Holy Bible, Authorized King James Version
[At a minimum, the books of Genesis,
Exodus, Job, Psalms, from the Old Testament; Matthew, Mark,
Luke, John, and Apocalypse from the New.] Whether or
not you are Christian is irrelevant. The civilization in which we live
is based on and permeated by the ideas and values expressed in this book.
Understanding our civilization, the world in which we live, is probably
impossible without having read -- and thought about -- at least the most
famous books in the Bible. Historically, the King James Version
is considered the most artistic, and thus has probably had the most literary
Perhaps the first book of human
character and war.
The archetype of the human quest,
(i.e., our dissatisfaction with being who and what we are?)
Oedipus the King (Oedipus Rex)
The Republic, especially "The Myth of the Cave"
is a study of society and government; the "Myth," also known as "The Allegory
of the Cave" presents a fundamental theory of humans' ability to understand
and to communicate.
is a collection of short, readable stories about the ancient gods. But
since the ancient gods were personifications of humans' hopes and fears,
the stories are also excellent explorations of what it means to be human.
Augustine, The Confessions
Augustine, one of the foremost
Saints of the Middle Ages, explores his struggles with good and evil, faith
and doubt. Which of us has not dealt with these problems?
The Divine Comedy
Among other things, Dante is
an early comprehensive organizer. All possible sins, all possible virtues
are represented here, as Dante places their practicioners in the appropriate
(according to him) spot in Hell, Purgatory, or Paradise. Lots of interesting
little stories of sinners and saints.
An early collection of short
stories, Boccaccio explores human character as it confronts life. Ribald
and moral at the same time. [See Chaucer.]
Machiavelli, The Prince
Machiavelli was one of the first
consultants to those with political power, and his book is an attempt to
help them keep and expand that power. If you want to improve your ability
to fight back, read this book.
Vico, Principles of a New Science
Science, as we know it, is a
relatively new phenomenon for humans. Vico's book was instrumental in developing
de Cervantes, Don Quixote
"Quixotic" is part of our vocabulary,
thanks to Cervantes. Don Quixote is the archetype of the active idealist.
Watch him tilt at windmills, always attempting to do good, but almost always
losing. How does one do good in the extremely complex world in which we
The Canterbury Tales
In many ways, Chaucer is the
English Boccaccio. Pilgrims on their way to Canterbury
tell tales to past the time, and the tales reveal their morality, ribaldry,
etc. The most famous of these tales are those of the Wife of Bath and of
Few believers in the Canon fail
to put Shakespeare either at the top or the center of the Canon (depending
on their preference in visual metaphors). Certainly more people, in more
languages, have read and appreciated Shakespeare than any other author.
High school teachers often have students read Romeo
and Juliet, apparently on two assumptions: 1) high school students
will be attracted by the love story, and 2) high school students are incapable
of understanding the more significant plays. Almost all of Shakespeare
is well-worth reading, but there is not enough time. (Marvell's "Had we
but world enough and time...."). Among the best plays are:
-- This may be the greatest play ever written. It's subject matter shifts
slightly every time I read it, but basically it is about the person (man
or woman) of thought -- thought which paralyzes action. Hamlet is the opposite
of Don Quixote, and it is fascinating that they
were written in the same historical era.
Lear -- Who hasn't had trouble understanding parents,
children, or both? Lear, a tragic study in the relationship of the
King and his three daughters, explores not only the relationship of parental
love, but also greed, selfishness, and death.
-- Far too complex to be summarized in a few sentences, Othello
is a play about jealousy -- of a man about his wife. But it is also about
the "outsider" -- Othello is a black general in a white Italian society.
These two themes, as embodied by Shakespeare, would merit the inclusion
of this play in the Canon, but the play also includes Iago, a character
who may be the "best" embodiment of villany and deception in all of literature.
[Harold Bloom considers Iago to be a better embodiment of evil than is
Satan in Milton's Paradise Lost (The Western Canon, 180-182).]
-- For some reason, I have never been enchanted by Macbeth, but
it is often considered one of Shakespeare's best. It is a study in the
desire for power, by husband and wife, and between husband and wife.
Shakespeare's Sonnets. Perhaps
the best way to approach Shakespeare's sonnets is to look in an anthology
of poetry and read what you find there. Obviously, different people have
different favorites, but you should probably read (and think about): "Shall
I Compare Thee," "When in Disgrace with Fortune," "That Time of Year,"
"Not Marble, nor the Gilded Monuments," "The Marriage of True Minds," "My
Mistress' Eyes," and "Poor Soul, the Centre."
