So, I’m going to guess that, since you’re on a web log that mostly reviews books, you might be looking for something to read. You can browse the Post Highlights and Review Index for ideas, but if you just want the best of the best, below are my recommendations. Since I haven’t reviewed anywhere near everything I’ve read, I won’t limit myself to books I’ve discussed on this blog, though I will include a link to relevant posts when appropriate.
There are two caveats. First, I claim no special authority here; my authority is, as I’ve said elsewhere, the same that Confucius claimed for himself. Enter a village and you may find others as honourable and sincere as I am, but you’ll find none as fond of learning. Second, this list is obviously limited to works that I’ve read. If a book is noticeably absent, that’s probably a shortcoming on my part.
I’m also sticking to books I’d recommend more-or-less universally. There are many other good books besides these, but the rest are either best only to those interested in a specific genre or subject, overly idiosyncratic, or a mixed bag of quality.
Before getting to the main list, though, since I know I’ll be called out if I don’t include it, read the Bible, you heathen. Yes, even if you’re not a Christian. The question of which translation to read if you’re approaching it for theology is a difficult one, but if you’re reading for literary value, it’s an easy choice: go with the King James Version, which is the most important book in English, with only Shakespeare’s works in the same ballpark.
I’ll start with the obvious choices, the heavyweights of Western literature. These are works that all educated Westerners should be familiar with.
The Iliad and The Odyssey, by Homer. These are foundational works in the Western literary tradition, often referenced by later writers, and have deservedly stood the test of time.
Metamorphoses, by Ovid. Another epic poem, this one collecting various Greek and Roman myths. One can find these stories in other anthologies, like Edith Hamilton’s or Thomas Bullfinch’s, but Ovid’s is the capital-‘C’ Classic.
The Divine Comedy, by Dante Alighieri. A powerful contender for the greatest achievement of Western Civilisation; many people have read Inferno in school, but the rest of the work provides a necessary balance. His earlier, much shorter book La Vita Nuova is also worth reading.
Various works of William Shakespeare. It’s difficult to narrow down, but watch as much as you can. Yes, watch – these are plays, not novels. You can safely start with his most famous; my personal favourites are Hamlet, Richard III, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Othello, and the sonnets.
Poems of T.S. Eliot. It helps to have read the above works first; again, his most famous are perfectly fine starting points. That would be The Waste Land, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “Ash Wednesday,” and “The Hollow Men.” You could also add the play Murder in the Cathedral, and if you need a break after all this heavy reading, his children’s book Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.
Poems of Ezra Pound. The greatest poet since Dante (Shakespeare was primarily a playwright), and I’d certainly recommend reading the above works first, because he seems to draw from absolutely everyone; it’s easy to simply recommend buying Library of America’s collection of his poems and translations, but Hugh Selwyn Mauberley is probably his best work outside his epic The Cantos.
To complement all these, it’s worth reading a few books about literature. Aristotle’s The Poetics is foundational; Pound’s ABC of Reading is practically required for getting the most out of his own work, but is also a solid guide to literature generally. Flannery O’Connor’s collection of essays Mystery and Manners is more wide-ranging, but also well worth a reader’s time.
With the essentials out of the way, here are some more novels and poets worth reading, in the order I noticed them on my bookshelves.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Pearl, each by the same anonymous poet. I’ve read J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation, which is good, though it’s worth taking a look at the original Middle English to get a sense of the sound of the poems, since that’s such an important part of any poem.
A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess. A rare case where it’s debatable whether the book is better than the movie, but both are worthwhile.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking-Glass, and The Hunting of the Snark, by Lewis Carroll. The Alice novels need no introduction, but I’d recommend The Annotated Alice, edited by Martin Gardner, for adult readers. Snark is an epic poem, and it’s exactly what you’d expect an epic poem by Carroll to look like.
The Ballad of the White Horse and The Napoleon of Notting Hill, by G.K. Chesterton. The former is an epic poem, the latter a novel, both featuring Chesterton at his best. You should also try some of his non-fiction work, but I’ve always preferred his fiction.
The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane. This was my favourite novel for a long time, since every young man wonders how he’d behave in battle, and this book is one of the most famous treatments of the subject.
The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick, my personal favourite science fiction (or “speculative fiction,” or whatever) novel.
Lord of the Flies, by William Golding. You may well have read this in high school when it was assigned in English class. Read it again with fresh eyes.
Le Morte d’Arthur, by Sir Thomas Mallory. The closest thing to a “standard” version of the Arthurian romances, at least in English. If you want more of Arthur besides this and Gawain and the Green Knight, pick up Ashe and Lacy’s The Arthurian Handbook, which is a very helpful guide to the overwhelmingly vast world of Arthurian literature.
