Over at the ISI site, Jessica Hooten Wilson from John Brown University has put together a list of ten of the books that undergraduates should have read before they graduate. It’s a fine enough list, including some that should clearly make any such list–Augustine’s Confessions, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, e.g. And there are some that are clearly great works, but which I wouldn’t put on such a list–such as Shakespeare’s Richard III, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and the poetry of Gerald Manly Hopkins. I’m not saying that these latter books/collections aren’t great (though I’ve been taken to task by a reader for not liking The Brothers K in the past). I’m just saying that I’m not sure they’re books that undergraduates necessarily need to have read before graduation.
“So,” you might ask, “what books should be read by undergraduates before they head off into the real world? (Or, for students who are likely to actually read such books, before heading off to grad school?)” Great question! Here’s my list. For the sake of brevity, I’ve left off books that make Dr. Wilson’s list but which would otherwise make mine (such as the one mentioned above, as well as the Aeneid and Divine Comedy). And of course just as her list skews literary, mine is going to skew political.
- The Odyssey. It was really a toss-up between this and the Iliad, but I think the Odyssey is probably more relevant to today. Especially valuable are the reflections on action and virtue, family relationships, devotion, and home. The Fagles translation is especially excellent.
- Plutarch’s Lives. I realize it’s probably too ambition to ask a modern college student to read all of both volumes of Plutarch’s extensive Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, but he’s especially an important writer on this list. Not only was he a Greek writing about the Romans, he was also the primary source for much of Medieval, Renaissance, and Early Modern knowledge about ancient history. The American Founders, the Reformers, Shakespeare, etc all met the ancient world first through Plutarch. So he really is essential to understanding most of the last two millennia.
- Hamlet. Hamlet certainly isn’t my favorite Shakespeare, but it’s probably technically the best and so everyone should read it at some point. And of course, C.S. Lewis says it’s worth reading too. So there’s that. That said, and at the risk of infuriating all of my English lit friends: it is a sin to read Shakespeare. You should watch Hamlet before you read the play. Fortunately, there are many excellent versions available, including Arnold Schwarzenegger’s vanity piece!
- De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. This is the classic and essential work on American government, and simply must be read. If you just can’t quite bring yourself to read the whole thing, John Wilsey has an excellent abridged version.
- Letter from a Birmingham Jail. This really needs no defense. If you have read this already (I think it’s probably still assigned in most high schools–much to their credit!) then you might want to pick up Howell Raines’s My Soul is Rested as a supplement to set the context.
- Discourses on Livy. Most people know of The Prince, but more important in many ways is Machiavelli’s study of republics. His guide to a single leader isn’t (or at least shouldn’t) be of as much interest to us as his reflections on the rise, maintenance, and decline of a free state.
- Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the last decade of the 20th century, it’s far too easy to forget that the major opponent of liberal democracy since the late 19th century has been communism. Why is it making a comeback today, especially on college campuses? Read Marx and find out!
- Francis Schaeffer’s Trilogy. These three works of Schaeffer explore the 20th century philosophical landscape. And while this collection isn’t a great survey of any of the thinkers he talks about, it is a great survey of how those thinkers are used in the 20th century and how Christians should carefully engage with them.
- Plato’s Short Dialogues. The Republic is of course Plato’s central work, but it’s probably not the place to dive in to the father of philosophy. Instead, I recommend starting with the shorter dialogues such as the Ion, Apology, or Crito. From there the Republic becomes more accessible.
- Luther’s Bondage of the Will. At the end of the day, what separates Christians from the world? Luther argues that Erasmus hit the issue exactly with his defense of free will. In response, Luther penned one of the classics of the Christian faith and an essential book to understanding what’s wrong with the world today and while all our efforts to fix things regularly fail.
So there you have it. My own addition to the ever-growing internet genre of listicles. Happy reading!
Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast and an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO. He has read all the books on this list, but not necessarily all the books on the shelves in his office.