More Cultural Literacy: A Reading List for Beginners

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare

In my last
article
, I provided the first half of a 100-title reading list
for cultural literacy that grew out of conversations with some literary
colleagues.1 This second half picks up chronologically
where the first one left off, in the 19th century.

As we get closer
to the present, it becomes more difficult to pin down what is necessary
for cultural literacy. Today many literature professors reject the
notion of canon altogether and only assign modern works that lend
themselves to race/class/gender deconstruction
or whatever fad currently holds sway in the field of literary criticism.
(Schools that offer Great
Books programs
seem to be less susceptible to this problem.)
Contemporary works that may be practically valueless by any historic
standard are often praised and showered with awards if they serve
to advance the Left's social and political agenda.

The upshot
of all this is that, with 20th-century literature, it becomes much
more difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff and to discern
which works will stand the test of time. Some critics today are
trying to boot writers such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald
out of the anthologies. Superlative authors like G. K. Chesterton
and J.R.R. Tolkien are routinely excluded from anthologies and curricula
by critics in spite of their evident merit and popular acclaim.
With this list I have done my best to provide both titles that are
indisputably necessary for cultural literacy as well as some modern
gems in the classical and Christian traditions that have been unjustly
ignored by the literary establishment.

If you read
all — or even half — of the 100 books on this list, the world will
make more sense to you. You will see all sorts of connections between
ideas, people, and events that you had never noticed before. Many
previously unfamiliar words and phrases you run across in your reading
will take on new meaning. And in all likelihood, you will be a more
thoughtful person with a healthy appreciation of your own ignorance
— true wisdom, according to Socrates.

I received
a flood of email from the first article; let me briefly address
a couple of points readers have raised:

  1. All links
    in these articles are to paper editions of the works. If you are
    looking for an electronic copy, never fear. The majority of these
    books are available in Kindle editions (many of them for free),
    and the complete text of many of them is online at author fan
    sites and the like. A little Googling will turn up something.
  2. A word on
    "spoilers": if you are upset that I mention important
    plot points in the brief descriptions below, please consider that
    enjoyment of great literature does not hinge on your remaining
    in suspense while the author unfolds the plot. The Iliad
    is not great because when reading it you are not sure whether
    Hector dies at the end (he does); it's great because it powerfully
    speaks to themes of universal concern to human beings. When reading,
    devote more energy to reflecting on the author's message than
    on wondering, "What happens next?" You can profitably
    read a work of great literature many times over, gaining new insights
    each time.

Mid-19th
Century Literature (ca. 1850–1875):

51. Charles
Dickens, David
Copperfield
: perhaps Dickens's greatest novel. It has all
the Dickens staples: orphaned child, grim factory setting, devious
businessmen, etc. Please don't let this novel form your complete
vision of the Industrial
Revolution
. Dickens was a great storyteller; try some of his
other
novels
as well.

52. Nathaniel
Hawthorne, The
Scarlet Letter
: Hester Prynne, an unwed mother forced to
wear a badge identifying her as an adulteress in 17th-century Boston,
struggles for redemption. Hawthorne's corpus
of writings
stands as a powerful rebuke to all utopians who think they can perfect
humanity.

53. Herman
Melville, Moby
Dick
: the great American novel, according to many. Captain
Ahab chases the white whale that maimed him across the world. Don't
let the chapter on the technical details of whaling scare you away.
"Call me Ishmael" is one of literature's most famous opening
lines. Melville wrote other
good sea yarns
, too.

54.
Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle
Tom's Cabin
: the most famous novel about Southern slavery
ever written. Stowe, a Yankee, had no firsthand knowledge of slavery
whatsoever. In 1862, Abraham Lincoln allegedly said to Stowe upon
their meeting, "So you're the little woman who wrote the book
that started this Great War!" Of course, Lincoln
started
the war
, but Stowe's work helped sell it.

55. Gustave
Flaubert, Madame
Bovary
: the original "desperate housewife" gets
bored with middle-class life in Normandy and eventually destroys
herself through adultery and debt. If you like this one, read George
Eliot's Middlemarch,
which also disparages provincial life and has been called (ridiculously)
"the first novel written for grown-ups."

56. Jules Verne,
Journey
to the Center of the Earth
: perhaps the first great work
of science fiction. Verne's imagination inspired endless imitators,
beginning with H.G.
Wells
. Also try Verne's Around
the World in Eighty Days
.

