Thursday, May 20, 2010

Five Books Every Educated American Should Have Read

The other night at pub trivia, my friend Jason said he planned to spend much of the summer (he works for a prep school) catching up on classics he should have read in school, but didn't. He's a few years younger than I am, and fell into that iconoclastic period of American education where school boards decided to abandon The Canon in pursuit of diversity — which was not a bad idea, but as usual went too far, as bureaucracies tend to do.

He asked me to put together a list of the books I thought an educated adult should have read, here in the United States in 2010. Of course, five isn't enough; off the top of my head I can come up with 20, and wouldn't have much trouble getting to 100. But these five are my own desert-island books, the books I think are essential to a basic understanding of our place in the world. This is, by definition, an arbitrary list; leave your own suggestions in the comments section.

1. The Bible. Jason said, "The whole Bible?" It's my survey course, so I say yes, the whole Bible. You can skim over the begats, and I won't quiz you on the dietary laws in Leviticus — but the Bible has been used for so many purposes, good and bad, that you can't understand much about Western Civilization unless you've read it. Everything from our ideas about property to our concept of marriage is rooted in the Old Testament, and not enough people who claim to be Christian have actually read the New Testament. It's not really that long, either. If you can't handle the small type, try the Lego version.

2. The Iliad and The Odyssey. The Robert Fagles translation is the one you want, although the Samuel Butler one is probably easier to find. If you feel intimidated, hunt down a copy of Clifton Fadiman's version for kids, The Voyages of Ulysses, which I read to tatters in third grade, or find the audiobooks read by Derek Jacobi and Simon Prebble. You will be amazed by how deeply these stories influence the way we see the world.

3. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. Not my favorite Dickens (that would be Bleak House) or my favorite book about the French Revolution (a tough call, but I think it would be The Black Tower by Louis Bayard), but a uniquely important snapshot. A Tale of Two Cities tells us not only about the French revolution but about traditional British attitudes toward France; the ideals of the Enlightenment; and the best and worst of human nature. My prep school assigned it to eighth grade boys, while the girls read Jane Eyre, so I didn't read it until I was an adult (though I probably pretended to have read it earlier, having seen the movie).

4. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I think I've said this before, but it may be a mistake to assign this book to high school students. When I first read it as a high school junior, I loved the romance of it, but understood only a tiny fraction of the story Fitzgerald was telling. It is a parable of the American dream, the idea that we can be whoever we want to be — the green light at the end of Gatsby's pier. Like all true classics, it's a book that changes with the reader; at 44, I'm reading a completely different book from the one I first read at 14.

5. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Almost everything you need to know about human nature is distilled into this book, which is another one that changes as the reader ages. I was thinking about To Kill a Mockingbird just this morning, when I watched the video of Rand Paul's conversation with Rachel Maddow about the Civil Rights Act. To Kill a Mockingbird lays out some basic truths that Rand Paul seems unaware of: 1. Some people will never do the right thing. 2. Some people will do the right thing even when you don't expect them to. 3. The law exists to try to even the playing field between groups 1 and 2.


Claire said...

4/5 for me, but I promise to read A Tale of Two Cities this summer. The Bible is easy enough to do if you don't try to start at the beginning and go through to the end--I've read just about the whole thing thanks to church, Sunday School, and World History classes, but all out of order.

Claire said...

Oh gosh, and I could do a fairly long list of books that people should not read as teenagers. It would start with The Catcher in the Rye. I read that when I was 12, but I'm pretty sure it raised my insufferable level by several points and I also did not really appreciate it at all.

AnswerGirl said...

I am not a fan of Catcher in the Rye even now. Academy of the Overrated, for sure!

Anonymous said...

I liked Catcher. Hated On the Road. Holden Caulfield is exactly what you think he is; Holden is the only one who doesn't get it. (What a phoney!) On the Road left me scratching my head.

I started The Iliad. Plan to get back to it. Probably had a crummy translation. Haven't read Tale yet, but plan to. All the others I've read. In the case of the Bible, I've read four translations, including the Apocrypha in one of them, cover to cover. So when someone tells me "The Bible says...", I just smile and say, "Which translation? And yes, I read the KJV all the way through, so think hard."

Kevin Wignall said...

Thank goodness I'm English, because I fail. Okay, like Claire I've probably read the whole Bible but in the wrong order. Haven't read "A Tale of Two Cities". Have read part of the Iliad (which I studied at college) but not the Odyssey. Must catch up on these - audio would be more authentic, although the performing poet would never have recited the entire story but rather cherry-picked to suit the audience in question. Read the final two and agree.

I don't think there are many people alive who wouldn't benefit from reading the "Meditations" by Marcus Aurelius.

Mike said...

Can't really quibble with your list; though I've never read much of the Bible I've read the rest at least twice and highly recommend them.

I'd add Les Miserables to the list (I like the Penguin edition - it's essentialy unabridged (there's one or two chapters put into an appendix such that it has the whole thing, just not directly in order) and reads well). Probably The Count of Monte Cristo as well (again, Penguin is a good edition in my opinion).

Since you specified American, I'd have to insist on adding The Federalist Papers. I'd also recommend The Summer of 1787, by David O. Stewart. It's a great narrative history of how the Constitution actually came to be.

AnswerGirl said...

You say Apocrypha, I say deuterocanonical. Those books (Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, and 1 & 2 Maccabees) are just part of the Catholic Bible, and I never knew they weren't part of everybody's Bible until I took Introduction to Biblical Literature in college.

You do, however, make a good point. The King James translation of the Bible differs considerably from the Jerusalem Bible or the New American Bible (the two Catholic versions I own) or from the Revised Standard and New International Versions (20th century Protestant translations).

AnswerGirl said...

Oh, and Kevin, you're absolutely right about the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. I had a history teacher in high school who said the only three books anyone needed were the Bible, the Meditations, and Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome.

The only reason I've read the Bible in order is because of the aforementioned Bib Lit class — Catholics are notoriously bad at Bible-reading, but it's worth doing. You'd like the Odyssey.

Thomas at My Porch said...

A solid two out of five (Gatsby, Mockingbird). I suppose I could add the Bible to those two because I have definitely read as much as I ever will. I can see myself getting into the Dickens, though I much prefer Trollope. The Iliad and The Odyssey will be more of a stretch.

I think Main Street or Elmer Gantry need to be added to the list.

AnswerGirl said...

Kevin might be right about audio being the most appropriate format for the Iliad and the Odyssey — good listening for the long, dark winter nights. And Thomas, if my list were longer, I'd definitely include some Sinclair Lewis, though I might pick It Can't Happen Here.

Zach said...

I'm also at 4/5, although I saw the Tale of Two Cities musical, so I'll give myself a 4.5!

Thomas at My Porch said...

Crazy. Can't Happen Here is the only Sinclair Lewis I haven't been able to finish! I must have missed something in it. Or maybe I wasn't in the right mood. I think the themes in Main Sreet are more universal.