College has several purposes and aspects. During the college years, one undertakes study and preparation for a life and career after college. We forge new friendships, discover and establish our own beliefs and values as well as become exposed to a broader universe of intellectual and cultural history. Often this takes the form of competing ideas. However, the college experience isn’t limited to study and society.
There are practical considerations as well that often dictate the success of college itself. Basic questions arise. Where should I go to college? What should I study? Once I’ve chosen and been accepted into a college, how am I going to keep up with the rigors of study? How am I going to afford college?
This list is divided into four basic sections that touch upon the many issues that college students face. The following will provide the student with some tips on where to look for answers to the many practical questions he or she faces.
- The first section of this list provides some essential books that will help resolve the practical basics of college life.
- The second section includes titles on religion, philosophy, society, and economics.
- The third lists key works in science and mathematics. The final section provides titles of great works of literature.
- The final list emphasizes literature because often literature touches upon several if not all of the issues so central to human life and experience.
Furthermore, works of literature do not require more specialized training and knowledge that many of the other genres do. This makes literature more universally accessible and meaningful to more people from any walk of life.
Choosing a College, Paying for College, Surviving in College and Thriving in the Classroom
College Major Quizzes:
12 Easy Tests to Discover Which Programs are Best
Brian J. Liptak (2011)
College requires great financial and time investment. In order to most efficiently reach one’s educational and career goals, it’s good at the beginning to have an idea of what one is going to study in college. Liptak’s book provides an easy and convenient way through 12 tests to discover where one’s interests and talents are and what college majors best match up with these. College Major Quizzes or a similar book is a must for prospective and early college students, seeking to determine what course or courses of study they should major in.
Fiske Guide to Colleges (2016 ed.)
Knowing the options for college is essential to choosing the right one for you. Fiske provides potential students with key information on 322 of the best colleges, “featuring… ratings, tips from current students, and tools for broadening and narrowing” one’s search. If one is looking for a more complete list, The Complete Book of Colleges (2016 Edition) lists over 1, 500 colleges.
Pay for College Without Going Broke, 2015 Edition
If one is going to be successful throughout college and after finishing, one has to manage the costs. Chany’s book provides tips on calculating costs, understanding financial aid, and how to compare different offers, make plans based upon one’s state of life, money-saving, and the application process. With a foreword by former president Bill Clinton, Pay for College without Going Broke provides essential information on how to make it through college with limited funds.
How to Become a Straight-A Student: The Unconventional Strategies Real Students Use to Score High While Studying Less
Cal Newport (2006)
The transition from high school to college means a major increase in course work and the time needed to complete it. Balancing academics, work, play, and social life can be like navigating a minefield for college students. Newport offers real-life strategies that allow one to be academically successful and at the same time avoid becoming a hermit. How to Become a Straight-A Student or another book of the same kind is essential for any college student seeking academic success.
The Elements of Style
William Strunk Jr. & E.B. White (1999 4th ed.)
The Elements of Style by Strunk and White is (or should be) beside any student writer (and proficient, too!). In 2011 Time named this little instruction book on writing good prose one the most influential books of the 20th century. Originally composed in 1918 by Cornell University, professor of English, William Strunk, the book was later to become virtually a household name among writers. The Elements rise in notoriety came largely because of E.B. White’s (of Charlotte’s Web fame), a former student of Strunk’s, publicizing, and revisions to the original guide. Now in its 4th edition (1999), Strunk and White’s emphasis on concision and clarity in word choice and phrasing remains an indispensable and accessible manual that will be of immense benefit to any college or university student taking up a pen.
The Idea of a University
John Henry Newman (1852)
More widely known for his theological writings and as the 19th century’s most famous convert from the Anglican to the Roman Catholic Church, Newman was also a highly educated person and a brilliant educational theorist. The Idea of a University is the result of Newman’s commission by the Roman Catholic Bishops of England to found a Catholic University in Ireland. Although this venture was ultimately unsuccessful, the vision for a university education sketched in The Idea of a University has a perennial value and can serve as both points of contrast and inspiration for modern-day university education.
For Newman the university’s end was located in the raising of the student to a higher form of life, a life of the mind that engages its topics in a holistic manner, not seeking to exploit or dominate, but rather to receive and assimilate and thereby to master. Also, the university, unlike the academy, trade school, or seminary, was not primarily to equip for a function or to primarily convey knowledge. Rather, The Idea of a University presents a vision of university education in the context of the total person in society. Newman’s view is intended to elevate the person in terms of his or her freedom and inherent nobility and to set a standard for high ideals of civic and intellectual life that would also be pursued in and through university education.
Newman’s The Idea of a University presents a vision of higher education that in many ways is at odds with modern college and university life. Although certainly not perfect in its total vision or in its parts, The Idea of a University presents a deeply learned, sophisticated, and noble vision of the academic excellence that can serve as a point of comparison and contrast for current college students and their academic goals.
Religion, Philosophy, Science and Economics
So much history, philosophy, religion, law, and culture is related to the Bible. Broken into two main sections and containing 66 books (or 73 books if you’re Catholic), the Bible contains a wealth of literary genres, including history, poetry, wisdom writings, and prophetic writings. The Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament recounts how the Jewish people understood God’s plan for them and for all humanity. The New Testament tells of the life of Jesus Christ and the early beginning of Christianity. Because of the immense influence, the Bible has had throughout history in shaping the worldview of so many, all college students should become familiar with its message and structure.
Aristotle (350 B.C.)
Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is the first extended and systematic philosophical treatment of nature, principles, and ends of human beings in society. Though written over 2,000 years ago, Ethics still has much to contribute to our understanding of the purpose of human activity within a community. Aristotle, instead of beginning with religious or other preconceptions, starts with observing actual human behaviors and human moral and social traditions. From this body of observation, Aristotle draws general conclusions about the relationship between individuals with society and the purpose or end of society itself. Aristotle discovers that happiness is the goal of human action, and provides very helpful ways of understanding, even for today, just what happiness is and how it might be pursued in a just manner for the common good of society.
Wealth of Nations
Adam Smith (1776)
The Scottish economic theorist, Adam Smith’s magnum opus, Wealth of Nations seems to be the 1st sustained theoretical consideration of economics as a proper discipline. Smith gives great attention to a general view of human nature as such and within the context of society. Wealth of Nations is filled with facts and tables, which provide Smith’s account with a great deal of evidence in favor of his arguments. Central to Smith’s theory is the division of labor, the creation of surpluses, which, in turn, allows for further investment and greater economic efficiency. Smith emphasizes the notion that the economy is intrinsically self-regulating, which has been the object of criticism. Along with The Communist Manifesto, Wealth of Nations remains one of the most influential economic treatises ever written and stands as a foundation for the rise of capitalism.
The Federalist Papers
Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay (1788)
The Federalist Papers is a collection of political tracts written to argue for and explain the U.S. Constitution. As the earliest treatise on the Constitution and because it was written by three of key framers, The Federalist Papers provides the clearest presentation of the original intent and meaning of the U.S. Constitution, which stands at the basis of the American social and political structure. Among several key topics discussed by Hamilton, Madison and Jay are representative government, the separation of powers, the notion of legal and political checks and balances, and the nature of representative government.
Democracy in America
Alexis de Tocqueville (1835, 1840)
Democracy in America, originally written in French and entitled De La Démocratie en Amérique, was the result of De Tocqueville’s commission by French authorities to come to America to study American prisons. For De Tocqueville, official business served as the excuse to observe American society as a whole. Democracy in America provides an early analysis of the development and structure of American, specifically the United States, society, and government out of the medieval European models. De Tocqueville’s primary interest is to consider and explain how and why democracy succeeded in America. A secondary interest was how to apply the positive developments found in American representative democracy to De Tocqueville’s native France.
While remaining very positive about the status and prospects for the American democratic system, especially the greater equality, education, and opportunity found in America as opposed to Europe, De Tocqueville also discerned certain trends that would have negative effects down the road. De Tocqueville was very concerned that American democracy through common opinion and peer pressure could result in a kind of soft despotism. If this route was averted De Tocqueville believed that a similar tyranny could be imposed by sheer majority apart from constitutional and moral considerations. Although De Tocqueville praises the American system for its clearer distinction between government and religion, he also warns that democracy cannot be maintained if morality fails and morality requires faith.
A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave
Frederick Douglass (1845)
After Frederick Douglass, born a slave, had escaped from his masters to the North, he became a brilliant social reformer. Not limited to fighting in speech and writing, his masterful oratory and incisive prose caused many who heard him speak or read his writings to accuse him of being a fraud, that is, of never having been a slave at all. In order to prove his origins, he wrote three autobiographies. A Narrative in the Live of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave is the shortest of the three, earliest written, just seven years after his gaining freedom, and the best of the three autobiographies. Douglass’ narrative recounts his life from his youth through to his escape, marriage, and the beginnings of his life as a social activist.
Douglass provides vivid and heartrending accounts of his separation from family, beatings, and the general rule of fear and cruelty that characterized the behaviors of slaveholders. Douglass’ autobiography became a pivotal text in the abolitionist movement, and A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave the most important work of whom many consider the best African American writer of the 19th century. Douglass, through telling the tale of his own life, tells us where America has been and is necessary reading.
The Communist Manifesto
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1848)
The Communist Manifesto is one of the most influential political works ever composed, serving as the intellectual and economic foundation of the social and political counterparts to capitalism. Marx and Engels developed their theory of communism out of a keen criticism of industrial capitalism that both propped up and fostered, in their minds, the class struggle. Naturally, the disagreements Marx and Engels had with capitalism had to do with what they perceived as an unjust disparity in the distribution of the means of production. This inequality rendered the distinction of classes and the rule by a single class, with bourgeois middlemen, that controlled the means of production.
The Manifesto’s economic focus, according to critics, does not do full justice to the entire range of human aspiration and activity. However, it’s hard to argue that Marx and Engels failed to provide a powerful critique of the abuses that ensue if capital and the means of production aren’t equitably distributed. Much of the history of the 20th century concerned the clash between the economic principles enunciated by Marx and Engels and the capitalism of the West.
The Oregon Trail
Francis Parkman (1849)
Though plenty of histories have been written about the Oregon Trail, the path that marked out the new territories in the U.S., Francis Parkman’s book is truly original. In 1846, Parkman himself traveled on the Oregon Trail. Having just graduated from Harvard Law School, he wanted to visit one of the Indian villages to see first hand what was left of the native population in its original habitat. Parkman was not only a historian and adventurer but also a well-known horticulturist, artist, and poet. His diverse and unique abilities allowed him to paint an evocative picture of the beautiful and difficult journey that shaped the future of America. The effect of his work on the American people included even the president, Theodore Roosevelt, who dedicated his own four-volume history of the frontier to Parkman.
