Great books

Another book meme is circulating through the blogosphere. To participate, you post a copy of this list of 101 Great Books to your blog, and indicate which of them you have personally read. Okay, I’ll play. In the following list, the works that I have read are listed in bold.

Achebe, Chinua – Things Fall Apart
Agee, James – A Death in the Family
Austen, Jane – Pride and Prejudice
Baldwin, James – Go Tell It on the Mountain
Beckett, Samuel – Waiting for Godot
Bellow, Saul – The Adventures of Augie March
Bronte, Charlotte – Jane Eyre
Bronte, Emily – Wuthering Heights
Camus, Albert – The Stranger
Cather, Willa – Death Comes for the Archbishop
Chaucer, Geoffrey – The Canterbury Tales
Chekhov, Anton – The Cherry Orchard
Chopin, Kate – The Awakening
Conrad, Joseph – Heart of Darkness
Cooper, James Fenimore – The Last of the Mohicans
Crane, Stephen – The Red Badge of Courage
Dante – Inferno
Cervantes, Miguel – Don Quixote
Defoe, Daniel – Robinson Crusoe
Dickens, Charles – A Tale of Two Cities
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor – Crime and Punishment
Douglass, Frederick – Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Dreiser, Theodore – An American Tragedy
Dumas, Alexandre – The Three Musketeers
Eliot, George – The Mill on the Floss
Ellison, Ralph – Invisible Man
Emerson, Ralph Waldo – Selected Essays
Faulkner, William – As I Lay Dying
Faulkner, William – The Sound and the Fury
Fielding, Henry – Tom Jones
Fitzgerald, F. Scott – The Great Gatsby
Flaubert, Gustave – Madame Bovary
Ford, Ford Madox – The Good Soldier
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang – Faust
Golding, William – Lord of the Flies
Hardy, Thomas – Tess of the d’Urbervilles
Hawthorne, Nathaniel – The Scarlet Letter
Heller, Joseph – Catch-22
Hemingway, Ernest – A Farewell to Arms
Homer – The Iliad
Homer – The Odyssey
Hugo, Victor – The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Hurston, Zora Neale – Their Eyes Were Watching God
Huxley, Aldous – Brave New World
Ibsen, Henrik – A Doll’s House
James, Henry – The Portrait of a Lady
James, Henry – The Turn of the Screw
Joyce, James – A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Kafka, Franz – The Metamorphosis
Kingston, Maxine Hong – The Woman Warrior
Lee, Harper – To Kill a Mockingbird
Lewis, Sinclair – Babbitt
London, Jack – The Call of the Wild
Mann, Thomas – The Magic Mountain
Marquez, Gabriel Garcia – One Hundred Years of Solitude
Melville, Herman – Bartleby the Scrivener
Melville, Herman – Moby-Dick
Miller, Arthur – The Crucible
Morrison, Toni – Beloved
O’Connor, Flannery – A Good Man is Hard to Find
O’Neill, Eugene – Long Day’s Journey into Night
Orwell, George – Animal Farm
Pasternak, Boris – Doctor Zhivago
Plath, Sylvia – The Bell Jar
Poe, Edgar Allan – Selected Tales
Proust, Marcel – Swann’s Way
Pynchon, Thomas – The Crying of Lot 49
Remarque, Erich Maria – All Quiet on the Western Front
Rostand, Edmond – Cyrano de Bergerac
Roth, Henry – Call It Sleep
Salinger, J.D. – The Catcher in the Rye
Shakespeare, William – Hamlet
Shakespeare, William – Macbeth
Shakespeare, William – A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Shakespeare, William – Romeo and Juliet
Shaw, George Bernard – Pygmalion
Shelley, Mary – Frankenstein
Silko, Leslie Marmon – Ceremony
Solzhenitsyn, Alexander – One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Sophocles – Antigone
Sophocles – Oedipus Rex
Steinbeck, John – The Grapes of Wrath
Stevenson, Robert Louis – Treasure Island
Stowe, Harriet Beecher – Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Swift, Jonathan – Gulliver’s Travels
Thackeray, William – Vanity Fair
Thoreau, Henry David – Walden
Tolstoy, Leo – War and Peace
Turgenev, Ivan – Fathers and Sons
Twain, Mark – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Voltaire – Candide
Vonnegut, Kurt Jr. – Slaughterhouse-Five
Walker, Alice – The Color Purple
Wharton, Edith – The House of Mirth
Welty, Eudora – Collected Stories
Whitman, Walt – Leaves of Grass
Wilde, Oscar – The Picture of Dorian Gray
Williams, Tennessee – The Glass Menagerie
Woolf, Virginia – To the Lighthouse
Wright, Richard – Native Son

Not a very impressive showing, and it would be even less so if I indicated which works I read only because I was required to in school. But with a few exceptions (such as Hamlet, Macbeth, and Don Quixote), I’m not terribly embarrassed by the number of these books I haven’t read. This looks to me like a list compiled by professors of English and comparative literature, and it reflects what books they consider important. But it’s not clear to me why it’s imperative for non-professors to read The Mill on the Floss or Vanity Fair.
This leads to the part of this meme that quite a few bloggers are having fun with: critiquing the list, and suggesting what books they think should have been included. There’s some lively discussion of this in the comments at Damian Penny’s blog. In particular, I agree with Tony, who points out that this list completely ignores nonfiction works, and that any list of Great Books that excludes Euclid’s Elements and Newton’s Principia Mathematica cannot be taken seriously. Well, okay, it’s not reasonable to expect that everyone will actually read those books, but they should understand (a) what those books are about and (b) why they are important. In other words, we should all at least have a Cliff’s Notes familiarity with these books.
On that basis, and with the stipulation that I’m only attempting to address Western culture, I would also expect to see the following books on any sensible list:

The King James Bible
Plato – Republic and Dialogues
Herodotus – Histories
Thucydides – History of the Peloponnesian War
Sun Tzu – The Complete Art of War
Macchiavelli, Niccolo – The Prince
The Declaration of Independence
The Federalist Papers
The Constitution of the United States of America
Smith, Adam – The Wealth of Nations
Darwin, Charles – The Origin of Species
Marx, Karl – The Communist Manifesto
Gibbon, Edward – The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Bulfinch, Thomas – Mythology

That’s just a quick list off the top of my head, with only minimal Web-surfing to make sure I’m listing the titles and names correctly. I’m tempted to do some more research and expand this list, but I’m trying to keep my blogging habit under control, remember? So instead, I’ll ask you. What other works do you think are important enough to be include in this list? Post a comment, or write about it in your own blog.
Before I let go of this, I have one other complaint. Even if we limit the scope of a Great Books list to fiction, I cannot accept a list that contains none of the following titles:

Verne, Jules – Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
Wells, H.G. – The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, or War of the Worlds (at least one!)
Heinlein, Robert – The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Starship Troopers, or Stranger in a Strange Land
Asimov, Isaac – The Foundation Trilogy, The Caves of Steel, or I, Robot
Tolkien, J.R.R. – The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (yes, both!)
Clarke, Arthur C. – 2001: A Space Odyssey or Childhood’s End

Science fiction and fantasy are mainstream literature now. It’s time for the ivory-tower academics to take notice of this fact. If they continue to tell us with a straight face that Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth is more important than Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, that will just demonstrate how out of touch and irrelevant the professors are.

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