Sonnet XIV" ("Batter my heart") - a tortured plea for help
Marvell, "To His Coy Mistress"
Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" - probably the greatest
poem that any man has ever written to his wife. [Working on your own, you
will need to do some background reading to understand what is going on
in this poem.]
Perhaps not to his wife, and
certainly more ribald than Donne's "Valediction," "Coy Mistress" is one
of the most famous -- and funny -- love poems in the Canon.
Milton, Paradise Lost
Milton has always given me trouble
-- in the sense that I don't "get" him, but many readers have. Like Dante,
but without Dante's breadth, Milton deals with hell and heaven. Whereas
Dante envisions the center of hell as cold and icy, Milton gives us fire
and brimstone. Robert Frost, one of the greatest American poets, plays
on this difference in his 1923 poem, "Fire and Ice":
Frost's equation of "desire" with
"fire" and of "hate" with "ice" reverses, at least to me, the ideas of
Dante and Milton. Sexuality ("desire"?) underlies Dante's Divine Comedy
in a variety of ways, not the least of which is the overriding image of
Beatrice, Dante's ideal woman and guide. And Dante's world is generally
organized on the continuum from heat and light (God and Love) to their
absence -- the ice and darkness that surround Satan in Hell. Milton's world,
on the other hand, is more about power, pride and hate.
Some say the world will end in
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
Travels -- an extended satire on the pride of man.
Defoe, Robinson Crusoe
Modest Proposal" -- hilarious -- and socially serious, but,
before you read it, be sure that you understand the meaning of "irony."
On one level, this is a "Young
Adult" book of adventure. But it is also a study in the nature of human
Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
I have been told (I'm not a big
fan) that the popularity of Seinfeld (yes, the TV series) resulted from
its focus on the everyday problems of all of us. Sterne's Shandy
is a big book, and it has to be read slowly to be appreciated, but it penetrates
deeply into the everyday problems of all of us. From the sexual habits
of Tristram's parents (once a month, wind the clock, have sex) to their
problems in finding a name for their son, to Uncle Toby's obsession with
war fortifications, Sterne explores, in a very gentle and caring way, how
we deal with the people and world immediately around us. The book is also
an artistic triumph, as Tristram attempts to tell his own story and falls
further and further behind.
de Montaigne, Essays, especially "Of Experience"
Montaigne is, as far as I know,
the originator of the introspective essay. The essays include "Of Idleness,"
"Of the Education of Children," "Of Friendship," "Of the Inconsistency
of our Actions," and "Of Vanity." One of my personal favorites is "Of Cannibals."
Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel
Not for the prudish, Rabelais
exhults in the fecundity of life. Can anyone read this hilarious, and at
times scatological book without gaining a new perspective on what it means
to be human?
The title means "The Hater of
Mankind." Most humans, at one time or another, share the sentiment; some
people get stuck in it. All of us can use this play -- to see others, and
to see ourselves?
Although Harold Bloom claims
that Pascal stole most of his ideas from Montaigne (Western Canon,
149-151), Pascal's aphorisms, being shorter, are often more poignant and
fertile. It is difficult to stop and consider a brilliant idea in Montaigne
because the essay goes on; a self-contained sentence or two from Pascal
leaves one time to meditate.
Rousseau is also famous for The
Confessions and La Nouvelle Heloise,
but Emile provides a good introduction
of his basic theories, especially on education and on the importance of
nature (woods, trees, etc.)
Candide is born into "the best
of all possible worlds," a world in which we cheat, main, and kill each
other over questions of philosophy and religion. Separated from his lovely
Cunegonde, Candide adventures even into the new world (South America) in
search of her. There he finds El Dorado, the ideal city of health, wealth,
and happiness, but even it cannot make him happy without Cunegonde. Returning
to Europe, he finally finds her, withered and mutilated. Unable to realize
his ideal, Candide and Cunegonde settle down to "tend their own garden."
Working on your own, it would be a good idea to use, for example, the Norton
Critical edition, which provides essays on the historical and philosophical
background of this "philosophical tale." But even without the background,
the story should present an interesting exploration of the questions "Where
and how do humans find happiness?"
In Praise of Folly
Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust, Parts One & Two
This play is the most famous
story of a man who sells his soul to the devil in return for happiness
here on earth.
de Balzac, Old Goriot (also translated as Pere Goriot)
The Red and the Black
Flaubert, Madame Bovary
A country girl marries the wrong
man, moves to the city, sees what the world has to offer, and suffers as
the world shrinks around her.
French Naturalism was a literary
movement whose members believed that man is basically powerless against
the forces of nature, society, and economics. Germinal
is a classic study in how people, especially the working classes, are crushed.