Up From Slavery: An Autobiography
Booker T. Washington (1901)
Considered by some of the most important works of non-fiction written in the 20th century, Booker T. Washington’s, Up From Slavery recounts the events of Washington’s life. It begins with his childhood as a slave during the Civil War, moves through his entrance and completion of university to his social efforts to help provide other African Americans with education in both academics and trade. In many ways Up From Slavery is an apology (a defense): that is Washington attempts to justify to the white majority that black people can enter into a generally white culture, be educated, and contribute to that culture. Some criticized both Washington’s assumptions, which seemed to presuppose a superiority of white culture and methods concerning the place of blacks in American culture.
While critiques of this nature have validity, Up From Slavery also documents the positive effect Washington’s efforts had in empowering black people and improving aspects of their lives. In sum, as a work by a black man about his own experience and life’s work, written during a time of great social and political change, Up From Slavery is an essential book for appreciating the plight of African Americans and the need for the later Civil Rights Movement.
Civilization and Its Discontents
Sigmund Freud (1930)
Civilization and Its Discontents is one of Sigmund Freud’s most highly regarded works. Freud, if not the most important, is certainly the best-known psychoanalyst of the 20th century. Written in the wake of World War I, Civilization and Its Discontents is an exploration of the fundamental strain between the individual person and society. Freud sought to ground and explain human behavior in instinctive desires, motivated and sustained by pleasure. This more “naturalistic” approach might be usefully contrasted with the “supernaturalist” approach that C.S. Lewis presents in his Abolition of Man (also in this list). Freud’s thesis is that individuals seek the freedom to realize their instinctive desires, pertaining especially to sexual gratification. However, the individual’s freedom, if left unchecked, results in manifold forms of violence that harm society. Thus, societies enact legislation that curtails humanity’s instinctive drives for pleasure.
As a means to justify civil laws, which limit individual freedom, Freud argues that religion–namely an authoritative father figure–acts as a, so to speak, domesticating force, helping to curb harmful pursuits of freedom. Civilization and Its Discontents is pivotal and essential for college students seeking insight into the development of social and moral thought and practice in the latter 20th century.
Homage to Catalonia
George Orwell (1938)
Homage to Catalonia is the collection of George Orwell’s (famous for 1984 and Animal Farm) memoirs of his involvement in the Spanish Civil War. Orwell was in Spain in 1936 and 1937 and served in the Anti-Stalinist Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification until he was shot through the throat and forced to leave military service. Orwell returned to England in 1938 and within nine months completed his Homage. A British edition was published in 1938, but the American edition did not appear until 1952. Orwell’s skill as a writer and his scrupulous commitment to convey the truth of the War as he experienced it makes the Homage a unique 20th-century war chronicle. Many consider it to be the single best book written on the Spanish Civil War. It serves as essential reading for coming to grips with the history of the 20th century’s major political struggles and key developments in Spain and all of Europe.
The Abolition of Man
C.S. Lewis (1943)
Presented in 1942 as a series of three lectures, the resulting book, The Abolition of Man, may be the most important presentation of traditional morals penned in the 20th century. Regardless of where one comes down on questions pertaining to the meaning of life, human nature, education, social order and morality, Lewis captures the essence of the conservative tradition and offers vigorous rebuttal and argumentation. Prompted by the 1939 publication of The Control of Language: A Critical Approach to Reading and Writing by Alex King and Martin Ketley, which was to be used as a text in British schools, Lewis took exception to what he saw as a work of philosophical anthropology masquerading as a grammar textbook. Lewis thought that King and Ketley’s view that value and meaning are the results of subjective desires imposed by individuals upon what they experience, reduced human persons to split existence between science and sentiment.
Lewis argues that something unique about human beings allows them to access universal and objective truth and to act from the heart in accordance with this truth. Whether one agrees or disagrees with Lewis’ arguments, it is undeniable that his Abolition of Man deals with themes of great import, and any college student who seeks to critically engage the central topics, still debated, couldn’t do better than study Lewis’s essay.
Whitaker Chambers (1952)
Witness is an autobiographical work, recounting Chambers’ involvement with the Soviets as a spy in the 1930s and 1940s as well as his subsequent conversion to Christianity and to a certain vision of the American social and political order. Chambers, an extremely talented writer, provides a striking narrative of the workings and ideology of communism. Witness is also a plea on Chambers’ part for Americans to reject the materialism that was in common with Soviet Communism, which he saw taking root, in the United States in the wake of the Second World War and President Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal”.
Regardless of whether one agrees with Chambers’ post-spy religious and social convictions, his masterfully written history of espionage and intrigue is a key source of inside information about the workings of the United States and Soviet Russia during the 1930s and 1940s, a time of intense animosity and competition for world stature between the two nations. An interesting aside is that former President Ronald Reagan credits Witness for his own movement away from “New Deal” Democrats to that of a conservative Republican.
The Gulag Archipelago: (1918-1956)
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1973)
The Gulag Archipelago is a massive three-volume work, recounting the history and conditions of the Soviet forced labor camps, which were established for any person deemed to be dissident from the Soviet state or ideology. Solzhenitsyn, whose One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is also on this list, was likely the most important literary figure that helped cause the break down of the Soviet regime. In the Gulag, Solzhenitsyn gives a fuller picture of the horrific outworking of de-humanization in the name of political authority that disallows critique and independent thought. At the minimum, an acquaintance with the Gulag is essential to gaining a grasp on the history of the 20th century’s struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union as well as insight into dangers that may still be lurking.
