What are the best books of all time?
Someone wrote to say, “A couple years ago you talked about the important of reading great books, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen you offer a reading list to authors. What books would you recommend?”
Hmmm…. Okay, I think I did this once before, but here you go. I did some work on this, and I now present The MacGregor Recommended Reading List for Writers…
Ancients (old books writers ought to at least have read once): Homer’s ILIAD and ODYSSEY; Sophocles’ OEDIPUS REX; Euripides’ THE TROJAN WOMEN and ELECTRA; Herodotus’ THE HISTORIES; Thucydides’ HISTORY OF THE PELOPPENESIAN WAR; Sun Tsu’s THE ART OF WAR; Aristophanes’ LYSISTRATA; Plato’s SELECTED WORKS; Virgil’s THE AENEID
Classics (the classic books that every writer should probably be familiar with): Augustine’s CONFESSIONS; Dante’s DIVINE COMEDY; Chaucer’s CANTERBURY TALES; Shahrazad’s THE THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS; Machiavelli’s THE PRINCE; Miguel de Servants’ DON QUIXOTE; Shakespeare’s COMPLETE WORKS; John Donne’s SELECTED WORKS; Galileo’s DIALOGUE CONCERNING THE TWO CHIEF WORLD SYSTEMS; Hobbe’s LEVIATHAN; Descarte’s DISCOURSE ON METHOD; Milton’s PARADISE LOST; Moliere’s PLAYS; Blaise Pascal’s PENSEES; Bunyan’s PILGRIM’S PROGRESS; John Locke’s SECOND TREATISE ON GOVERNMENT; Daniel Defoe’s ROBINSON CRUSOE; Jonathan Swift’s GULLIVER’S TRAVELS; Voltaire’s CANDIDE; Henry Fielding’s TOM JONES; Laurence Sterne’s TRISTRAM SHANDY; James Boswell’s LIFE OF SAMUEL JOHNSON; Thomas Jefferson’s BASIC DOCUMENTS IN AMERICAN HISTORY; Hamilton, Madison, and Jay’s THE FEDERALIST PAPERS.
Moderns (a change here — we get into the modern version of the novel): Jane Austen’s PRIDE AND PREJUDICE; Stendahl’s THE RED AND THE BLACK; Hawthorne’s THE SCARLET LETTER; Thackeray’s VANITY FAIR; Dicken’s THE PICKWICK PAPERS, DAVID COPPERFIELD, HARD TIMES, THE OLD CURIOSITY SHOP; Charlotte Bronte’s JANE EYRE; Emily Bronte’s WUTHERING HEIGHTS; Anthony Trollope’s THE WAY WE LIVE NOW and THE WARDEN; Herman Melville’s MODY DICK; George Elliott’s THE MILL ON THE FLOSS; Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s FAUST; Gustave Flaubert’s MADAME BOVARY; Selected poems of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman; Alexis de Tocqueville’s DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA; the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe; Thoreau’s WALDEN.
Moving Toward Contemporaries (these aren’t really “contemporary” yet, but they’re in the time of transition as literature moved toward contemporary books — and yes, feel free to argue with me on definitions, since I’m making this up as I go along): Dostoyevsky’s CRIME AND PUNISHMENT and THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV; Tolstoy’s WAR AND PEACE; Mark Twain’s HUCKLEBERRY FINN; Lewis Carroll’s ALICE’S ADVENTURE IN WONDERLAND; Henry Adams’ THE EDUCATION OF HENRY ADAMS; Thomas Hardy’s THE MAYOR OF CASTORBRIDGE; Henry James’ THE AMBASSADORS; Joseph Conrad’s NOSTROMO; Anton Chekhov’s THREE SISTERS and THE CHERRY ORCHARD; George Bernard Shaw’s MAJOR BARBARA; Edith Wharton’s THAT HOUSE OF MIRTH; Marcel Proust’s SWANN’S WAY; Thomas Mann’s THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN; the poetry of Yates.