57. Fyodor
Dostoevsky, Crime
and Punishment
: intellectual with delusions of grandeur
thinks the ordinary rules of morality do not apply to him and murders
an unpopular pawnbroker with the intention of using her wealth for
the greater good. Imitated daily in fifty state capitals and Washington,
D.C., except that our politicians usually don't feel remorse like
Dostoevsky's protagonist does. Also read Dostoevsky's The
Brothers Karamazov
, which contains one of literature's greatest
scenes: the Grand Inquisitor's interrogation of Jesus Christ. Quite
unsettling.

58.
Louisa May Alcott, Little
Women
: delightful portrait of girls growing up in New England.
If you like it, try the sequels Little
Men and Jo's Boys
.

59. Leo Tolstoy,
Anna
Karenina
: considered, along with Tolstoy's other masterwork,
War
and Peace
, to be the pinnacle of Realist fiction. Socialite
Anna loses her position in society when her Romantic notions lead
her into an openly adulterous affair. For what it's worth, Oprah
recommended this one
.

60. Mark Twain,
The
Adventures of Tom Sawyer
: once universally acknowledged
as a work of quintessentially American/frontier genius; now fallen
out of favor with bien-pensant
educators, who have tried to ban it from school libraries and the
like. Twain captures the frontier spirit perhaps better than any
other writer and is still an essential author, even as the frontier
experience recedes into our past. See also his other Mississippi
writings
and "The
War Prayer."

Fin
de siècle
Literature (ca. 1875–1914):

61. G. K. Chesterton,
The
Man Who Was Thursday
: black comedy from one of the most
towering literary figures (literally and figuratively) in early-20th-century
Britain. An undercover policeman infiltrates a violent anarchist
society only to discover that the leaders of all the other cells
are also undercover policemen. Chesterton was a champion of Christian
orthodoxy,
a fact which ensures that today's critics will studiously ignore
him. Also read his Father
Brown
detective stories, long popular in Britain.

62.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock
Holmes
stories: the most famous literary detective in history.
If Holmes and Father Brown leave you wanting more, try some of Agatha
Christie's Poirot
stories.

63. Oscar Wilde,
The
Picture of Dorian Gray
: Wilde's only novel. The protagonist's
debaucheries cause his portrait to age while he remains physically
young and vigorous. Echoes of Faust. Fans of Wilde's Decadent style
will also like Marcel Proust's sprawling series of novels In
Search of Lost Time
.

64. Henry Adams,
The
Education of Henry Adams
: considered by many to be the greatest
American autobiography. A great-grandson and grandson of presidents
describes his travels and interactions with people in high places.
Irritating at times, but told with style.

65. Joseph
Conrad, Heart
of Darkness
: the man who rejects civilization is more frightening
than the savage who has never had it. Conrad's body of work inspired
filmmakers Alfred
Hitchcock
and Francis
Ford Coppola
, among others. For another take on the embrace
of the primitive, see Jack London's Call
of the Wild
.

66. Thomas
Hardy, Jude
the Obscure
: description of a meaningless universe. Characters
are destroyed through random accidents. Marriage is a trap. Religion
is an escape from reality, etc. Publicly burned by the bishop of
Wakefield upon its publication. Hardy's Tess
of the D'Urbervilles
is also widely read.

67.
Henry James, Portrait
of a Lady
: the most popular novel by one of the most sophisticated
American writers. James's prose is a joy to read. You won't go wrong
with any
of his novels or stories
.

68. Robert
Louis Stevenson, Treasure
Island
: the great pirate adventure novel. Inspiration to
generations of boys. Other outstanding selections from this period
for young readers include Rudyard Kipling's Jungle
Book
, Lewis Carroll's Alice
in Wonderland
, and J.M. Barrie's Peter
Pan
, all of which got Disney-fied.

69. Bram Stoker,
Dracula:
the vampire novel. Forget Twilight,
Interview
with the Vampire
, and other pale imitations, most of which
treat the subject with a hopeless moral ambiguity. Dracula is pure
evil and must be destroyed through appeal to the traditions of Western
Civilization. For more creepy fiction of the period, see R.L. Stevenson's
Dr.
Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
.

70. Stephen
Crane, The
Red Badge of Courage
: the most famous novel about the War
Between the States. The protagonist flees from his regiment during
a battle, but later returns out of a sense of shame to try to recover
his courage.

Interwar
Literature (1914–1945):

71. James Joyce,
Ulysses:
difficult novel, but perhaps the greatest from a Modernist. A day
in the life of some Dubliners, modeled on the Odyssey. People
write books
about how to read this book
. You might want to work your way
up to this one; Joyce's A
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
and Dubliners
are not so difficult.

72.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The
Great Gatsby
: the Jazz Age, extramarital affairs, bootlegging,
old rich vs. new rich, etc. This novel is the source of much of
our popular conception of the 1920s, largely because it is force-fed
to many thousands of high school students each year.