Science and Mathematics
On the Origin of Species
Charles Darwin (1859)
Easily the most influential 19th-century work of science, Darwin’s, On the Origin of Species, was the first widely accepted explanation of the origin and variety of plants and animals. Seeking to explain nature’s diversity through means other than an appeal to religious faith and God’s direct creation, Darwin developed his hypothesis of “natural selection” and supplied examples of what he discerned in nature to verify his insights. The basic thesis of “natural selection”, which includes the commonly known idea of “survival of the fittest”, remains to this day, with clarifications, the guiding light of the biological sciences.
Although a work of science, Darwin did not write exclusively for other scientists. On the contrary, Darwin had the intelligent general reader in mind as well. This served to render his theory more broadly accessible, allowing his epoch changing theory to enter more easily into the broader social, not just scientific, consciousness. On the Origin of Species is one of the central works of modern science and is a must-read for college students in coming to understand the origins and development of modern biological science.
Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell (1927 2nd edition)
A seminal mathematical treatise by two of the foremost mathematicians and philosophers of the early 20th century, the Principia Mathematica sought to establish through a set of axioms and rules of logical inference a system of logic from which all mathematical statements could be derived. This work may likely be beyond the grasp of many college students. The combined effort of Russell and Whitehead was ultimately unsuccessful, but it, nevertheless, contributed greatly to the development of mathematical logic in the 20th century. For this reason, the Principia Mathematica is included in this list.
Students need to be aware of Russell and Whitehead’s achievement and its importance in the history of ideas. The argument presented in the Principia Mathematica was finally refuted by Kurt Gödel through his “incompleteness theorem”, which demonstrated that no system of mathematics or logic could contain the foundational principles of that same system, but rather required principles that derived from outside the given system and were unproven from within the same system.
The Double Helix:
A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA
James D. Watson (1968)
The Double Helix is the (at times self-aggrandizing) autobiographical account of the scientist who at the age of only 24 in 1953 made one the most important discoveries in the history of science: the structure of DNA. Not without controversy in terms of the personal slant Watson provides, the book in 1998 was named the 7th most important work of non-fiction of the 20th century.
Re-telling the history of Watson’s and Crick’s race to discovery ahead of several other researchers makes for compelling reading. However, the importance of the subject matter and its implications for science and medicine make Double Helix an essential book for any college student. Watson managed to write an autobiography–rare for a scientist–that recounts the progress of a monumental scientific discovery while keeping the non-scientist’s attention riveted to the book: a rare accomplishment.
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
Thomas S. Kuhn (1970 2nd edition)
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is both a ground-breaking and, perhaps, ground-shifting work in the philosophy of science. Scientists prior to Kuhn had often been unaware of that fact that the presuppositions of their theories were not proven from within a given theory itself, but rather accepted for the sake of that theory. Moreover, scientists, prior to Kuhn often also failed to see the limits of their own theories and the intellectual categories and concepts needed to use their theories in scientific research. Kuhn discusses this aspect of science under the term paradigm. Where scientists, in general, thought their paradigms were objective, sufficiently complete and reflective of the world, Kuhn showed through his analysis of scientific discoveries that paradigms were artificial constructs developed and employed for certain predetermined ends.
These ends were always, however, within the constraints of the paradigm and in a real sense predetermined. Kuhn develops his critique on the basis of the way in which new scientific discoveries are actually made. Instead of an existing scientific paradigm simply producing all kinds of discoveries, Kuhn noticed that some discoveries actually go against or are anomalous within a given paradigm. When this occurs a sort of cognitive dissonance ensues and the anomalous evidence is actually resisted and/or ignored. Resistance usually continues until the anomalies become so numerous that they cannot reasonably be ignored by the persons who are doing the science. It’s interesting to notice that it is persons who recognize that the evidence cannot be ignored. It is not the paradigm. When this happens scientists have to construct a new paradigm or way to approach the initially anomalous evidence that provides an explanation for the evidence that fits the evidence into the larger scientific picture. This is called a “paradigm shift or change” or “scientific revolution”.
The upshot of Kuhn’s important work is essentially two-fold. The first is that human persons transcend science and scientific paradigms and must make judgments about evidence in relation to the larger body of scientific knowledge. The second is that science stands under similar constraints as every other area of human knowledge. That is, science is incomplete and no scientific theory or paradigm can give or provide access to the final word on any given topic. Scientific knowledge ultimately emerges through human insight and discovery.
Iliad & Odyssey
Homer (c. 8th Century B.C.)
As the first of its kind, Homer’s epic poems, Iliad and Odyssey, are essential for understanding the development of literary and intellectual culture in later Europe and America. Thought to be the oldest Western literary work and set during the period of the Trojan War (1260-1180 B.C.), the Iliad tells of the conflict between King Agamemnon and the story’s hero, Achilles. The Odyssey tells of the great journey of Odysseus in the years following the fall of Troy. Not only a gripping duo of tales recounting deeds of great valor, travel, civic life, love, intrigue, war, and tragedy, Homer’s two epics also serve as a link between the ancient past and recorded history. The great Greek philosopher, Plato, called Homer the “first teacher”. For college students to understand the teaching they receive, it’s important that they become acquainted with the historical roots of teaching and literacy itself.