Contemporary (here’s where there will be the most argument — lots of folks could be added or subtracted): The poetry of Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot, and W.H. Auden; E.M. Forster’s A PASSAGE TO INDIA; James Joyce’s ULYSSES; Virginia Woolf’s TO THE LIGHTHOUSE; D.H. Lawrence’s SONS AND LOVERS; Eugene O’Neill’s LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT and THE ICEMAN COMETH; Aldous Huxley’s BRAVE NEW WORLD; William Faulkner’s AS I LAY DYING; Ernest Hemingway’s THE SUN ALSO RISES; George Orwell’s 1984; Albert Camus’ THE PLAGUE; Saul Bellow’s THE ADVENTURES OF AUGIE MARSH; Aleksander Solzhenitsy’s CANCER WARD; Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 YEARS OF SOLITUDE; Thomas Pynchon’s GRAVITY’S RAINBOW; Samuel Becket’s WAITING FOR GODOT.
What’s Missing? Novels from our own day. Genre novels. Christian novels (which we represent a bunch of). Lots of others. What do you think? What’s missing? What would you add?
I have read 25 books on your list. I have a lot of catching up to do be fore I can consider myself well read.
I’ve always believed that Les Miserables was among the 5 greatest books ever written, especially so long as there is a class war anywhere in the world.
is there any way you could edit this post and make your paragraphs into lists? it’s really hard to read. and by the way, it’s YEATS. thank you.
I agree with the commenter who suggested Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden. Both show the power of research, place, dialog, and multi-faceted conflict. I’m not sure I’d put Emerson’s poetry on a list of classics, but some of his essays certainly, such as “The American Scholar” and “The Poet”.
My other suggestion would be Herman Wouk’s two great books, Winds of War and War and Remembrance. He does so much with historical settings and research.
Dare I weigh in? I’ve read ten whole books off of Chip’s list and a smattering of the poems and short stories by the authors listed but got up to 19 or 20 as I read through the comments… So, take this for what it’s worth, y’all. The books–classic, modern, or not-even-close, that have captured my heart: #1 The Book Thief (Zusak) bumped The Poisonwood Bible (Kingsolver) into the #2 spot. Then, in no particular order: East of Eden/Of Mice and Men (Steinbeck), The Good Earth (Buck), The Scarlet Letter (Hawthorne), Siddhartha (Hesse), and Green Eggs and Ham (Geisel). Don’t judge me. The Christian books I’ve loved are Soul Survivor–How My Faith Survived the Church (Yancey) and Love Wins/Velvet Elvis (Bell). Yeah, I said it. HA!
Appreciate your comments, Daisy. THE BOOK THIEF is fabulous, as are several of those you mentioned. And I’m one of those who really enjoyed LOVE WINS, even though I fear that puts me in the minority in the faith community.
I attended a writer’s conference at The Navigators in Colorado Springs. Monte Unger was the instructor. It was like in 1992. He scared at least me when he said a writer must read two complete books each day of the year: that is 365 days, each year, for the rest of their life. That made me want to quit writing immediately. Yowza!
Well, I certainly don’t live up to that standard. In fact, I don’t know many who read two complete books a day, Cindy. Any, in fact. But I do think writers will grow if they read great writing.
Silence is rare for me. I’m speechless. 8^) Anyone have all these books in their library, physically? Like in a small house, lost in the forest, no electronics, no way out until all books read kind of place? [gulp]
Um… well, yeah, Cindy. I do. But I’m not trying to sound like a snob. I’m simply encouraging writers to read great books.
Oh goodness … no I have no qualms about this list. You’re far from a snob or even a hint of being one. I agree totally. I’ve ready many of them, but want to read them all plus more. Just can’t get life to leave me alone so I can. 8^) In fact, I love the word of the day from Dictionary.com: biblioklept, A person who steals books.