Ibsen, A Doll's House
Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Byron, Don Juan
Keats, "Ode on a Grecian Urn"
Browning, "My Last Duchess"
Dickens is now often considered
a "light-weight," but he was not only the major novelist of his time, but
also an important critic of the Industrial Revolution. His characters are
well-developed and his plots interesting, thereby making reading enjoyable.
I would suggest starting with Oliver Twist,
A Tale of Two Cities, and Hard
Arnold, "Dover Beach"
This is a relatively short poem
about a religious man who has lost his faith. [Reading about Arnold's time
and background will add tremendously to the meaning of this poem.]
Stuart Mill, On Liberty
Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
This book was on my list for
decades before I finally read it, but it is well worth reading. Carroll
presents a highly imaginative, difference perspective, on what it means
to grow up.
Bronte, Jane Eyre
Bronte, Wuthering Heights
Thompson, "The Hound of Heaven"
This is a very famous, widely
loved, religious poem.
Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
Louis Stevenson, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Among other things, this novel
is a study in split personality.
The Birth of Tragedy
Beyond Good and Evil
On the Genealogy of Morals
The Will to Power
Onegin -- Pushkin is the center of the Russian literary canon,
for his poetry, his prose, and his plays. Onegin is a prototype of what
became known as the "superfluous man," a well-educated person who could
find no serious function in society.
Horseman" -- In this narrative poem, a lowly civil clerk confronts
the statue of Peter the Great (the Bronze Horseman), and loses his sanity.
The work raises numerous questions, not the least of which is the effect
of the acts of the powerful (Peter) on the weak (the clerk).
-- A poor civil servant saves for ever to buy a warm winter overcoat. Soon
after he gets it, it is stolen, and he loses his sanity. Dostoevsky, one
of the most famous Russian novelists, claimed that all Russian literature
came out of Gogol's "Overcoat."
Lermontov, A Hero of Our Time
Souls -- Most critics doubt that Gogol understood the moral
and social implications of this novel. At the time it was written, Russian
peasants legally belonged to landowners. As such, they could be bought
and sold. The novel's hero, Chichikov, comes up with the brilliant idea
of buying dead peasants (dead souls) from landowners. Legally, he could
then mortgage these peasants and set himself up as a landowner. The novel
presents his adventures. Gogol is famous for his fecund -- and weird --
physical descriptions of people and things.
This novel, a collection of five
stories, pursues the Pushkinian theme of the "superflous man," but develops
it in more psychological and moral depth in stories such as "The Fatalist."
Turgenev, Fathers and Sons
The conflict of generations is
a universal theme, and Turgenev here explores it in a compassionate way
that includes not just personal, but also social and religious values.
Doestoevsky and Tolstoy (See
below.) are probably the greatest universal novelists, universal in the
sense that they can be understood by and appeal to people of all nations
and cultures. Both writers, in other words, essentially deal, not with
what it means to be Russian, but what it means to be human. What is important
in life, and how should we live the short life that we have been given?
from the Underground -- This short novel appeals to many high
school seniors and college Freshmen because it explores the psychology
and morality of a man who cannot seem to agree with, or fit into, the society
in which he lives.
and Punishment -- The hero's name, "Raskolnikov," means "split
off," and Raskolnikov splits himself off from society and commits murder
to see if he is a Nietzchean "superman." Most of the novel explores the
effects of the crime on the hero. Critics disagree about the appropriateness
of Raskolnikov's conversion to Christianity at the end of the novel. Critics
also disagree about the appropriateness of a prostitute (Sonya) as a heroine.
Although he differs significantly from Shakespeare's Iago (in Othello),
Dostoevsky's Svidrigailov in this novel is another fascinating study in
Death of Ivan Ilych -- Ivan Ilych has an accident while hanging
curtains in his new home. The accident leads to illness and eventual death,
and the novella explores Ilych's life and death as his values shift from
the materialistic to the spiritual.
Chekhov, The Cherry Orchard
Peace -- Although the characters are from upper class Russian
society, this long novel explores wide ranges of human experience -- from
what it is like for a woman to go to her first formal dance, to what it
is like to be wounded in war. As in most Russian literature, the authors
are male, but the strongest characters are female. Although War and
Peace is Tolstoy's most famous novel, many critics agree that Anna
Karenina, which deals with similar themes, is a better novel.
Russian literature bloomed in
the Nineteenth Century. Pushkin and Gogol, at the beginning, saw social
and moral problems, but met them with a fundamentally optimistic tone.
