But the grass is always greener, her husband is boring, and Emma searches for happiness everywhere except the one place she is likely to find it, with the husband she has written off as dull. She has a succession of affairs, is rejected and commits suicide. Choices matter, and sometimes there is no turning back. So choose wisely. The style of this novel has influenced almost every novel to some after it.
19. C.S Lewis – The Chronicles of Narnia. Start with the Lion the Witch and Wardrobe, then read the series through in order beginning with The Magician’s Nephew. Don’t be put off by the films, which are awful, made by people who had no understanding of or love for the books. Narni, the Italian town, is hallway between Rome and Assisi, and that probably tells you quite a lot about Lewis’s intentions, which include insights into creativity, use of power, the cost of forgiveness, the beauty and purpose of creation.
20. Alessandro Manzoni – The Betrothed. Yes, I know you’ve never heard of it. It doesn’t matter. If some of the other books on this list are bleak and depressing, this one is not. Rich, complex, and beautiful, this wonderful novel is about hope, and especially about hope that comes from faith, and how that hope empowers ordinary people to keep doing what is right, even in the face of what seem overwhelming difficulties and frustrations.
21. William Faulkner – As I Lay Dying. I wanted to include a novel by Faulkner, and it was either this or Light in August. I love them both. Light in August opens with pregnant and single-minded Lena. It is hypnotic right from the beginning. But As I Lay Dying is even better. Each chapter related by a different character, including the recently deceased Addie Bundren. What is it about? Well, everything. Life, death, human nature. Choices. Just read it.
22. Nancy Mitford – Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love. Recommended to me about ten years ago by a friend who could not believe I had not read them. Once I had read them I couldn’t believe I had not read them either. Hilarious, tragic, human. We may not choose our destiny, but we choose our habits, habits become character, and character becomes destiny. Probably Mitford didn’t have that in mind at all, but that was what I got from them, along with the enjoyment of getting to know some of the best drawn and most believable characters in English literature.
23. Patrick O’Brian – Master and Commander. The book has little except the main characters in common with the Russell Crowe film of the same name. The film is also very good, just different. Both film and book are exceptionally blokey – hardly a female in sight in either. The bonds and limits of friendship, loyalty, the tensions between love and duty, courage under fire, are all explored in the context of sea battles and betrayal. Forester’s Hornblower and Pope’s Ramage are deeply admirable as characters, great standbys if you enjoy seagoing novels, but do not have the depth of O’Brian.
24. Hannah Arendt – Eichmann in Jerusalem, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer – Letters and Papers from Prison. Yes, I know it’s two books. Both of them will challenge you in ways you do not expect. How should an ordinary human being respond when all around is darkness? Arendt’s chilling account of Eichmann’s activities during the war, and of his trial in Jerusalem, gives Eichmann’s answer; just be a cog in the machine, do your job, it’s not as if you have a choice. Bonhoeffer’s letters tell us there is always a choice, if only we are brave enough to make it.
25. Jack London – The Call of the Wild. This is short. If you are allowing a month for each book you could read White Fang as well, and you should. It is told from the perspective of Buck, a massive dog kidnapped and taken to Alaska during the gold rush. Buck was born to be wild, but he also yearns for loving human companionship. The underlying questions are about what it means to be who we are, and how we manage different aspects of our nature and desires. Or not. Maybe it is just a book about a dog.
26. Herman Melville – Moby-Dick. “Call me Ishmael.” It is one of the best-know opening lines in literature. When I first read this I was absolutely spellbound. I kept thinking “Can this really be this good?” It is. It is beautifully, magnificently written, not just narrative, but asides about whaling practice and nautical equipment, songs, poems, stage directions. It is a story of the power of obsession, and of human nature, of class and creativity, of harshness of man and nature, and of kindness. It was a commercial failure when first published. It is also one of the greatest books ever written.
27. Umberto Eco – The Name of the Rose. The first and best novel by Professor of Semiotics Umberto Eco (although his latest, The Prague Cemetery, is also very good). By the time you finish this book you will know something about Church history, the middle-ages, literary theory, and the nature of human enquiry into reality. You will also have had a jolly good time cheering on William of Baskerville as he faces the dangerous labyrinth of human fear and suspicion. Or maybe that’s just the library. The rose – “Being fair, you will be unhappy soon.”