Didn’t see any snobbery in having read these books. Personally, I read just about all of them on the list before graduating high school. And, didn’t major in English… These are just the books writers read. Plus even a lot of junk like Grisham and Patterson and Heyer and the like. It’s what a writer does… read. I read 4-5 novels each week and have since I was six years old. Didn’t have the kind of parents who made me read Hardy Boys and that kind of stuff, but assumed I had a mind that could take on better writing. Don’t want to get into a big fight, but it seems almost as if calling people who’ve read a lot of good books “snobs” is snobbish in itself. The thing is, to take pride in not having read the best of English literature is kind of a reverse-elitist thing in itself. There’s a value in reading good literature. As one of our best writers, Jim Harrison said when asked for advice in becoming a writer: “Read the whole of the past 400 years of what passes for good in the English language… and then, if you have time, read the same of the past 400 years in Eastern literature. For, if you don’t know what passed for good in the past, how can you expect to know what passes for good today?”
The answer is obvious, I think. Perhaps why vampire stories and bodice-ripper covers are out there so much… Why self-pubbing ebooks attracts so many…
Oh, hell… let the fight begin… It’s too quiet in here…
I’m with you 100%, Les. This isn’t snobbery — it’s literature. And great literature trumps crappy literature any day of the week. It takes a great mind to think through great ideas and great literature. It takes a shallow mind to skim over shallow literature. (That is NOT saying all literature has to be deep or great, by the way. I represent and read books that are popular but not deep nor classically minded, nor even particularly thoughtful. But this was a column on the classics, not on the “popular but crummy.”)
Exactly, Chip. I read lesser quality stuff as well, but try to read mostly quality work. Life’s too short to waste precious time on much junk, but occasionally a MacDonald hamburger tastes good. And, a writer can always learn something, even from the worst book–maybe how not to do something. Books are the stuff of our profession. I just went back to see if my claim that I read 4-5 novels a week was accurate and it was. Just a little under a novel a day. It’s just part of the job of a writer, although I know I go overboard a bit (that’s an example of irony for those who don’t read great literature…). Right now, I’m reading a fairly representative bunch of books for me (I read several novels at the same time). Am rereading William Goyen’s HAD I A HUNDRED MOUTHS, and Celine’s DEATH ON THE INSTALLMENT PLAN. Am reading David Baldacci’s THE FORGOTTEN, Tony Black’s THE STORM WITHOUT, and DIRTY SNOW by Simenon. Started those this past week and done with all but Celine and that’ll take awhile–Celine writes by the pound… I do read extremely fast and I read just about every single moment I’m not writing. Don’t watch TV much except for a few games (Irish football and I.U. basketball…), and I don’t go to the bathroom, eat a meal, or do anything without a book or my Kindle in my hand. I take baths instead of showers so I can read… When I was a criminal and in “the life” I always had a book with me in case I got caught–couldn’t imagine being in the bullpen without reading material… It’s a sickness… but one I choose willingly. And, I imagine I read far less than an agent such as yourself does who has to read countless manuscripts a week as well as books already published. I simply can’t imagine a writer who doesn’t read voraciously. I can imagine a typist who gets published not reading much…
And once again I agree. I’m reading through a series of books finishing one very other day. Contemporary. Big sellers. And I’m sad at the poor grammar, scattered concept and story-line, and thin writing. It’s not that I’m some big time pro or perfect writer, but it’s crazy to see what pumps off the printer…
I would add At Home in Mitford (or the whole Mitford series), by Jan Karon. IMHO one could not find a better example (so far) of a classic Christian novel.
This Present Darkness is a good thought, too.
I also agree with adding C. S. Lewis and God’s Smuggler (Brother Andrew) .
Thanks for letting us share!
Okay… Christa, interesting. I think Jan Karon’s novels are cute, but not classic. (One man’s opinion… and what do I know?) I think “This Present Darkness” is a cool idea that is so poorly written it’s almost comical. Evangelicals love to point to it because it launched spiritual warfare novels, but go back and read it — the book is simply not well written. (We can argue about the theology and workability of his story some other day.)
