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.