The Theban Trilogy (also known as the Oedipus Cycle) was written by the great Greek playwright, Sophocles, and comprises three parts, which were first performed as separate plays over a twelve-year period. In what might the most first and still most uncommon murder mystery, the Theban Trilogy provides a profound discussion of the interplay between free will and fate, birth, destiny and personal choice. The plots of the trilogy and the overall story arc are marvelously constructed. Set within a world wherein heroic epic and myth set the environment, Sophocles provides his readers with a brilliant portrayal of the path of self-discovery within the contexts of family history and obligations and civic status, duty, and disobedience. As a brilliant work of fiction and social commentary as well as having a seminal place in the history of world literature and Western culture, the Theban Trilogy is essential reading for college students.
Virgil (c. 29-19 B.C.)
Aeneid is an epic poem, telling of the legendary hero of the Trojan War, Aeneas, who goes to Italy where he is reputed to have become the forefather of the Roman people. Although there is disagreement about what most likely were Virgil’s motives for composing the poem, it is clear that Virgil is continuing in the general vein of Homer. Virgil chooses Aeneas as his hero, a figure who appeared in the Iliad and about whom legends circulated in Italy and Greece. In a certain sense, the Aeneid draws together the many legends of the exploits of Aeneas and presents an overall narrative. The Aeneid is a key literary work and contains the seeds for later great works of literature, including Dante’s Divine Comedy. Aeneid treats many perennial themes such as piety, divine providence, fate, propaganda. These issues remain points of interest for any college student.
Old English Literature (8th-11th Century)
Beowulf is the oldest surviving long poem in English. The author was an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet and even the century in which it is written can not be pinned down. The poem is set in Scandinavia. The hero, Beowulf, comes to the aid of a Germanic tribe and its king, Hrothgar. The kingdom is being harassed by a monster known as Grendel. After Beowulf defeats Grendel he must also defeat Grendel’s mother, who attempts to revenge her son. After becoming King, Beowulf eventually dies, 50 years later, from his battle with a dragon.
Though the story is obviously mythical, true history is mixed in. Therefore it is a very important historical source as well. Most scholars believe that King Hrothgar and his people were based on a real 6th century people in Scandinavia and that the battles and halls represented real places. An excellent translation of this age-old classic, by the linguist J.R.R. Tolkien, was recently published.
The Divine Comedy
Dante Alighieri (1320)
The Divine Comedy is considered the greatest single work of literature of the middle ages. A poem comprising three parts, “Inferno”, “Purgatory” and “Paradise”, The Divine Comedy presents an artistic vision of the journey of the soul through life and death. The term, comedy, as used in the title of Dante’s masterpiece, does not have the same connotations as it does today. Rather than referring to something funny or humorous, comedy in the case of The Divine Comedy means that the story has a positive or happy ending, as opposed to the tragedy which refers to the sense of loss and failure to achieve a good end.
Filled with allusions and characters from classical literature, mythology, 14th-century Italian politics, theology and Dante’s own life, The Divine Comedy is an overwhelming display of erudition that can baffle today’s reader. However, the poem’s plot, the beauty of language, and many, many memorable scenes and characters repay the reader’s efforts. The Divine Comedy is a window into the medieval soul, albeit a very gifted soul, that remains essential reading for any college student.
Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1380-1400)
Next to Dante’s Divine Comedy, the Canterbury Tales, perhaps, is the most impressive and massive literary undertaking of the Middle Ages. Left incomplete at Chaucer’s death in 1400, The Canterbury Tales tells of the adventures of pilgrims on their way to the shrine of St. Thomas Beckett. En route to the shrine, the pilgrims strike up a competition over who could tell the best story with the prize being a cooked meal at an inn.
Chaucer introduced 30 pilgrims with the original intent of having each pilgrim present two stories. Only 24 stories were written, falling far short of Chaucer’s intention. However, even in its incomplete form, the Tales runs to 17,000 lines. The Canterbury Tales are remarkable and essential reading for many reasons. The first is that they are marvelously entertaining. Chaucer through his different pilgrims is able to descend to the base and bawdy, always suffused with genuine humor, and through other pilgrims treat of very lofty topics.
The vast majority are written in exquisite verse and some in prose. Chaucer presents in his pilgrims a wide and authentic cross-section of medieval English culture, beliefs, and values. All this Chaucer accomplished using English at a time when French, Italian, and Latin were the languages of literature. Through this Chaucer rendered English a legitimate language for literature and scholarship, paving the way for later vernacular works, most notably Shakespeare’s writings and the Authorized Version of the Bible.
The Works of Shakespeare
William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
With very little dispute William Shakespeare is the most important, next to the Authorized Version of the Bible, literary influence in the English language. He has shaped English phraseology, coined new expressions and words like no other author. Shakespeare’s estimated working vocabulary based upon his plays is a staggering 20,000 words. The next closest is John Milton, author of Paradise Lost, seems to have employed around 13,000 words. Although his terminological toolbox was very full, Shakespeare’s language was very accessible and never highfalutin for his readers.
Shakespeare, though composing some of the most beautiful English the world has ever heard, was always a popular writer. Shakespeare composed 38 plays, 154 sonnets, and 2 lengthy narrative poems. Rather than attempt to pick out the greatest of Shakespeare, one should acquire all of Shakespeare’s works of poetry and plays. Many fine editions of Shakespeare’s collected works are available: the Riverside and Arden editions are commonly thought the most useful for students. Viewing Shakespeare’s plays is also a must to get the full experience of his dramatic and linguistic brilliance.