A note of pessimism sets in with Lermontov, and then Dostoevsky and Tolstoy,
two Titans, battle with the society and values around them. Near the end
of the century, a tone of quiet resignation sets in. Chekhov, in plays
such as The Cherry Orchard, is probably the master of this
Fenimore Cooper, The Deerslayer
Waldo Emerson, Essays
It has taken me a long time to
come to even modest terms with Emily Dickinson. Her use of pronouns throws
me, and it takes a lot of mental work to see what is going on in one of
her poems. Many readers, however, love her. Prerequisites are patience
and an understanding of how imagery works in poetry. The best way to approach
her is through her selections in general anthologies of poetry. Don't,
however, miss "Because I Could Not Stop for Death"
here to go to the Columbia University Bartleby Collection on Whitman.]
Bloom says of her, "Except for Shakespeare, Dickinson manifests more cognitive
originality than any other Western poet since Dante." (291) He likes "There's
a certain Slant of Light," and "The Tint I
cannot take ...."
Not an expert on American poetry,
I defer to Harold Bloom, who considers Whitman the "Center of the American
Canon" and claims that the following six poems are "what matter most in
Bloom considers the last of these
to be "the American elegy that sustains comparison with 'Lycidas' and 'Adonais,'
the great lament for the martyred Abraham Lincoln: 'When Lilacs Last in
the Dooryard Bloom'd'." (265) Personally, I find "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry"
to be the best of these poems. "Song of Myself" is a complex presentation,
the best I have ever read, of the American psyche.
Goodman Brown" -- What is good? What is evil? Does evil exist outside
of us, or is it within us? To what extent is evil simply the product of
the human mind? What is Faith? Can Faith save us? These are just some of
the questions explored in this classic of U.S. literature.
Letter -- I am not a specialist in U.S. literature, but I believe
that this is the most famous U.S. presentation of the theme of the outsider.
But whereas European outsiders usually choose to cut themselves off from
society, here we have a case of society shunning the individual. Whether
or not this is a difference in national character would be an interesting
question to explore. Like all explorations of the outsider, Hawthorne's
explores moral, social, and psychological questions.
Melville is the closest U.S.
novelist (that I have found) to Doestoevsky and Tolstoy. Like them, he
grapples with major moral, psychological, and social problems. He never,
in my opinion, reaches their univeral status, for two reasons. First, his
characters are too firmly set in the Puritanism of early New England. This
makes it difficult even for current Americans to follow all of the ramifications
of his themes. [The Christianity of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, on the other
hand, is so generalized that even non-Christians have little trouble following
the twists and turns of the moral and social problems they explore.] Second,
Melville is highly allegorical -- although they are personified in characters
and in the whale, his "good" and "evil" remain abstractions. As such,
they lose many readers. Melville is, however, close to the center of the
U.S. literary canon, and Moby-Dick is essential reading for anyone
who wants to understand U.S. literature.
David Thoreau, Walden
"The Story of an Hour"
Crane, The Red Badge of Courage
Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Remember that I am not a specialist
in U.S. literature. I suggest, however, that if Huck Finn is not
at the center of the U.S. literary canon, it certainly should be. It is
THE novel of the U.S. experience. Young Huck escapes civilization
(The Widow Douglas = Europe) and travels down the Mississippi to adulthood.
Those who would ban the book because of its language miss the fact that
Jim becomes, not only Huck's closest friend, but also his mentor! If any
group should want this book banned, it should be the white supremacists.
Garcia Lorca, Blood Wedding
Sartre, No Exit
Sartre was an Existentialist,
and Existentialists believe that there is no God -- there is simply existence.
In this play, however, Sartre presents his version of Hell -- three people
stuck in a room together -- forever.
Camus, The Stranger
Like Sartre, a French Existentialist,
Camus' short novels focus on the feelings and actions of people in a world
without God. The Stranger is his most famous book, but equally interesting
are The Plague, The
Fall, and The Rebel.
Ionesco, The Bald Soprano
Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion
Hardy, The Return of the Native
Beckett, Waiting for Godot
Huxley, Brave New World
Brecht, Mother Courage
Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita
Pasternak, Dr. Zhivago
Stevens, "Sunday Morning"
Dreiser, Sister Carrie
O'Neill, Long Day's Journey into Night
Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
"A Rose for Emily"
The Sound and the Fury
The Old Man and the Sea
Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
A Farewell to Arms
Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
The Glass Menagerie
Miller, Death of a Salesman
A Streetcar Named Desire
Morrison, Song of Solomon
Roth, Portnoy's Complaint
"A & P"
The Witches of Eastwick