I have to admit—it’s been YEARS since I read This Present Darkness! On Karon, these are the reasons I would respectfully argue that Karon’s works could be “classic Christian”: 1. Karon developed her characters so well that I feel I could meet any number of them on the street. 2. The vivid descriptions bring Mitford to “life.” Characters full of personality and dimension plus vibrant description of a lovely town equals “classic” presentation of 20th century small town America (IMHO). I feel this book could be read in the future similar to how we read Laura Ingalls Wilder today, only adult-oriented. 3. The theology is so good (IMHO) that this fiction can help people through normal life. 4. To the best of my remembrance, I believe each novel presents the gospel in a natural way that it is not at all preachy. 5. The subjects brought up are universal and timeless—death, birth, marriage, interaction between people of various ages, human depravity, and the Church. That said, I respect others’ opinions and realize that people agreeing on the classics of all time might be impossible. 🙂
You’re right — agreeing on great works is impossible, Christa. But THANKS for offering a thoughtful reply on Jan Karon. I actually like her books, lest you think I’m being unfair. I think she has memorable characters and gets into interesting issues. Sometimes a bit too sweet for me, but… well, this is a shock, but I’m not always sweet. Appreciated your comment.
Sigh. First thought that popped into my head: We’re not worthy. We’re not worthy…. Hey. At least I recognize every one of them! I, too, would add du Maurier (Rebecca AND Jamaica Inn!) to your list, as well as Mary Stewart. For a myriad of reasons, Alex Haley’s Roots. In fact, now my mind is a-flurry with names and titles….
Great list – Although I must admit I’ve never felt guilty for NOT reading before.
This isn’t a guilty vs non-guilty column though, Becky. It’s just opinion. I think du Maurier could certainly write. I haven’t looked at Alex Haley in years — his reputation hasn’t been retained as others have. I’ll have to remind myself of his body of work sometime. Thanks.
Eh. Don’t misunderstand – The guilt stems from getting in trouble for reading TOO MUCH (if that’s even possible) my whole life. So when someone tells me I should read more, I gleefully (and yes, with traces of guilt) glance over my shoulder…. I read a lot of these books before I graduated high school – Roots was extra-credit reading for my 8th grade and it tore me up like no other book I’d read up until that point. I grew up in the jungles of Papua new Guinea (with Don Richardson) and I was still shocked that people could be so inhumane to other humans, ESPECIALLY in more “civilized” worlds. It blew my little mind…but it opened my eyes to what the PURPOSE of good writing is – to move the reader, to change them in some small way, to stir them long after the last page is turned.
Have a wonderful and delicious Thanksgiving!
Dracula – probably has gotten more bang for the buck and influenced and inspired more stories and films than any novel I can think of.
Yes, and a dark, spiritual, well-written story, Tim. Thanks for the reminder.
This topic has generated a good conversation. Many of these books have a timelessness that give them staying power, though some do not. What would you say are the elements of greatness that elevate them above the rest?
This is a post in itself, of course, but generally great literature looks at the big questions of life through characters we care about, we find the people and situation interesting, and we watch them make decisions that have consequences, though we may or may not agree with the decisions they make. So through people we find valuable we see them wrestle with the great issues of life. How’s that for a start, Tim?
A good start, thanks. I hope the topic will continue in a post of its own.
I’ve never even heard of most of these books, let alone read them. I’m not stupid (I have 22 letters after my name), but does the fact I’ve never studied any of the titles on your list make me a bad writer? I’m not claiming to be a good writer- far from it, but I do think it’s possible to study the craft without reading this list of books. I write for a contemporary audience, in contemporary language, utilizing techniques stolen from television dramas and films as much as those learned in writing classes. I’m sure folk who are familiar with your list feel more confident and believe they write better as a result, but for once I’m going to stand up and say aloud that I think there’s a lot of snobbery in the writing world around having been exposed to ancient and classic texts which doesn’t necessarily translate into being more capable of communicating with today’s audience. Of course, you were asked for your recommended reading and you gave a personal list, which is fine. I just didn’t want the thousands of other writers who (like me) didn’t read English at University to think they were inadequate for not having these particular books in their repertoire. Rant over!
It takes a lot to get me on my soapbox, so I must feel more strongly about this topic than I realised. Thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts. 🙂
Psst. Rose – I’ve heard Faulkner is boring. Love this rant – I think you’re very capable of communicating with today’s audience. (-:
(I’d also agree that Hemingway is overrated! And there’s something to be said for speaking to today’s audience. I often wonder what contemp. books will go down in history as classics.)