Miguel de Cervantes (1605, vol. 1; 1615, vol. 2)
Don Quixote is an extremely influential book upon Western culture. It has been referred to as the most important novel in Western literature. Though this claim would be hard to prove, it is definitely one of the most important, partly because it is considered to be the first modern novel. Don Quixote, as a hero, is generally ridiculous, but a closer look reveals true chivalry, rare honesty, and admirable courage. As these traits are revealed only through a highly “quixotic” outlook, the book is peppered with humorous moments that are all lost on the hero. Originally written in Spanish, it is still by far the most famous Spanish novel and is often required reading for Literature and for Spanish Degrees. The case could easily be made that as an influence on all writing styles and novels, it would positively educate any college student.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
(1808, Part I; 1832, Part II)
Goethe’s Faust is a re-telling of a classic tale of a person’s search for knowledge at all costs. In the first and arguably more important part of Goethe’s story the protagonist, Faust, is the man of science who seeks to penetrate into not only the secrets of nature but also into the knowledge of the transcendent. Because science and its methods do not open the way into hidden and transcendent knowledge, Faust turns to magic.
Through Faust’s desire for knowledge at any cost and his turn to occult channels, he encounters a personality on the other side of science and magic that wants to strike a deal with him. The demon Mephistopheles offers Faust knowledge in exchange for Faust’s soul. The drama of Faust then plays out in terms of Faust’s response to this offer and its effects upon those close to Faust. Goethe’s re-telling is of unique fascination and importance because Goethe himself was a man of science and at the same time drawn to mysticism.
Although written in the early 19th century, Faust resonates with present-day themes and concerns, touching upon the meaning and role of science in the life of individuals and society. Just what is the purpose of knowledge? Can science provide an adequate answer to humanity’s deepest questions? Just what are legitimate scientific pursuits and means of gaining knowledge? Faust is a must-read for those embarking upon the life of the mind and higher studies.
Pride and Prejudice
Jane Austen (1813)
Pride and Prejudice, a 19th-century novel, still remains one of the most loved books of the English speaking world. Marriage is definitely a theme in all of Miss Austen’s works, but other themes are prevalent as well. Though sometimes criticized for dealing almost exclusively with the upper class, Jane Austen deals with the different levels of the upper class in a subtle, informative, and concise way. The different strata of social class is a recurring theme and usually the origin for much of the drama and misunderstanding in the book.
Wealth and class are both themes in Pride and Prejudice. The more prevalent theme, though, is knowledge of oneself which is arguably the most important aspect of a human’s journey through life. As the main characters work their way through the various defects of Pride and Prejudice, they come to a deeper understanding of their relationship to others and the truth.
Charles Dickens (1849-50)
Charles Dickens is essential reading, and David Copperfield may be his most enjoyable and representative novel. Partially autobiographical, Dickens presents in his hero, David Copperfield, a coming of age story, presenting classic themes of self-identity, romance, love, disappointment, loss, sacrifice, philanthropy, intrigue, betrayal, and comedy. Dickens considered David Copperfield the favorite of his own works.
Like the other novels of Dickens, David Copperfield is set within 19th century England and is loaded with characters all of whom portray Dickens’ paradoxical genius for maintaining realism in and through seeming caricatures. Micawber, for example, is one of the greatest comic creations in all of literature. The villain, who we won’t give away, is also one of the great creations of literature.
Although a massive work of over 800 pages, David Copperfield repays the investment of time needed to get through the book, with a complex, compelling, and highly enjoyable story, that tells us about ourselves and the goodness of friendship, family, and seeking the good of others.
Moby-Dick or The Whale
Herman Melville (1851)
Considered by many the greatest American novel, Moby-Dick touches upon profound topics. Weaving in themes from the Bible and Shakespeare, Melville addresses, among others, the topics of class, social status, good and evil, providence, revenge, and the existence of God. Situated within a story of 19th-century whaling, Moby-Dick tells the story of a Whaler captain’s obsession for revenge against a fabled white whale, called Moby-Dick, who had earlier caused an injury to the captain.
As a novel, Moby-Dick marvelously portrays the sea-faring life as it was lived. Because of this, the novel has at times a slow pace, punctuated by scenes of sudden and intense action: waiting and then the sudden hunt. The novel was first published in England (October 1851) and then a month later in America (November 1851). Although now widely known as the “great American novel”, Moby-Dick sold only about 3200 copies during Melville’s lifetime. In terms of its literary, historical, and thematic value, Moby-Dick is essential reading for college students.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852)
As a young woman Stowe was prompted to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a result of her acquaintance runaway slaves and the surrounding context of the reforms enacted as a result of the 1850 “Fugitive Slave Act”, which abolished the slave trade, actually placed more stringent obligations of citizens and law enforcement assistance in the re-capture of fugitive slaves. Upon seeing the inhumane and grave injustice of this legislation, as well as the concrete plight of fugitive slaves, their degradation, the break up of families, and many other horrors, Stowe composed Uncle Tom’s Cabin as an explicitly anti-slavery piece of literature.
Although Stowe maintained and fostered many stereotypes common to the era, her motives were based upon her understanding of Christianity, which affirmed the equality of all people and their common dignity. Next to the Bible Uncle Tom’s Cabin became the best-selling book of the 19th-century and served a pioneering critique of American views of race, slavery, and equality.
Crime and Punishment
Fyodor Dostoevsky (1866)
Dostoevsky’s work, Crime and Punishment, explores the troubled psychology of a murderer. When reading the book, one stands in the shoes of the murderer, lives through every feeling of guilt, denial, shame, and fear with him. This gives the reader an understanding of what crime can do the mind of an ordinary and normally law-abiding human being. The murderer, Raskolnikov, believes he can justify the murder, and attempts to do so, but finds himself unable to defend himself against his own conscience.
