Writing a list like this can make one feel a little silly, as the important books missing from it will always outnumber the important books one has included. My approach to this list reflects my approach to education in general, namely, that it’s an initiation into the traditions that undergird one’s world.
If one could read these books slowly and with care—and, ideally, discuss them with other thoughtful readers—one would be hard-pressed not to emerge as someone who knows their world and the people around them with just a bit more depth and understanding.
Many of these texts are required reading for a great books program like the one I teach in for the Shimer Great Books School at North Central College, and many will pop up on a master of arts in liberal studies (MALS) syllabus as well. Just as there is no definitive top ten list of Great Books, there is no appropriate age or stage at which these books should be read; instead, they should be devoured, digested, discovered and rediscovered from adolescence to old age. Read these books—and then go out and read the ones I missed.
1. Iliad (Homer; ca. 8th c. B.C.)
The epigraph to The Silencing of the Girls, a recent novel depicting the actions of the Iliad from the point of view of one of its slave girls, is a quotation from Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, in which a professor of Classics paints a dubious picture of the beginning of Western letters:
You know how European literature begins? With a quarrel. All of European literature springs from a fight. He reads aloud the opening lines of The Iliad. “Divine Muse, sing of the ruinous wrath of Achilles… Begin where they first quarreled, Agamemnon the King of men, and great Achilles.’ And what are they quarreling about, these two violent, mighty souls? It’s as basic as a barroom brawl. They are quarreling over a woman. A girl, really. A girl stolen from her father.”
For those of who have always had high expectations for Western literature, it’s a rather deflating truth. But truth it is: the greatest poem in our canon kicks off with a bully’s brawl. So what right, then, do we have to call it great?
I would argue that the beauty and greatness of this book is not achieved in spite of its whiny, rage-driven hero, but precisely because Homer depicts this man, in all his sometimes repellent humanity, as a crucial part of the Mediterranean world that Homer knew.
Achilles’ personality may well be the bottom rung of this world, but the poet doesn’t stay at his level; rather, he builds a ladder to give us a panoramic view of incredible variety: the nobility of Achilles’ arch-enemy Hector, who can fight brutally but also show tender affection to wife and child; the heart-rending cries of the innocent as they are enslaved or slain; the bucolic activities of peacetime, and on and on.
For the Greeks, everything important to know could be found in Homer, and so they called him the educator of all Hellas.
Shimer students read this book in the senior capstone. Seeing as it’s not only the beginning of Western literature, but of Western culture, it would perhaps make most sense to have students read it earlier. Could be. But reading it after digesting so many texts that build on its foundation has the wonderful effect of making one go back to those texts and seeing so much more than you initially did.
2. Mahābhārata (Vyasa, a mythical sage; ca. 3rd c. BCE-3rd c. CE)
If the Iliad contains all things, the Mahābhārata contains all things and then some (humor as well; in the prologue we read that many things in it may be found elsewhere, “but you can be sure that what it does not contain is found nowhere”). Like the Hindu deities with their many arms and legs, the great epic poem of India (and, supposedly, the longest poem ever written) gives us innumerable characters—Krishna himself, that great archer, can unleash a hundred arrows in the blink of an eye.
Next to this mammoth tome, the Iliad looks quite modest. And yet, like the Iliad, the Mahābhārata can also zero down on the tiniest details, the most humble occasions, the silliest of jokes. It’s most celebrated chapters, the “Bhagavad Gita,” wouldn’t seem to fit in a giant song of war, for it tells the story of a great war leader, Arjuna, who doesn’t want to fight, and whose mentor, the god Krishna, must harangue him for pages with endless arguments on precisely why he must do so.
To top it off, the great advocate of non-violence, Mahatma Gandhi, counted the Bhagavad Gita as one of his deepest and most abiding inspirations. How can this be? Read, and decide for yourself.
Shimer Humanities majors usually read this text in their second year, along with Confucius and select books from the Bible. The comparisons between these texts, especially around ethics, are very rich.
3. The Divine Comedy (Alighieri, Dante, early 14th c.)
Any list of great Western literature simply has to include Dante, because Dante sits right in the middle of that list, whether you slice it historically, religiously, or stylistically.
Historically, he writes at the very beginning of the modern world—intimating the modern worlds’ most pressing themes—and yet his poem is essentially a summing up of all the ancient and medieval poetry, philosophy, and religion that he could cram into his head, from Homer to St. Francis. The Divine Comedy is the modern world in a nutshell and the ancient world on a banquet table.
Religiously, Dante is motivated by the great Thomistic synthesis, in which Thomas Aquinas filtered Roman Catholic theology through an Aristotelian sieve. While the Comedy is written prior to the great turmoil of the Reformation, it nonetheless paints the medieval Catholic world so convincingly, with all its glories as well as its warts, that partisans on both sides pointed to it for their evidence.
