Cultural Literacy: A Reading List for Beginners
by Jason Jewell
often rightly complain about the economic illiteracy of traditional
conservatives and most mainstream political commentators. I am no
exception. In my own classes I have to spend an inordinate amount
of time refuting fallacies that are rampant in textbooks. Even conservative
Honors students who have received solid classical educations can
fall prey to these falsehoods without a nudge in the right direction.
I frequently direct students and colleagues who have a good amount
of common sense to the Ludwig von Mises Institute and LewRockwell.com
to help them start the journey out of the Keynesian (or sometimes
Distributist) fog. Usually it only takes one reading of Hazlitt
or Bastiat to get them on their way.
I need to point out a deficiency in our camp. I have noticed over
the years that many Austro-libertarians have a thorough knowledge
of the works of Mises, Hayek, and Rothbard, but lack what would
be considered a broad cultural
literacy. In a number of conversations I have made a reference
to an event or character described in the canon of Western literature,
only to receive an embarrassed confession from the other person
that he is unfamiliar with the work in question. The good news is
that the other person recognized that he should have been
familiar with the work I was referencing; the bad news is that our
educational system has neglected cultural literacy to focus on current
fads such as "diversity" and other such nonsense.
As a humanities
professor, I could only experience this so many times before writing
something about it. Recently I took on a mutual challenge from some
colleagues to produce my own reading list for cultural literacy.
Below are the first fifty works (out of 100) from that list with
I am assuming
that most LRC readers recognize the value of cultural literacy and
will not try to defend the concept here. If you’re not quite up
to snuff in your own literacy, you probably decided somewhere along
the way that the opportunity cost of developing yours further was
too high. If so, I hope that you will reconsider and take a good
look at the following reading list. Your capacity for dealing with
left-liberals, neocons, and other assorted bad guys out there will
increase greatly if you are culturally literate. Quoting Shakespeare
and Homer can be very helpful in driving Austrian points home with
a general audience. Moreover, when people recognize you are culturally
literate, they will be much more likely to take you seriously instead
of dismissing you as a raving ideologue or monomaniac.
Most importantly, you will become a better person through better
acquaintance with what is true, good, and beautiful in the Western
below are in roughly chronological order. I have tried to make this
a balanced list, especially one that is balanced across time.
You cannot be culturally literate if you read only modern literature,
or even if you read only ancient literature. This first part of
the list contains ancient works up through the early 19th century.
I should note
a couple of caveats. First, this is a reading list designed to inculcate
broad cultural literacy, not a bibliography
of freedom-oriented literature. To become culturally literate,
you have to read the good, the bad, and the ugly. I violently disagree
with the moral themes and implications of several of these works,
but I also realize that they are culturally significant, and we
need to become familiar with them. Fortunately, most of the books
on this list are indeed great.
Second, I have
included only literary works that are essentially narratives: epic
poems, plays, novels, and collections of short stories, along with
a few biographies and autobiographies. There are no philosophical
treatises, works of political theory, or collections of lyric poetry.
My reasoning is that most readers find it easier to follow a narrative,
particularly if they are reading in an unfamiliar field. Since this
is a list for beginners, I won’t ask you to read Aristotle’s Ethics
or Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, great though those
works are. (Perhaps a future article could provide recommended lists
of books in these categories.)
I have tried
to link to translations that are either known for their readability
or are especially inexpensive. Numerous editions and translations
of most classic works exist, and you might want to do some more
browsing before deciding which one to read.
recommend reading with a good dictionary close at hand. You probably
will run across a good deal of unfamiliar vocabulary, and it is
not always possible to infer meaning from the immediate context
of the passage. Don’t be ashamed if you need to reach for a dictionary;
I do it regularly, and I have a Ph.D. in this stuff. I have talked
to other professors who do the same.
Literature (ca. 3000 B.C.–ca. A.D. 400):
Holy Bible: the foundational text of Western Civilization.
Anyone pretending to cultural literacy must be thoroughly familiar
with it. I cannot stress this enough. Many translations are available,
but the King James Version (1611) has had the greatest impact in
the English-speaking world. If you are reading it for the first
time, start with Genesis, Exodus, the Psalms, and the Gospels.
Epic of Gilgamesh: possibly the earliest complete work of
world literature, telling of the adventures of Gilgamesh, king of
Uruk. The epic’s
discovery in the 19th century was a bombshell because of its narrative
of a worldwide flood paralleling the Biblical account of Noah. Many
of literature’s great themes (e.g. friendship, fate) are here, right
at the beginning.
