The World’s Greatest Books Everybody Says They Have Read—And Haven’t—But Should

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”.

The Joy of Reading: A Passionate Guide to 189 of the World’s Best Authors and Their Works Charles Van Doren

Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds Harold Bloom

The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership Dr. Steve Sample

Reality and the Vision: Eighteen Christian Authors Reveal What They Read and Why : Essays by Members of the Chrysostom Society Ed. Philip Yancey

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

Qur’an

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

Beowulf

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?

32 Responses to “The World’s Greatest Books Everybody Says They Have Read—And Haven’t—But Should”

  1. Should I feel proud if I’ve read everything on that list? Because I think I have…

  2. I read Superfudge in 6th grade and it changed my life.

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed this post. I agree that creating a list of the greatest works is not something that can be done with great consensus, but the debate and discourse that such an attempt brings is a lot of fun.

    As an example, I would argue that War and Peace is not Tolstoy’s best work, Resurrection would get my vote. However if impact is the barometer I can see why War and Peace would win the nod.

    I was happy to see that I had read several of these, but noted many that I have missed and would like to go read. Thanks for such a though-provoking post! (And I love your inclusion of the Baghavad Gita in the list.)
    Chuck Allen´s last blog post ..Book Review- Outlive Your Life by Max Lucado

  4. Randy

    Great lists and certainly all highly informative and essential reads.

    I would add:

    1. The Enneads – Plotinus
    2.Ulysses – James Joyce (A true masterpiece)
    3. Confessions – St. Augustine (just pure genius)
    4. The Prophet – Kahlil Gibran (20th century critic Claude Bragdon wrote of its, “extraordinary dramatic power, deep erudition, lightning-like intuition, lyrical lift and metrical mastery with which the message is presented, and the beauty, beauty, beauty, which permeates the
    entire pattern.”)

    These are off the top of my head in addition to the ones you mentioned. Incidentally you may like to check the detailed review of the story behind Homer by Iman Jacob Wilkens – Where Troy Once Stood. Absolutely revolutionary after a 30 year study – more here…http://www.where-troy-once-stood.co.uk/

    Blessings and thank you for a great post.

    James

    • @James Cohen, James, We must meet sometime! The four books you have mentioned were all books i mourned not including. I have not read Enneads and only passages of The Prophet, but Ulysses and Confessions have made huge impact in my life.

      Thanks so much for enriching this conversation.

  5. I’ve read quite a few on the list due to required reading lists in High School and College. It goes to show how young America is in the eyes of Literature as not one American Author is on the list. when i taught school i would take my summers and read plays. i love that the plays of Sophocles and Aeschylus made that list as i consider them some of the highest work of the artform. Shakespeare is a given, no? I wish some Frederico Lorca had made that list, but he may be too contemporary. I’m also thankful that books of poetry were consensus choices. How i love Byron, Keats and Donne. My personal preferences are e.e. cummings and Robert Burns, but then who am I? thanks for the challenge Randy.
    Chuck Harris´s last blog post ..i’ve been studying Ephesians this month…

  6. I would need a fair bit of uninterrupted time to be ablet o concentrate enough to read some of those!
    Michelle George´s last blog post ..you know you’re gettin’ old when…

    • @Michelle George, Yes. They are some of the most difficult, yet rewarding, reading of my life.

      You wouldn’t be able to leave your comment if you did not know how true it is. I have read about half the list and I have devoted the last six or seven years to the task.

      Thanks,

      Michelle.

  7. What a wonderful topic to ponder!!!! I’ve been a passionate reader since I first discovered how to string words together from letters – and as a lit major, I’ll guiltily admit to being a bit snobbish in my tastes, so I tend towards these “classics.”

    Loved that Pascal made your list – and glad to see you considered St. Augustine. For me, a “must-read” list would have to include at least one Jane Austen title. While “Persuasion” is my personal favorite – so noble and romantic! – the better-known “Pride and Prejudice” is the best place to start. Austen’s work still feels so fresh and engaging – and her commentary can really have a delightful, surprising bite! For those who only know Jane Austen from the movies -give old girl a try in print.

    And while Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” isn’t the best written tome (it’s a shade heavy-handed for me) it IS highly influential . . . I’m torn – would that make my list? Hmmmm . . . Yowza. This is as tough as picking your favorite Beatle songs (but I love it!!!)

    I’ll admit to one book I could never get through: “Les Miserables.” A long plane ride to France, a Florida beach – neither were enough to tempt me beyond the first hundred or so pages. Just too ponderous. J’accuse, M. Hugo!!!

    • @Judy, Ah, Judy. Neither Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” or Jane Austen’s “Persuasion” was just not old enough to make this list. But “Atlas Shrugged” is one of the three most influential books of my life.