I disagree on Hemingway. He deeply influenced contemporary American writing. But his reputation has certainly been flagging. Go back and look at his work in “The Sun Also Rises” or his short story “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” Great work.
I also think Faulkner is horrible. Many on the list I’ve read and dislike (Moby Dick comes to mind — there’s more in there about whales than you ever want to know). But I am glad I at least have read them so I can form my own first-hand opinion. Their styles are so varied; that’s probably the main thing I get from reading books out of my comfort zone. Even if you decide you don’t like them (and again, lots of them, I do not), it is fun to learn about the period when they were written and why they were groundbreakers in their day.
I’d love to see a list of your recommended humor authors, Chip.
I will admit it here: I’ve never been a Faulkner fan, Lynn. I always worry that makes me shallow…
Um… you’ve never HEARD of most of these books, Rose? Seriously? Um… okay, move this out of the realm of books. If I said, “I create songs, but have never listened to great music,” or “I paint, but I’ve never actually looked at great art,” people would say I’m either incredibly naive or arrogant. Any artist simply gets better when exposed to great art. So perhaps the snobbery is more in someone saying, “I’m so smart I don’t have to learn from the greats who have come before me.” Sorry if that’s too pointed, but I think your rant is incredibly wrong-headed. If you want to be great, you hang out with greatness.
Well said. Last year I turned to the classics and they’re changing my life. Many of the titles you recommend are on my list. I have no letters after my name, but I’ve found a support system of intelligent blog-friends who encourage me every single day!
“Classics are books which, the more we think we know them by hearsay, the more original, unexpected, and innovative we find them when we actually read them.” — Italo Calvino
Thanks for the message, CQ. You’re right — classics speak to the soul, which is why they remain classics instead of just “populars.”
Despite what some say about a degree in English actually inhibiting creative writing, It does involve the study of many classics. Not sure I would have read a lot of these classics without those four undergrad years. (I was one of those English geeks who actually quoted Waiting for Godot until my friends were greatly annoyed!) Thanks, Chip, for such a comprehensive and diverse list. Love the inclusion of The Federalist Papers.
Ha! Love the picture of you quoting Waiting for Godot, Meghan! I had my best friend throw a book at me for quoting Brendan Beehan too many times!
Hmm, it would appear that I am heavy on classics and light on moderns-unless you add the complete works of C.S. Lewis and Tolkien. Perhaps this is because the classics are indisputable and the moderns are open for argument. I hate the potential for argument. The classical authors have already rested their case. Nevertheless, I must campaign for Lewis’ Space Trilogy; a fascinating read particularly if you are already saturated in biblical and philosophical thought.
Interesting. I couldn’t get into the Space Trilogy the way some people did, though I love Lewis’ writings. Thanks, Cherry.
Hummm…Let me see, how many books have been written over the course of “all time?” Since there are very few books I’d read twice, I’d have to add the ones I read over and over – Les Miserables and To Kill a Mockingbird.
To obvious and excellent choices, Ellen. Thanks. Should be on anyone’s list!
Wow! Interesting stuff. THIS is speaking my language…I always miss it when I haven’t read a classic in awhile. I might add Ender’s Game as a sci-fi classic. And definitely agree that Gatsby should be on there, for the writing style alone.
And how about Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca as a mystery? Or The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson?
I’m also fairly surprised Gone with the Wind isn’t on there. I know it’s more romance, but still a classic.
YA has some classics, too–like Island of the Blue Dolphins. I’d even classify the recent book War Horse as a classic.
Hm. Christian classics? Well, there are game-changers like This Present Darkness. But I’m hoping I can write one…grin.
Also, possibly the Anne of Green Gables series should be on the list. And now I will stop, before I list every one of my fave books..
I think Lucy Maud Montgomery created one of the most timeless characters in history, Heather. Loved that series, the situations, the manners, the characters.
