Cultural Literacy: A Reading List for Beginners

Austro-libertarians 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 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.

That said, 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 brief explanations.

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 tradition.

The works 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.

I strongly 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.

Ancient Literature (ca. 3000 B.C.–ca. A.D. 400):

1. The 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.

2. The 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 Patroclos.

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.

5. Aeschylus, The 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.

6. Sophocles, The 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 of Euripides, the third great Athenian tragedian.

7. Aristophanes, Lysistrata: 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.

8. Virgil, The 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 Fables.

10. Plutarch, Lives: 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.

Medieval Literature (ca. 400–ca. 1500):

11. St. Augustine, Confessions: 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.

12. Beowulf: 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 scholar.

13. The 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.

14. The 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 Cid.

15. The 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.

16. William Langland, Piers 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.

17. Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy: the pinnacle of medieval literature. Dante allows his love for Beatrice to lead him through hell and purgatory 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.

18. Giovanni Boccaccio, The 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.

19. Sir 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 J.R.R. 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 d'Arthur.

20. Geoffrey Chaucer, The 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.

Renaissance Literature (ca. 1500–1700):

21. Desiderius Erasmus, The 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.

22. Thomas More, Utopia: 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.

23. 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.

24. Giorgio Vasari, Lives 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.

25. Edmund Spenser, The 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 and devotion.

26. Christopher Marlowe, The 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.

27. William Shakespeare, Complete 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.

28. Miguel 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, Paradise 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, The 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.

Enlightenment and neoclassical Literature (ca. 1700–1800):

31. Molière, The 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.

32. Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe: still an indispensable adventure story for boys of all ages. The Crusoe character is often the imaginary starting point for Austrian economic analysis.

33. Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's 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, Tom 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.

35. Voltaire, Candide: 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.

36. Laurence Sterne, Tristram 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.

37. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin: fascinating self-portrait of the man some historians call "the first American." Refreshingly bourgeois.

38. Samuel Johnson, Lives 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 Rasselas.

39. 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, Pride 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.

Romantic Literature (ca. 1800–1850):

41. Johann 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 Scott, Ivanhoe: 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 Roy.

43. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein: 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.

44. The 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 figure.

45. James Fenimore Cooper, Leatherstocking Tales: 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.

46. Alexander Dumas, The 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 Poe, Complete Tales: greatest 19th-century writer of "weird fiction." His stories of supernatural horrors and human psychosis still make the skin crawl.

48. Victor Hugo, Les 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 greatest.

49. Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights: Heathcliff and Catherine's stormy love destroys both them and many bystanders. Familiarity with this novel apparently will help you understand British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

50. Charlotte Brontë, Jane 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.

Next: 51-100

April 2, 2009