      Thanks for joining the conversation and enriching it.

    • @Judy, Hey Judy!! Jane Austen is one of the best! I rented this movie a couple of months ago and you may have already seen it but it kind of puts a funny slat on Pride and Prejudice. It’s called Lost In Austen. It’s a GREAT movie! You should check it out. It’s not a classic by any means, but for someone who enjoys Ms. Austen’s work, it’s great! Here’s a link to watch the trailer…http://www.imdb.com/video/screenplay/vi3094938393/
      Brittany Inman´s last blog post ..The Young Victoria

    • @Judy, I agree that “Pride & Prejudice” would be an excellent addition to this list.

      I read “Atlas Shrugged” about a decade ago and remember underlining (and thinking) late into the night.

      Another title that might make the list? “Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens.

  8. Well you also left out my all-time favorite book – Curious George by H. A. Rey, but that’s okay, you can’t include everything. :)

    Now to your list, I’ve managed a few – the Bible, “Hamlet”, “As You Like It”, “Henry IV”, “Sonnet 129” Shakespeare, “Divine Comedy” (John Ciardi translation) Dante, “The Prince” Machiavelli, Beowulf, and Selected Poems Byron & Keats

    And I’ve read bits & pieces of the following: “Bhagavad Gita”, Plato’s “Republic”, “Politics” Aristotle, Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey”, “Don Quixote” Cervantes, “Aeneid” Virgil, Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales”, Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”, and “Crime and Punishment” Dostoevsky.

    I love lists of books we should read or recommended reading lists.

  9. One of these totally captures for me exactly what you’re talking about. I studied Chaucer in high school under a horrid teacher and hated it. Then took a Chaucer class in college simply because I took every class offered by a certain professor. I loved her. She made me realize how much of a genius Chaucer was in his storytelling. I had always loved stories, but this was a new level. I’ll never forget that feeling, even though middle English is a pain.
    Kayla´s last blog post ..Law School’s Impact on My View of E-Readers

  10. Let’s see: Judeo-Christian Bible, Beowulf, Canterbury Tales Chaucer, Iliad, Odyssey Homer, Hamlet, Oedipus Rex, Antigone, Philoctetes (for artists) Sophocles… I know I’ve read those.

    I’ve touched on Plato’s Republic, many of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, the Aeneid, Dante’s Inferno, and surely as a French major, we covered Pascal’s Pensees somewhere. (That, or going to a Christian university for the first 3 years of my university career?). As a poet, I know I’ve read some Byron and Keats, and I know the story of Don Quixote, though I’ve never read it… it’s another I own, but haven’t read.
    ,
    I haven’t read, but I think I have a copy of to read at some point… Bhagavad Gita, Analects of Confucius, Republic Plato, The Prince,

    But like you, I grew up devouring books, and I read classics and pop culture as much as anything. I read Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, and other Sci-Fi/Horror as a kid, growing into Stephen King. I read Agatha Christie and Dean Koontz. I read Little Women, Little House On the Prairie (the whole set), all of the Narnia series, and Judy Blume voraciously. And when I’d read all of my books, I’d pick up my parent’s college textbooks and read those. Books were an escape, and I took my escape often.

  11. I have touched on several of the books throughout high school and college. I did not enjoy most of them because they were required, and it’s daunting to think about rereading the majority of the list. I agree however, an influencer must be well read as well as deeply varied in what they read. I better get started. Here’s hoping I find a different world than the one I engaged in 20 years ago.
    Audra Krell´s last blog post ..Out Live Your Life

    • @Audra Krell, I’ve found there is something completely different when reading a book as an older adult that you “choose” to read. Here’s hoping you do as well.

      Thanks, Audra. And I agree. It is a daunting list.

  12. Hey Randy! Thanks for the post…looks like I have my winter reading list! I’ve tried several times to read some of these you’ve mentioned but it is quite daunting…not the length of the book but the speech and verbage are overwhelming. I sometimes wish someone would translate them…thither and thou and wither and forewith’s get a bit overwhelmingith! Haha!! Guess I need a quite space to really concentrate! Oh, and a dictionary!
    Brittany Inman´s last blog post ..The Young Victoria

  13. Let’s see.

    I’ve read: The Bible, Republic, Hamlet, Henry IV, Iliad, Odyssey, Oedipus Rex, Antigone, Philoctetes, Divine Comedy, Don Quixote, Beowulf, Canterbury Tales, Crime & Punishment, and poems by Donne, Keats, and Byron.

    Of Note: I actually appreciated “The Brothers Karamazov” (by Dostoevsky) more than “Crime & Punishment.”

    I would very much like to read the Qur’an…

  14. Yes.

    Depends on the book: probably about half on my own, and half in college, honestly. A couple in Highschool, as special projects.

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