Love Shirley Jackson. Like Daphne du Maurier. But “This Present Darkness”? Um… no. Not a classic. Terribly written. Peretti in his early days couldn’t write dialogue to save his soul. I mean, evangelicals fell in love with his cool images, but in no way is that a classic book. ugh. (One man’s opinion, of course. You’re welcome to disagree, Heather!)
I’d add Baroness Orczy’s, THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL. One of my favorite books.
Huh. Okay, thanks, Leah. It’s been years. I’ll have to read it again.
Flannery O’Connors works. J.R.R. Tolkien’s works. Marilynne Robinson’s books “Gilead” and “Home.” Short story collections like Tim O’Brien’s “The Things We Carried.” On a “wish to see as must reads” list: “The Yellow Birds” by Kevin Powers and “The Snow Child” by Eowyn Ivey.
Fabulous choices. I think Tim O’Brien a genius. Did you ever read “Going After Cacciato”? Wow. And I’m a huge O’Connor fan. Thanks, Cheryl.
Tim’s a great writer. Personal experience with him. Shortly after I got out of prison, I submitted a mss for a workshop he was holding at the Indianapolis library. Got in (four of us) and during the 4-hour workshop, we went outside to smoke and he said, “Les, I love your stuff. Your writing reminds me so much of Ray Carver.” I thanked him, but didn’t have a clue then who Carver was. Actually, I didn’t know who Tim was at the time other than he’d written some bestselling stuff and was some kind of a big deal. Well, after that, I went and bought a Carver book and it was like meeting a twin brother! Later, when my first collection of short stories came out, the NY Times compared me favorably to Carver and that remains my favorite review of all time. Don’t pretend to be at his level, but his style felt just like mine, which isn’t all that remarkable as one of my influences was the Father of Minimalism, Hemingway.
Tim and I corresponded for awhile and then we drifted away, each in our own pursuits. Did get to see and chat with him a few years ago when I was the visiting writer-in-residence at the University of Toledo and we had him in for a talk. I was disappointed that he’d quit smoking… at the Indy workshop, he came in with a couple of packs of Marlboros and ended up smoking them all during our workshop. I came in with two packs of Camel regulars and did the same. We bonded over the smoke breaks…
And, O’Connor? Brilliant. I put her in the top three of all time short story writers–with Chekhov and Carver. The best.
Being compared to Raymond Carver should be on anyone’s lifetime achievement list, Butch.
I haven’t read it, yet, but I will. Thanks for mentioning it. 🙂
I’d add Beowulf, Emily Dickinson, and Gatsby. For contemporary, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (it’s a masterpiece). I’d also include anything by CS Lewis (although I really love The Great Divorce), along with Tolkien’s LOTR or Hobbit. For Christians, The Hiding Place and God’s Smuggler are rich and enduring works of practical faith lived out in hostile cultures. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring changed the world. For classic YA/children’s, I’d nominate The Secret Garden. Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes for memoir. The Perfect Storm or Into Thin Air for narrative nonfiction. At least one Steinbeck–Grapes of Wrath, probably. And Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies for spiritual rebirth.
Hmmm… I can agree on Gatsby. And Tinker Creek is great. I disagree on The Hiding Place (not great literature) and God’s Smuggler (not even a good read, in my opinion). Loved Angela’s Ashes, and thought The Perfect Storm was just about the best narrative nonfiction I’d ever read, Susy. Traveling Mercies is great. But Silent Spring? Um… not great literature, not great science, and I think one of the most over-hyped books of all time. Why do people find Rachel Carson deep? I found her to be a silly scaremonger. Convince me!
But again, one man’s opinion, Susy. Greatness is best measured over time, and I’ve long thought Rachek Carson wouldn’t hold up well. She’s seen as an influential thinker, certainly. Would love to hear why you like her. (For those who don’t know, Susy is a NYT best selling writer herself!)
Didn’t see the best novel of all time, Chip. Camus’ THE STRANGER… Good list. Read just about all of them. Oh–I think I’d have to include the body of Ray Carver’s work along with Chekhov and O’Connor… Wait! There’s more… About a hundred thousand more. Let’s see… there’s…
Agreed. Camus is fabulous. And Flannery O’Connor should have been on my list, Les.