3. Homer, The
Iliad: in many ways, the fountainhead of the Western literary
tradition, along with the Odyssey. It recounts events in
the tenth year of the Achaean (Greek) siege of Troy. Gods and goddesses
fight alongside mortals; the protagonist, Achilles, struggles to
regain his humanity after suffering the loss of his best friend
4. Homer, The
Odyssey: the companion to the Iliad. Odysseus, an
Achaean leader, struggles for ten years to reach his home after
the Trojan War ends, only to find upon his arrival that his wife,
Penelope, and son are beset by suitors occupying his house and pressuring
Penelope to marry one of them. A powerful portrayal of a culture’s
emphasis on home and hearth. Also noteworthy is the scene in the
underworld where Achilles says that life as a slave would have been
better than the phantom existence his "glorious" death
in battle has brought him. It has been argued that all subsequent
Western literature is in some way a response to Homer.
Oresteia: cycle of three plays (Agamemnon, The
Libation Bearers, The Eumenides). Young Orestes finds
himself in an impossible moral situation (a staple of Greek tragedy)
when his mother murders his father. Tradition demands that he avenge
his father’s murder, but he cannot do so without committing matricide.
Drama was one of many products of the Greek genius, and Aeschylus
was among the first playwrights.
Oedipus Cycle: another set of three plays (Oedipus the
King, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone). More suffering
with dignity as Oedipus unknowingly kills his father and marries
his mother; when the horrible truth is revealed to him, he blinds
himself and goes into self-imposed exile. Oedipus’s daughter, Antigone,
is an anti-statist heroine who fulfills her obligations to kin and
the gods in defiance of Theban law, suffering execution as a result.
Aristotle (and many since) called Oedipus the King the perfect
tragedy. If you like Aeschylus and Sophocles, also try the plays
the third great Athenian tragedian.
hilarious yet powerful antiwar play. The women of two warring cities
make a pact to withhold sex from their husbands until the war ends.
One of the earliest comedies ever written.
Aeneid: the Roman answer to Homer. Aeneas makes his way
to Italy with a group of refugees from the destruction of Troy;
they eventually become the ancestors of the Roman people after a
conflict with the locals. The love affair between the Trojan prince
Aeneas and Dido, queen of Carthage, is one of the best known in
Western literature. A familiarity with Roman literature is vital
to an understanding of the minds of the American Founding Fathers
because the Latin classics, along with the Bible, were the foundation
of colonial education.
9. Ovid, Metamorphoses:
epic poem containing hundreds of brief stories. An indispensable
source of Greco-Roman mythology. Western writers (particularly Shakespeare)
have been borrowing heavily from it ever since. For more classical
vignettes, such as the story of the Tortoise and the Hare, grab
a copy of Aesop’s
biography for moral instruction, a notion at which most modern historians
scoff. Of course, Plutarch had the right idea. Reading the Lives
will give you a working knowledge of most important personalities
in ancient Greek and Roman society.
Literature (ca. 400–ca. 1500):
11. St. Augustine,
a bridge between the ancient and medieval worlds, and quite possibly
the first autobiography in literature. St. Augustine is the most
important post-apostolic theologian in the history of the Church.
Here he recounts his years of spiritual wandering and ultimate conversion
in an intensely personal way.
the great Anglo-Saxon epic. A mighty warrior does battle with terrible
monsters to win glory and save his people. An intriguing mixture
of pagan and Christian elements. Provided a hefty dose of inspiration
to J.R.R. Tolkien, the 20th century’s greatest Beowulf
Arabian Nights: Scheherazade, Sinbad, Aladdin, Ali Baba,
and many more. Hugely influential in the West after its translation
into French in the 18th century, but its Arabic and Persian
origins date at least to the 9th century.
Song of Roland: the French national epic and the oldest
surviving major work of French literature. King Charlemagne is leaving
Spain after a victorious military campaign against the Saracens.
Roland, one of Charlemagne’s greatest knights, is betrayed by his
stepfather Ganelon, who instigates an overwhelming Saracen attack
on the Frankish rearguard, which Roland leads. Roland’s death scene
is one of the most famous in Western literature. If you like this
one, try the Spanish national epic, El
Nibelungenlied: called the German Iliad by some critics.
The hero Siegfried slays a dragon and performs other great deeds
before being treacherously murdered by an agent of his royal brother-in-law.
This epic is the basis of Richard Wagner’s titanic 19th-century
opera cycle Der
Ring des Nibelungen. Siegfried’s idealized masculine heroism
reportedly was an inspiration to the young Ayn Rand, among others.