73. Franz Kafka,
The
Trial
: Exploration of modern alienation. Josef K., a nobody,
is arrested, tried, and executed for an unspecified crime. No reasons
are ever revealed, and he never understands what is happening to
him. Is this the future of the War on Terror? Also read Kafka's
story "Metamorphosis,"
in which a guy wakes up one morning as a cockroach.

74. Ernest
Hemingway, The
Sun Also Rises
: Hemingway's first major novel. Follows the
lives of American expats in Europe following World War I — the "Lost
Generation." Lots of aimlessness and licentiousness, which
no doubt explain its popularity with contemporary young readers.
Hemingway's sensuality was a response to the horrors of WWI. His
A
Farewell to Arms
, For
Whom the Bell Tolls
, and The
Old Man and the Sea
are also influential.

75. H. P. Lovecraft,
Tales:
Edgar Allan Poe's 20th-century successor as the master of "weird
fiction." His Cthulhu
mythology
has spawned a cult following. Caution: Lovecraft's
work is pessimistic, and redemption plays almost no role in his
stories.

76. Erich Maria
Remarque, All
Quiet on the Western Front
: the greatest antiwar novel ever
written. A class of German teenagers is harangued by their rabidly
nationalistic teacher into joining the army at the beginning of
World War I. They all die.

77.
Virginia Woolf, A
Room of One's Own
: feminism in a nutshell. Actually a series
of lectures, but with some fictional elements. Mrs.
Dalloway
, a true novel, is also widely read. Like Joyce,
Woolf utilized stream-of-consciousness technique, but hers isn't
quite so difficult.

78. T. S. Eliot,
Murder
in the Cathedral
: dramatization of the martyrdom of Thomas
Becket
by one of the 20th century's most influential cultural
critics. If you were educated in a Catholic or Anglican school,
you probably know this one. A combination of modern drama and conventions
from ancient Greece and the Middle Ages.

79. Aldous
Huxley, Brave
New World
: dystopic novel perhaps even more prescient than
Orwell's 1984. No individuality is allowed in the World State,
and the population is kept permanently on therapeutic drugs. Recreational
sex is encouraged, but natural procreation has been done away with,
and children are born in Hatcheries. The word "family"
is an obscenity. Eek!

80. Evelyn
Waugh, Brideshead
Revisited
: regarded by many as the greatest Catholic novel.
Narrator Charles Ryder repeatedly encounters the aristocratic Marchmains
throughout his life, observing the interaction between the family
and its faith.

Southern
Literature:
2

81. William
Gilmore Simms, The
Golden Christmas
: an underappreciated gem and portrait of
Charleston from the antebellum South's greatest writer of fiction.
Especially valuable in disproving Yankee claims that the idea of
refined culture in the South was an invention of the "moonlight
and magnolias" school of historiography in the late 19th century.

82.
William Faulkner, Absalom,
Absalom!
: antebellum drama by the South's greatest writer.
Thomas Sutpen's efforts to construct a Mississippi dynasty end in
tragedy. All
of Faulkner's novels
are worthwhile, especially The
Unvanquished
.

83. Margaret
Mitchell, Gone
with the Wind
: the most famous fictional depiction of the
South before, during, and after the War. Forever hated by the Left
for its portrayal of harmonious plantation life and amoral carpetbaggers,
this novel actually does not idealize the South. In fact, Scarlett's
Romantic ideas are a chief cause of her problems.

84. Zora Neale
Hurston, Their
Eyes Were Watching God
: follows the fortunes of Janie Crawford
in Eatonville, FL, an all-black community (Hurston's birthplace).
At one time the most prominent black woman writer in America, Hurston
didn't hate white people enough — she
endorsed Robert Taft, for crying out loud!
— to satisfy the
critics, who tried to send her work down the memory hole. She has
enjoyed a resurgence of interest since the 1970s.

85. Robert
Penn Warren, All
the King's Men
: idealistic Louisianan sells his soul in
politics. A thinly veiled portrait of 1930s populist politician
Huey Long.
Imitated daily in fifty state capitals and Washington, D.C. Warren
was one of the Vanderbilt
Fugitives
and a contributor to I'll
Take My Stand
.

86. Walker
Percy, The
Moviegoer
: young Korean War veteran searches for meaning,
finding it more often in movies and books than in his own life.
Percy's first and best-known novel. Also read his Lost
in the Cosmos
, a mock self-help book that will actually
make you reflect on life.

87. Flannery
O'Connor, The
Complete Stories
: thirty-two gems by a master of Christian
realism. O'Connor explored the plight of the South in the 20th
century, particularly its moral and cultural decline.