Doctor Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe. The best-known version of the story of Faust in English, though often overshadowed by Johann Goethe’s. I prefer Marlowe’s, though it helps that I had the opportunity to see a live performance of it, but read both.
The Sea of Fertility tetralogy and The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, by Mishima Yukio. If you’re new to Mishima’s work, it’s best to start with Golden Pavilion and read his part-philosophy, part-autobiography Sun & Steel either right before or right after, because his fiction and non-fiction are each easier to follow in light of the other. Most of his other work is also excellent.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, by Miyazaki Hayao. What’s this doing here? Well, it’s one of the extreme few comics I’d recommend to those not specifically interested in the medium. Larger-scale and, honestly, better than the film version.
The Things they Carried, by Tim O’Brien. A collection of stories, some more-or-less autobiographical, on the Vietnam War. A bit hit-and-miss, like most such collections, but well worth a look for anyone interested in war literature.
Wise Blood and various short stories, by Flannery O’Connor. The most famous writer of Southern Gothic literature, with the obvious exception of Poe. Supplement with Mystery and Manners, mentioned above, to get the most out of these stories.
Animal Farm, by George Orwell. Yes, yes – another one you probably read as an assignment in high school, and a fairly basic anti-Soviet allegory. It’s still worthwhile.
Poems and short stories by Edgar Allan Poe. Another poet who needs no introduction; grab a compilation of his work and go through it.
Welcome to the N.H.K., by Takimoto Tatsuhiro. The story of a NEET, and far better than one would expect from something marketed largely to the otaku crowd.
Various poems by Dylan Thomas. You’ve probably read “Do not go gentle into that good night,” now do yourself a favour and go through the rest of his work. While you’re at it, check out his collection of autobiographical essays Quite Early One Morning.
The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien. If you’ve any interest in novels and haven’t read these already, I’m not sure what can be said to convince you. They deserve their popularity. You may want to complement these with Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories.”
Hyakunin Isshu. A collection of one hundred poems, each by a different poet. I’ve read and would recommend Frank Watson’s translation, published as One Hundred Leaves.
Various poems by W.B. Yeats. Another obvious, but essential, recommendation.
Next up, let’s go into non-fiction, again simply in the order that I notice them on my bookshelves.
The Nicomachean Ethics and Politics, by Aristotle. These should be read together, and are foundational to Western political theory.
On Christian Teaching, by St. Augustine. A short book that largely concerns interpretation of Scripture. Of course, one should also read his more famous Confessions.
De Laicis and De Romano Pontifice, by St. Robert Bellarmine. The former covers basic principles of civil government, the latter is a very thorough defense of the papacy, by a saint and Doctor of the Church.
Economics for Helen, by Hilaire Belloc. A useful introductory work to economics.
Propaganda, by Edward Bernays. Want to understand how advertising and propaganda work? Bernays is the man who laid much of the foundation for those things.
Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War, by Pat Buchanan. Far from being a “good war,” the Second World War was unnecessary and avoidable, as argued here.
Reflections on the Revolution in France, by Edmund Burke. Famous as the father of Conservatism, I think of Burke as the absolute centre of the political spectrum. Though his analysis comes up short in places, Reflections is justly famous and a great starting-point to moving farther Right on the political spectrum.
Iron Kingdom, by Christopher Clark. A large-scale history of Prussia; really just one step to gaining a broad knowledge of history, but a good step because it’s very well-written. Also useful to see how a real, historical monarchy actually operated.
The Analects of Confucius. The single most important influence on my view of politics. There are many translations, but Arthur Waley’s seems like the most well-balanced to me.
Aquinas, by Edward Feser. An excellent introduction both to St. Thomas Aquinas and to theology in general. Read St. Thomas himself, of course, but I highly recommend starting with Feser’s book, since he explains and clarifies St. Thomas’s terminology and assumptions that modern readers are prone to trip over.
Patriarcha, by Sir Robert Filmer. A classic defence of monarchism.
Economics in One Lesson, by Henry Hazlitt. A justly famous introduction to economics; very popular among Libertarians, but is useful even outside of that milieu.
The Histories, by Herodotus. By the Father of History; not always reliable in terms of fact, but invaluable and often entertaining.
Persona, by Inose and Sato. A comprehensive biography of Mishima Yukio.
Diplomacy, by Henry Kissinger. A diplomatic history, starting with Richelieu. The first several chapters, which cover basic principles and illustrations of diplomacy, are the most valuable; those dealing with events that Kissinger was personally involved in, Vietnam especially, are the most interesting.
The Idea of a University, by Bl. John Henry Newman. Universities are in a deplorable state today, but Newman explains what they ought to aim for.
Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited, by Emmett Scott. On the “Dark Ages” and Islamic conquests.
The Innocents Abroad, by Mark Twain. He’s best known, of course, for his novels, and if you haven’t read them you need to fix that, but this travelogue is among his best and most entertaining work.