Though he believed himself to be an extraordinary individual and therefore able to take justice into his own hands, he finds through his guilt and mental instability that he was wrong and confesses his murder to the police. The book also deals with some of the social evils of the time such as drunkenness and poverty which are not limited to the time and place of Dostoevsky. The book is a wonderful learning experience for any college student.
War and Peace
Leo Tolstoy (1869)
Alongside Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s War and Peace stands as both his greatest writing as well as one the most important and loved works of literature in the world. A massive work, War and Peace is one the longest novels ever written. Set in the era of the Napoleonic Wars, Tolstoy’s masterpiece recounts the history and aftereffects of Napoleon’s invasion of pre-Reform and pre-Communist Russia through his depiction of the lives of several Russian Aristocratic families.
Known for its realism, War and Peace is not a typical novel. In fact, against many literary critics, Tolstoy himself refused to consider War and Peace a novel, thinking of it instead as a work of fictionalized history. This method, Tolstoy believed, got closer to the truth, and he was careful to be faithful to the primary historical sources and testimony available to him.
The result is a masterful work of literature that brings to life a now long past vision of both Russian and European society, coming through the Enlightenment and into the modern age. C.S. Lewis once called War and Peace his favorite novel, reporting to have read it a dozen times. Lewis is not alone in his love for the novel, and any college or university student would do well to become acquainted with War and Peace.
Death Comes for the Archbishop
Willa Cather (1927)
Cather’s fictionalized telling of a Roman Catholic bishop’s and priest’s efforts to establish a diocese in the American Southwest’s New Mexico Territory is widely recognized as one of the greatest English language novels of the 20th century as well as one of the greatest Western novels ever written. Set in the middle of the 19th century, Death Comes for the Archbishop treats the interaction of European settlers and missionaries and religious authorities over the questions of westward expansion and the West’s native Hopi and Navajo peoples.
While Cather seems to question the practicality of attempting to overlay Catholicism on top of the native cultures, she portrays the interaction between the Hopi and Navajo peoples and the missionaries in a very sympathetic manner and is not pedantic. Cather’s depictions of the New Mexico landscape and the cliff-dwelling Hopi are stunningly beautiful. Death Comes for the Archbishop is a profound and beautiful treatment of a region and time key to understanding the development of American culture, making it an essential book for any college student.
Lord of the Rings
J.R.R. Tolkien (1937-1949)
The Lord of the Rings is a massive work, a marvel of imagination and creativity. Published in 3 volumes and set against the backdrop of an elaborate pre-history, linguistics, and mythology, J.R.R. Tolkien’s great fantasy work tells the story of the victory over unbridled lust for power and domination through faithful friendship, self-sacrifice, perseverance, and unexpected turns.
Beyond being an immensely enjoyable story in itself, shaping the imaginations of millions of readers, The Lord of the Rings almost by itself established the burgeoning genre of fantasy literature. Though long in coming, the academic world is beginning to take The Lord of the Rings seriously, and many colleges and universities either include it in reading lists or offer courses on Tolkien. As a work of fantasy fiction that has affected generations of readers and as a work that has spawned an entire field of fiction writing, The Lord of the Rings is a must-read for college students.
Immortal Poems of the English Language
Edited by Oscar Williams (1952)
A well-rounded college student needs exposure to the heights of poetic expression. Poetry strains the limits of language and reveals the depths of the human soul. The (almost) pocket-sized Immortal Poems of the English Language, short of acquiring a library of hundreds of volumes, which no dorm room could house, is the best one-stop work for the best of English language poetry. With 447 poems from over 150 British and American poets, ranging from Chaucer in the 14th century to Dylan Thomas in the 20th and selections from virtually every major poet in between, Williams editorship brings to hand the development of culture, themes and values embodied and expressed in immortal poetry.
Ralph Ellison (1952)
Winner of the 1953 National Book Award, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man presents a fictional account of the life of an African American man and the effects of racial prejudice. The title of the book speaks not to literal invisibility. Rather, the invisibility Ellison, a black man himself, speaks of is the invisibility of being ignored. Within the general thematic of racist stereotypes and prejudice, Invisible Man discusses many central issues relating to the place of African Americans in society. Ellison builds upon the likes of Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass, treating topics such as Marxist political theory, black identity, and the relationship between individuals and society. As a brilliant literary precursor to the later Civil Rights Movement, Invisible Man should be read by every college student.
Ray Bradbury (1953)
An American novel, set in a future American Midwest, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is a tale of the effects of government-imposed censorship and the resulting dearth in ideas and innovations as well as freedom itself. The title is based upon the supposed auto-ignition temperature of paper and tells of a time when “firemen” didn’t put out fires, but actually set fire to books banned by civil authorities.
Fahrenheit 451 tells the tale of one such “fireman”, who through reading a certain banned book along with the influence of the story’s heroine, begins to question imposed censorship and its social ramifications. Although a fairly light read in itself, Bradbury, like De Tocqueville and others, describes the dangers of blind conformism to unquestioned assumptions and peer pressure that allows for the rise of either or both soft despotism and outright tyranny. A very entertaining read, Fahrenheit 451 is an important book for awakening the mind to the dangers of blind faith… even in what is taught by college and university professors.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1962)
Though the current generation of college students may be very aware of the oppression people suffered in the USSR, this was not always the case. Solzhenitsyn, after being imprisoned himself from the years 1945-1953, was the first to publicly expose the atrocities that were being committed under Stalin. In fact, the Russian writer, Vitaly Korotich, goes so far as to say, “The Soviet Union was destroyed by information – and this wave started from Solzhenitsyn’s One Day“.