88.
The
Collected Stories of Eudora Welty
: forty-one stories by
one of the South's most popular 20th-century writers.

89. Wendell
Berry, The
Memory of Old Jack
: early offering by the man most consider
to be the greatest living agrarian
writer. A good introduction to Port William, Kentucky, the setting
of most of Berry's fiction.

90. Andrew
Lytle, Alchemy
and Other Stories
: collection of short fiction by another
I'll
Take My Stand
contributor. Lytle was one of Southern literature's
greatest spokesmen throughout the 20th century; as editor,
he turned the Sewanee
Review
into one of the nation's greatest literary magazines,
and he was an early champion of Flannery O'Connor's writing.

Postwar
Literature (1945–present):

91. Isaac Asimov,
Foundation
series
: the most critically acclaimed science fiction of
the 20th century. However, most libertarians will probably prefer
Robert
Heinlein
to the collectivist Asimov.

92. George
Orwell, 1984:
totalitarian state fighting endless wars and denying the existence
of objective truth wants you to love it. Sound familiar? Also read
Animal
Farm
.

93. J. D. Salinger,
Catcher
in the Rye
: disillusioned youth Holden Caulfield gets expelled
from school and spends a few meaningless days in the city calling
everyone "phoney." An icon of pubescent rebellion. Has
become through some cosmic joke a staple of high-school curricula.

94.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The
Lord of the Rings
: voted the greatest book of the 20th century
in numerous polls. Tolkien was a self-proclaimed anarchist who understood
the corrupting nature of power; thus the Ring must be destroyed
rather than wielded by the good guys. Postmodern critics hate LotR
because it is essentially a medieval work, and therefore "racist,"
"sexist," etc. All the more reason to read and enjoy it.
Also read The
Hobbit
, The
Silmarillion
, and The
Children of Hurin
. And check out all
the writing
Tolkien has inspired on this website.

95. C.S. Lewis,
The
Chronicles of Narnia
: boys and girls from our world have
adventures in the magical world of Narnia. Start with The
Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
. The series is chock full
of Christian symbolism, despite the ludicrous efforts of some current
marketers to downplay it in the hopes of reaching a wider audience.
All
of Lewis's writings
are highly recommended.

96. Alexander
Solzhenitsyn, One
Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
: life in the Soviet gulag.
Ivan Denisovich struggles to retain human dignity in horrendous
circumstances. Western elites had a love/hate relationship with
Solzhenitsyn because he was a devout Christian and didn't
buy into American democratic ideology
. This makes him more credible.

97. Ayn Rand,
Atlas
Shrugged
: government strangles economy; producers withdraw
their consent. Rand's strident atheism is problematic, but her negative
critique of socialism is brilliant. Essential reading for freedom
lovers, and regularly cited as one of the most influential books
of the 20th century. Also read The
Fountainhead
.

98. Boris Pasternak,
Doctor
Zhivago
: riveting portrait of the horrors of Bolshevik Russia.
Some refuse to give up on individuality. Of course, the Soviet Union
banned the book and then prevented Pasternak from receiving the
Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958.

99.
Patrick O'Brian, Aubrey/Maturin
series
: without question the greatest historical fiction ever
written. Start with Master
and Commander
and follow Captain Jack Aubrey and surgeon
Stephen Maturin on their adventures in the Royal Navy during the
Napoleonic era. O'Brian lived the 18th century — his wife even used
period cookbooks when preparing family meals — and his prose seamlessly
takes you back 200 years. For more outstanding period adventure,
see Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe
series
and C.S. Forester's Horatio
Hornblower books
.

100. Russell
Kirk, Ancestral
Shadows
: recent edition of ghostly tales from one of traditional
conservatism's greatest voices. If you question whether the horror
genre can be redemptive, you must read these stories. Kirk's prose
is rich in classical and Christian allusions.

Jason Jewell
[send him mail]
is an Adjunct Scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and the
chairman of the Department of Humanities at Faulkner University
in Montgomery, Alabama.

Notes

  1. Thanks to
    Jeremy Paden (Transylvania College), Jennifer Barnes Moffett (Mississippi
    Gulf Coast Community College), Sara Hardin Keeth (UT-Dallas),
    Laura Rice Shero (Uganda), and Christy Adcox Stewart (Memphis,
    TN) for their feedback during this process.
  2. Special
    thanks to the incomparable Clyde
    Wilson
    for help with this section. If you are at all interested
    in the history, culture, or literature of the American South,
    please consult his LRC
    bibliography
    .

April
10, 2009

Jason Jewell [send him mail]
is an Adjunct Scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and the
chairman of the Department of Humanities at Faulkner University
in Montgomery, Alabama.

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare
  • LRC Blog

  • LRC Podcasts