Plowman: perhaps the greatest glimpse into the medieval
Catholic mind (at least in English). Half allegorical theology,
half social satire, it depicts the quest for the authentic Christian
life. Fans of the allegorical style of this work might like to sink
their teeth into the more challenging Romance
of the Rose.
Dante Alighieri, The
Divine Comedy: the pinnacle of medieval literature. Dante
allows his love for Beatrice to lead him through hell
and ultimately to heaven,
where he acquires true knowledge of God. With this poem, Dante single-handedly
turned Italian into a literary language. If you read only one work
of medieval literature, make this the one.
Decameron: one of Western literature’s most famous and influential
collections of stories. The prologue contains a vivid depiction
of the effects of the Black Death on medieval Florence. The focus
of most of the stories is love in all its forms. Provided inspiration
to Chaucer, Shakespeare, Keats, and many others.
Gawain and the Green Knight: one of the best-known stories
surrounding the characters of King
Arthur’s court. Gawain’s honor and virtue are tested by an enchanted
knight. A deeply Christian work full of symbolism, widely read in
Tolkien’s translation from the Middle English dialect. The code
of chivalry was one of medieval Christendom’s great achievements;
although imperfect, it restrained to a significant extent the violent
and oppressive impulses of the noble warrior class. For more Arthurian
legend, try Chretien de Troyes’s Lancelot
or Thomas Malory’s Morte
Canterbury Tales: most everyone had some exposure to this
one in high school. Now that you are grown up, go back and take
another look. Don’t forget that this outstanding collection is framed
in the context of a pilgrimage to the tomb of St.
Thomas Becket, martyred for standing up to the State.
Literature (ca. 1500–1700):
Praise of Folly: a condemnation of 16th-century vices and
an unwitting catalyst of the Protestant Reformation. Folly, personified
as a woman, lectures on her popularity among all classes of society.
No one escapes unscathed.
highly influential criticism of early modern society. More’s depiction
of a propertyless society as the ideal one has inspired infinite
mischief through the centuries. For Austro-libertarians, silver
linings include his discussion of war and critique of the excessively
harsh English criminal code.
Ludovico Ariosto, Orlando
Furioso: epic poem building on the legend of the French
hero Roland, but with a heavy dose of irony in its treatment of
the medieval code of chivalry. A big influence on later Italian
culture and literature.
of the Artists: your one-stop shop for biographical information
on Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, and other towering
figures of the Italian Renaissance. Written by a 16th-century artist
who knew several of his subjects personally.
Faerie Queene: the central poem of the Elizabethan period,
England's cultural "Golden Age." A blend of medieval allegory and
Italian epic along with a heavy dose of Protestant theology. Shakespeare
and other contemporaries allegedly threw manuscripts of their unpublished
works into Spenser's grave at his funeral to show their respect
Tragical History of Doctor Faustus: the best-known work
by Shakespeare’s best-known contemporary dramatist. The first dramatization
of the legend of the man who sells his soul for occult knowledge
and power. Marlowe’s other plays are also influential.
Works: the high point of English literature. The only person
I have ever met who claims never to have read Shakespeare is Laurence
Vance. Read all the plays, even the histories. Ignore any critic
who downplays the Bard’s Christian vision or who tries to make him
into a feminist or commentator on colonialism.
de Cervantes, Don
Quixote: another ironic and influential treatment of the
medieval code of chivalry. A delusional gentleman sets out to right
wrongs as a knight-errant in a world where such men no longer exist.
Social satire with a hint of wistful nostalgia for a different age.
The scene where Don Quixote jousts with windmills is one of the
best known in Western literature.
29. John Milton,
Lost: considered by many to be the greatest poem in the
English language. An imaginative retelling of the story of the Fall
of Man in Genesis 3. Perhaps the greatest blending of classical
and Christian symbolism by a Protestant. Ignore any critic who claims
that Satan is the hero of the poem.
30. John Bunyan,
Pilgrim’s Progress: an allegory of the Christian life, written
by a minister in prison for nonconformity to the Church of England.
The #2 bestseller in the history of the English language after the
Bible. It is almost impossible to overestimate the impact of this
book on British and American literature. At one point many English
schools used this work and the Bible as the basis of their curriculum;
naturally, our cultural revolutionaries have done their best to
expunge it from the collective memory.
and neoclassical Literature (ca. 1700–1800):
Misanthrope: savage yet funny critique of aristocratic hypocrisy.
Disillusioned moderns, particularly those with anti-Catholic prejudices,
usually love Molière and his satirical plays. Tartuffe
is also influential.
Crusoe: still an indispensable adventure story for boys
of all ages. The Crusoe character is often the imaginary starting
point for Austrian economic analysis.