29 Augustine of Hippo – The Confessions of St Augustine. “Thou hast made us for Thyself and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee.” Probably the first autobiography written in the West, Augustine’s Confessions trace his life from infancy to his early forties. What makes them so valuable is the honesty of his accounts of his moral and theological struggles (Lord, grant me chastity, but not yet), the historical context, the love and faithfulness of his mother Monica, and his insights into the philosophical and religious issues of the day. Which are pretty much the religious and philosophical issues of our day. Truth can be simple.
30. Mark Twain – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Time for something a bit lighter. But definitely not frivolous. This could be read easily and enjoyed by most teenagers. Huck is idle and vulgar, of poor breeding, with no idea of right and wrong. Except he has. He helps Jim, a young black slave, escape, even though all his up-bringing tells him this is wrong. Jim is, after all, someone’s property. Huck is both scheming and innocent, a typical boy, and a loyal friend. A simple and inspiring tale.
31. Jonathan Swift – Gulliver’s Travels. This book has never been out of print since it was first published in 1726, and no wonder. Its insights into the boundlessness of human silliness are applicable in every age. The Grand Academy of Lagado, with its research into extracting sunbeams from cucumbers, and discovering political conspiracies by testing the excrement of suspicious persons, sound very much like some of the madness of modern state-funded scientific research. Also, this is where the word yahoo comes from. And you should know what Lilliputian means.
32. Franz Kafka – The Castle. This book is unfinished. If it had been finished, it would have been Kafka’s masterpiece. But it isn’t, and it still is. OK, whatever. Read The Trial instead if you like. Prisoner K has no idea what he is being charged with, or why. Nothing makes sense, everything goes round in circles. It all ends in death. Sounds like your life? Right. I like The Trial, but The Castle seems deeper to me. And you can make up your own ending. As long as it is pointless and depressing, you’ll be right.
33. Shūsaku Endō – Silence. Wow! Golly! Gosh! This book is good. The story of Rodrigues, a Jesuit priest in Japan, imprisoned and tortured for his faith. Others are being killed. There is no glory in this martyrdom, not that human eyes can see, just horror and agony and emptiness. Rodrigues can end the suffering of himself and the others if he denies Christ and tramples the cross. He won’t. But in the end he hears Jesus speak: “Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.” God does not end suffering but is present with us and suffers and endures with us, in silence.
34. Miguel de Cervantes – Don Quixote. Tilting at windmills. There is more to it than that. The first great Western novel, it tells the story of Alonso Quixano, who has lost so much sleep due to excess reading that his brain has dried up. He sets out in search of noble adventure, and undertakes several quests in order to help people who do not wish to be helped, to defeat enemies who are not enemies, and to win the love the love of the Lady Dulcinea, a grubby neighbouring farm girl, whom he has hardly seen, never spoken to, and who barely knows he exists. Is there any point to all this? That. dear reader, is for you to decide.
35. William L Shirer – The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Long but never tiring, it explains the collapse of Germany with astonishing precision and unflagging interest. Shirer was present for some of the events he describes, and met many of the key people, but his personal perspective never overwhelms the story. This book is perhaps the best way to develop an understanding of events leading to and during the Second World War. It is also a perfect example of how history should be written.
36. Bill Bryson – A Short History of Nearly Everything. Bill Bryson is usually right, usually funny, and always worth reading. This is another “instant education” book, this time about science and technology. You’ll learn a little about gravity, the periodic table, optics, life, time, etc, etc. Not just what we know, but how we came to know it, and that is what make this book different, and better. Because it is how we came to know, and how we know we know, that is interesting. Again, read it and remember one key thing from each topic to be instantly more confident and better informed.
Now start again at the beginning, or make your own list and share it! Austen (weeps silently – I love Emma), Wolfe, Thackeray, Hemmingway, Hugo, Stevenson, Dante, are all missing from this list. What should we read for the next three years?