The book is a detailed account of just one day in the life of a man who has been sentenced to 10 years in a hard labor camp. Though truly horrific, the novel causes the reader to feel every detail of what makes the camp so unbearable to live in day after day. If he is lucky enough to live. In a society that mostly enjoys comfort and ease, this book will remind current college students of what happens to a culture that denies people the freedom that we have always fostered in our country. It will also give them deep insight into the recent history of Russia.
Frank Herbert (1965)
A work of science fiction published in 1965 by Frank Herbert, who would go on to write five more novels in a series, Dune may be the gold standard of the genre in terms of its coherent creative vision, breadth of characters and ethnic diversity as well as the profound presentations of philosophical, religious and scientific questions. Set in the far future in a world where interplanetary travel and settlement has occurred, Dune’s focus is upon the desert planet Arrakis (hence Dune) and competing families, who form an imperium, struggling for control over the planet and its resources.
Unlike other science fiction novels, Dune does not emphasize robots and computers. Dune, rather, looks at a world through the lenses of philosophy, religion, social organization, and perhaps, uniquely at the time, ecology. Written upon a grand scale that evokes wonder, Dune treats some of the most important themes and questions humankind has ever raised. However, the subtlety and presentation of real personalities and issues that parallel our own, along with a foreshadowing of potential outcomes, makes Dune an essential book every college student should read.
Shusaku Endo (1966)
Shusaku Endo’s Silence, considered by many to be one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, is a story of the conflict of faith and love within a broader conflict of cultures. Set in 17th century Japan, Silence tells the story of Jesuit missionaries to Japan. Centered upon a young Jesuit’s commission to travel to Japan in order to seek out a fellow Jesuit who apparently had apostatized for the sake of preventing the torture and execution of Japanese Kakure Kirishitan (“Hidden Christians”), who continued to practice Christianity despite its being illegal.
Presenting a fascinating account of 17th century Japanese culture, Endo’s work touches upon the flip side of fidelity and commitment to vows and obligations. Silence through its characters asks its readers whether faithfulness to one’s convictions can come into conflict with the good intentions of those convictions. If this is possible, what does this mean when there is an apparent dilemma between the love of God and neighbor and one’s faith. Endo presents a poignant picture of the suffering, fidelity, and love of persons caught up in a whirlwind of civil laws and social mores, straining to hear the voice of God. Whether one is religious or not, Silence will challenge and provoke its readers to better know themselves and the true motivations of their actions.
The Master and Margarita
Mikhail Bulgokov (1967)
This Russian novel could be considered a retelling of the Faust myth in the context of Soviet Russia in the form of incisive satire. The Master and Margarita is considered by many to be the greatest novel of the 20th century. From the perspective of the atheistic Soviet setting, Bulgakov’s use of the Devil as the central character is quite shocking in itself. Not only is the supernatural a key theme in the novel, just what is going on is not always clear. This is because the action in The Master and Margarita alternates between two different settings. The first is 1930s Russia where the Devil and an entourage interacts and disrupts the lives and activities of the Russian literary elite. The second setting is 1st century Jerusalem and the interaction between Jesus and Pontius Pilate.
An irony of the story is that the Devil and his personification of evil is present and active among atheists who don’t believe in any spiritual reality. A second irony is that the portrayal of Jesus is presented from the perspective of Satan, who has his own spin on the Christian story. In sum, The Master and Margarita is an original, thought-provoking and highly entertaining portrayal of evil, atheism, magic, truth, deception, and human love caught up in a swirl of uncertainty.
The Complete Stories
Flannery O’Connor (published 1972)
Southern Gothic writer, Flannery O’Connor, only lived to the age of 39, dying in 1964. However, in her short life, she left an unrivaled collection of short stories as well as two full-length novels. In this collection of her stories, the reader will find a subtle and penetrating mind, discoursing in colorful characters upon ethics, race, religion, and culture.
O’Connor’s plotting and prose are universally recognized as rivaling the very best of English literature. Within the stories themselves, O’Connor’s unique mastermind manifests itself. O’Connor was a female writer of Southern literature, a convert to Roman Catholicism, and someone who had lifelong struggles with Lupus, which eventually took her life. From this mixture of social, health, and religious contexts, coupled with native genius, O’Connor was the consummate comic author, imbued with hope.
However, her humor and hope were always shockingly presented through the surprises of human frailty and selfishness. O’Connor’s brilliant stories are like no other, and their combination of hopeful optimism in the midst of horrific shock sets the human experience in new and very unexpected lights.
J.K. Rowling (1997-2007)
Like The Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter saga is not a single book, but rather a series of 7 books. Harry Potter is also a story written for children and teens that seemingly has little to do with “great literature”. On the contrary, while it’s still an open question whether the story of the “boy who lived” will come to be included in the canon of ‘great literature’, Harry Potter has been the most widely read and most widely influential book of a generation, and has been gaining more and more attention in colleges and universities.
In the course of describing the psychological and personal development and growth of the hero of the story, which takes place in an imaginative alternate world of magic, witchcraft, and wizardry, Harry Potter takes on major ethical, social, and economic themes. If sacrificial love is the central theme of the series, this theme weaves its way into questions on race, slavery, finance, and politics.