Travels: hilarious satire on 18th-century society, and another
essential adventure yarn. In four voyages, Gulliver encounters fantastical
creatures and civilizations, giving him opportunities to critique
his own culture. The class system, war, and scientism are just a
few of the targets of criticism. Everyone recognizes the scene of
Gulliver awakening on the island of Lilliput,
tied down by the diminutive inhabitants.
34. Henry Fielding,
Jones: landmark early comic novel. Helped to define the
genre as a unified narrative guided by a single authorial vision.
Also a vivid portrait of Georgian society in England.
the satire to end all satires. The title character, a naïve
optimist, moves from disaster to disaster with metaphorical fingers
in his ears, repeating the refrain that he lives in "the best
of all possible worlds." The story ends with a more mature
Candide saying, "We must tend our garden," a lesson all
neocons should take to heart.
Shandy: another groundbreaking comic novel. The narrator,
trying to tell his life’s story, is unable to stay on topic and
careens from subject to subject. Sterne pioneered many narrative
devices that are staples of fiction today. Shows the influence of
Cervantes and Swift as well as John
Locke. Caution: this one is pretty bawdy.
Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin: fascinating self-portrait
of the man some historians call "the first American."
of the Poets: a thorough introduction to the English literature
of the 17th and 18th centuries. Johnson, known to the public simply
as "Dr. Johnson" or "Dictionary
Johnson," was the greatest British prose writer of the
18th century. Here he pioneers the "life and works" format
that dominated literary criticism for over 200 years. Also try Johnson’s
James Boswell, Life
of Samuel Johnson: Johnson, in addition to being a great
literary stylist, was also a great conversationalist, and his bon
mots (e.g. "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel")
became world famous thanks to his admirer Boswell.
40. Jane Austen,
and Prejudice: a beautiful portrayal of how a man and a
woman rise above their faults and come together. Often wrongly identified
as a Romantic (or worse, a feminist), Austen favored Neoclassical
balance, symmetry, and harmony; Lizzy Bennet must jettison Romantic
sensibilities to find real love. Forget Keira
Knightley and try the real thing. All
six Austen novels are worth your while.
Literature (ca. 1800–1850):
Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust:
perhaps the greatest work of German literature, and a bridge between
the Enlightenment and Romanticism. An epic poem in two sections
published years apart. Goethe’s Faust, unlike Marlowe’s, is ultimately
redeemed. For earlier, more purely Romantic Goethe, try The
Sorrows of Young Werther.
42. Sir Walter
perhaps the most famous modern re-envisioning of the Middle Ages.
Scott invented the genre of historical fiction, and much of our
conception of medieval times involving knights in shining armor,
damsels in distress, etc., is his doing. All his novels are worthwhile,
particularly the story of the anti-state folk hero Rob
43. Mary Shelley,
obsessed scientist causes the destruction of everything he holds
dear through his tampering with the secrets of the universe. With
the monster, Shelley channels the awful Jean-Jacques
Rousseau to paint a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of a character
made wicked by his environment. Far superior to all modern film
versions, although Kenneth
Branagh’s effort comes close.
Complete Tales of Washington Irving: Rip van Winkle, the
Headless Horseman, and more. Irving is the father of the American
short story and the first internationally acclaimed American literary
45. James Fenimore
set of five novels, the most famous of which is The Last of the
Mohicans, depicting the adventures of frontier hero Natty Bumppo.
Though often criticized today for his lack of political correctness,
Cooper shows great appreciation for the positive features and diverse
manifestations of American Indian culture.
Three Musketeers: still the greatest swashbuckling adventure
story, despite several attempts by modern filmmakers to ruin it.
D’Artagnan and his friends struggle to outmaneuver and exact justice
from corrupt state actors and their agents. The adventures continue
in the sequels Twenty
Years After and The
Vicomte of Bragelonne.
47. Edgar Allan
Tales: greatest 19th-century writer of "weird fiction."
His stories of supernatural horrors and human psychosis still make
the skin crawl.
Miserables: victim of an exceedingly harsh criminal code
escapes prison and seeks redemption against the backdrop of wars
and revolutions. The Valjean/Javert rivalry is one of modern literature’s
49. Emily Brontë,
Heights: Heathcliff and Catherine’s stormy love destroys
both them and many bystanders. Familiarity with this novel apparently
help you understand British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
Eyre: a more redemptive story from another Brontë sister.
Jane the governess and her boss are kept apart by the latter’s lunatic
wife, but love conquers (honorably) in the end.
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.
© 2009 by LewRockwell.com. Permission to reprint in whole or in
part is gladly granted, provided full credit is given.