When I was a skinny eager ten-year-old growing up in the poverty of the Appalachians, my mother somehow saved enough money to buy me 100 of the World’s Greatest Classics. I will never forget the day the first five volumes arrived, all in plain white paperback covers with stark black and white titles. But as I quickly opened the drab exterior and lost myself within, I discovered the sights, sounds and smells of exotic—yet to be discovered lands and people.
The modern pens of Mark Twain, Jack London, Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, Emily Bronte transported me from poverty, as if on a magic carpet ride, to riches. After a boring black and white day at school I would rush home and plunge myself into the sensual worlds of Huckleberry Finn, Lemuel Gulliver, the Black Knight, Uriah Heep, and Heathcliff.
I fell passionately in love with reading. It is a torrid affair I indulge to this day.
Growing older, and if anything, intensifying my voracious reading addiction, I came to understand (no thanks to my public schools and universities) how surface my reading was. I realized in order to understand the scope of the world and to be a credible influencer, I must read “deep and wide.” In support of this idea, I recommend reading a wonderful blog post In Defense of Old Books my dear friend Michael Hyatt recently wrote based on the C.S. Lewis introduction to On Incarnation by St. Athanasius.
Five authors that have wrought profound influence upon my reading have taken time to compile lists of what they call “Super Texts“, “Genius”, “World’s Best”, “Reality”, and “Must Reads”.
— Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds Harold Bloom
— The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership Dr. Steve Sample
— In, But Not Of: A Guide to Christian Ambition Hugh Hewitt
True, the above five books are written by modern writers, but they provide a diverse and fairly comprehensive guide to old books that Sample says, “permeate the wallpaper of our society.” And because of the invaluable information they contain, I consider them must-reads for every leader and influencer.
I thought it valuable to cross-reference these five books and choose only the “super texts” that occur across the board in all their recommendations (there are a few exceptions). I must admit it was a very difficult task that required leaving out a few books I felt strongly should have made this list of must-reads. But, nonetheless, here it is. A very short list of what I boldly (some might say naively) call the greatest of the world’s greatest books.
The first five are easy.
— Judeo-Christian Bible
— Bhagavad Gita
— Pali Canon of Buddhism
— Analects of Confucius
Then it becomes a little more difficult.
— Republic Plato
— Politics Aristotle
— Hamlet, As You Like It, Henry IV, Sonnet 129 Shakespeare
— Iliad, Odyssey Homer
— The History (selections—read as much as you can or want to) Herodotus
—Oedipus Rex, Antigone, Philoctetes (for artists) Sophocles
— Divine Comedy (John Ciardi translation) Dante
— Essays (Donald Frame Translation) Montaigne
— Don Quixote Cervantes
—The Prince Machiavelli
Then even more difficult for consensus.
— Aeneid Virgil
— The Oresteia Aeschylus
— Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans (selections) Plutarch
— Canterbury Tales Chaucer
— War and Peace Tolstoy
— Crime and Punishment Dostoevsky
— Pensees Pascal
— Poems Donne
— Selected Poems Byron & Keats
As we progress to modernity, the choices become immeasurably more difficult. Perhaps I’ll have a go at that later.
Sample says, “One of the greatest fallacies of our age is the belief that we are fundamentally different from our ancient forebears. What nonsense! …We are every bit as human, and no more human, than the characters of the Old Testament or the people of sixteenth-century Florence…Our basic natures are identical to theirs. And the supertexts, more than contemporary literature, do an excellent job of helping us understand this timelessness of human nature.”
Hewitt says, “If the prospect of reading—a lot—daunts you, then you’re not serious about genuine influence.”
Yancey says, “Across time and generations, books carry the thoughts and feelings, the essence, of the human spirit.”
Van Doren says, “It is important to gain the confidence to attempt nearly any book.”
Bloom says, “Our desire for the transcendental and extraordinary seems part of our common heritage, and abandons us slowly, and never completely.”
As C.S. Lewis states, “Don’t read what others say about the great books, have the courage to read them yourselves.”
Which of these books have you completed?
How have they influenced you?
Which ONE of these books will you vow to attempt next?
Do you take issue with my list?