Stylistically, Dante represents the end of the great medieval tradition of allegory—precisely by penning the greatest allegory of all time. And yet, for modern people who wouldn’t notice an allegory if it was hanging off their nose, Dante has simply written an affecting story of a man, once lost, who sees the light and gains the knowledge to right the wrongs of his life.
Dante showed the three-tiered world of the medieval age in such detail and perfection, that once he had finished, that world had no choice but to up and leave.
The Divine Comedy is perhaps the most difficult text in this list to jump into cold, due to the hundreds of historical and theological references that, to us, feel somewhat obscure. Shimer majors will read select cantos (chapters) in their senior seminar, but to get the most out of the whole poem, it’s best to read it slowly and with a couple good books of commentary (which we’ve done in an elective format).
4. War and Peace (Leo Tolstoy, 1869)
If Homer’s Iliad begins the Western literary tradition with an ode to violence, this novel, while featuring plenty of fighting, subtracts the sheen of glory which our fantasies (many of them generated by our literary tradition) have applied to war.
What’s left is ... everything (again!). One might conclude from all this that violence isn’t necessary to human life. Coincidentally enough, this is something that the militantly pacifist Leo Tolstoy actually believed.
What this giant novel never is, though, is preachy. One might say that Tolstoy’s method was to apply realism to the famous shield of Achilles from book XVIII of the Iliad.
Instead of gods and heroes, Tolstoy gives us serfs and aristocrats. Instead of country weddings with rustic dancing there are meaningless dinner parties presided over by socialites concerned with nothing more than getting their child one rung up the social ladder. Tolstoy gives us true loves and delusional crushes, and half the time they feature the same people, sometimes on the same night.
There is a little man named Napoleon, who runs roughshod over Europe, and wins a battle in Russia that, strangely enough, spells his downfall. There are would-be Achilles and pretend Agamemnons, a weeping Thetis and a heartbroken Priam. In fact, some (Tolstoy among them) have even denied that War and Peace is a novel. One could say it is less like reading a book and more like jumping into a river, if the river were as long and varied as life itself.
If you’re thinking of taking a Shimer major you may be relieved to know that this book is not currently required in any of our classes. The reason? It’s, um, kind of long. But that’s what summer break is for!
5. The Republic (Plato, ca. 375 BCE)
Plato fully agreed that Homer was the educator of Hellas, but he didn’t let Homer or many other poets into the Utopia that he has Socrates describe in this book. Plato’s goal, in the end, was to replace poetry—and specifically the poetry of Homer—with philosophy.
Plato admitted, along with pretty much everyone else, that the unparalleled power of Homer’s poetry had made it the wellspring of Greek culture; however, only philosophy was grounded in reason and only philosophy could lead the Greeks to lead the world.
While no sane person would agree with everything Socrates argues for in the Republic, it is the mark of a truly sane philosopher to admit that philosophy has never gotten very far from the arguments presented there. The Republic may not, like an epic poem, contains all things, but it undoubtedly contains the seeds (if not the flowers and the fruit) of all the important philosophical issues debated in the West for the last two thousand years.
The Shimer curriculum, up until a few years ago, actually had students reading this book twice, once at the beginning and once at the end of their college careers. It’s now read once, in a class devoted to political philosophy.
6. The Human Condition (Hannah Arendt, 1955)
If Plato’s Republic contains all of Western philosophy in a nutshell than this book is what is plucked from the branches of the tree that grew from that seed. Arendt, it seems to me, does two crucial things in this book.
First, she traces the lineage of a handful of the most important philosophical concepts, many of which have their origins in the thought of Plato, and with exceptional insight shows her readers how those concepts have undergone crucial changes throughout history and how they have come to undergird the most pressing contemporary issues, especially as concerns politics.
Secondly, she argues passionately, and I would say persuasively, that we (and here she means thinking people, not just philosophers) need to take politics as seriously as the Greeks did. It has always been my opinion that the world has not quite realized the brilliance of Hannah Arendt, and that she is in many ways still awaiting her due.
Perhaps that day is soon coming; her first book, a massive tome on the dangers of totalitarianism written in 1951, became a (belated) bestseller in the wake of Trump’s 2016 presidential victory.
This book is read by Shimer students majoring in the social sciences.
7. Moby Dick (Herman Melville, 1851)
Earnest Hemingway once said that all of American literature came from one book, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. He was wrong. But he uttered those words before penning his late, great work on a man dedicated to hooking a prize fish.
Hemingway hated giving interviews (and gave some of the all-time worst) but had we persuaded him to sit down and have a chat after writing The Old Man and the Sea, perhaps he would have had to admit that this work owes more to Herman Melville than to Mark Twain.
What is it about dudes and their fish? Well, Freud would definitely have some fun answering that one, and one of the great themes of Melville’s work is the psycho-sexual tensions of an all-male society and how those tensions reflect back on society as a whole.
