More Cultural Literacy: A Reading List for Beginners

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.

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