But towering over that theme (not to speak in too Freudian a manner) is the monomania that sits at the core of this book: a lone man’s hunt for a prize fish, Ahab in pursuit of the white whale. Is this not Plato in pursuit of the perfect society? Arjuna dreaming of meditative bliss? Dante yearning for his vision of God?
But whereas those stories have happy endings, this one is a tragedy, with just one man survived to tell the tale. It is a tragedy of Shakespearian proportions from the only American writer who spoke with Shakespearian authority. Moby Dick is about the death of the American dream before anyone talked about such dream; it also illuminates for us why Americans will never stop dreaming.
Moby Dick is not a required text for Shimer students. Like War and Peace, its length makes it tough to fit it into a 16-week course, unless the course is an elective devoted to it (which we’ve done on occasion).
8. The Tempest (William Shakespeare, 1610-1611)
It’s impossible to just choose one of Shakespeare’s plays for a list like this, and really I would like to argue that we must include all of them (they can be crammed between two covers ... ).
While I won’t argue that the Tempest is Shakespeare’s greatest play, I think it fits rather nicely into this list and can show us why Shakespeare sits at the center of English, if not world, literature. It’s a play not very similar to his others, which are often so similar to each other.
It tells the story of an old king who developed magical powers of intellect while ignoring his political duties, until one day he finds himself usurped by his brother. Put out on a raft with his books, his wand, and his infant daughter, Miranda, he finds himself on a desert island, bereft of any civilization that he can recognize.
The beings he does find, an airy sprite named Ariel and an earthy, swarthy son-of-a-witch named Caliban, he enslaves. Caliban does the heavy lifting, hewing wood and hauling water, while Ariel flits around as a kind of surveillance drone, doing the old man’s bidding. The action starts on a day twelve years after Prospero’s shipwreck, when he conjures storms and rain to shipwreck the man who stole his throne, Antonio, along with a number of others.
I won’t relate anymore of the plot here, but I’ve said enough to perhaps make a convincing argument that this play can shine light on a number of issues crucial to our history and our present. Such as: imperialism, slavery, race relations, realpolitik, the nature of reality, fantasy and magic (Prospero is the original Dumbledore/Gandalf), marriage, sexual politics and totalitarianism.
You know what would be a wonderful course to teach? One that examines this play alongside Plato’s Republic, for while the latter builds an ideal world out of nothing, the former shows us that all worlds, ideal or otherwise, are like magician’s smoke, or what, in the Hindu tradition, is called maya: illusion, artifice, dream.
Shimer students read this text in their final year and discuss it in the context of colonialism and the Haitian revolution.
9. The Souls of Black Folk (W.E.B. Du Bois, 1903)
This list, no doubt, tilts toward poetry and philosophy. Partly because those are the worlds I know best, but also because it is out of those worlds that we have been given the most far-reaching texts. Texts of sociology, and W.E.B Du Bois is one of the founders of sociology, tend to narrow in on a specific slice of life, like Du Bois’ first great book on black Philadelphia tenements.
The Souls of Black Folk also contains sociology—his notion of double-consciousness is perhaps the most important American sociological insight—but it is interwoven with poetry, song, and fable in a way that is completely surprising and absolutely persuasive.
The great scientists who also had the gift of speaking to a general population—a figure like Albert Einstein springs to mind— owe their thanks to perhaps the first person to realize that the truths of science, whether social or otherwise, are most powerfully expressed when they are cloaked in the most searing language and aim straight for the soul.
Shimer students get this book in their first year, but remember it for years to come.
10. The Elements (Euclid, c. 300 BCE)
Like I say above, this list has been a bit stingy to math and science. While I could undoubtedly include works by Newton, Einstein, Curie, and many others, I have chosen Euclid’s Elements both because of its unparalleled influence as a mathematical text as well as its ability to excite the mind of today’s common reader.
Perhaps more than any other work of Ancient Greece this book communicates to us what is meant by the Golden Age of Greece. Its precision, its creativity, and its passion for truth are completely inspiring.
But perhaps the most amazing thing to me about this work is just how readable it is. Anyone who can read can read this book. Don’t believe me? Call up your grandma, your ten-year old niece, and one of the jocks who made fun of you in high school.
Give them a copy of this book, a beverage of their choice and see what happens. Better yet, send us a tweet about it.
This is also a first-year book for Shimer students. Perhaps not as welcoming a read as the Du Bois for certain students (the math-phobic ones), but I can say, from personal experience, that it is one of the funnest texts to teach (and I’m not exactly a math genius).
Interested in one of the undergraduate degrees in liberal studies at North Central College? Check out the Shimer Great Books School. Interested in a liberal studies program and have already completed your undergraduate degree? Check out North Central College’s master of arts in liberal studies degree.