The Gospel Coalition


10 Essential Classics of Western Literature

By: John Mark Reynolds

The assertion that you should read “classic” literature usually brings on guilt or a sneer. The guilt comes from the fact that many of the “greats” are difficult. Like dieting, we know we should, but we have often failed. Starting again fills us with despair. 

The sneer is generally the result of being over-promised by people who love books as I do. Reading the “greats” is not the answer to every problem, and it will not save your soul. If you want God, read the Bible. If you want love, find a friend. If you want hope, pray. 

None of these books will renew your mind, but all of them will expand it. 

Try to remember these four things when reading the classics. First, most great books require time, much time, to even begin to unlock the good stuff. The process of finding what an author such as Plato said is as important as the “truth” found there. One joy of reading outside an academic context is that there are no deadlines; nobody is grading you. Take the time to read until you see. 

Second, try not to read alone. Get a small community, read, and discuss. Don’t be ambitious, but do form a small group of fellow readers. My wife belongs to a women’s group of different ages reading patristic theology together. I know communities all over our area where busy people gather to read and discuss the great texts. Social media will help you find such friends, but try to meet together at least once a month. 

Third, reading a great text brings benefits, but these benefits work in “agricultural time,” not computing time. You sow and then you reap, but the seeds take a bit just to germinate let alone come to the point of harvest. 

Finally, if we can love our enemies, surely we can love Darwin! Read these great works charitably and with humility. Understand something, appreciate it, and only then judge it. Some Christians stripmine great books for the “good stuff” and hastily condemn the “bad stuff.” Just as a stripminer may destroy beauty in his haste to get coal, so too an overly hasty conclusion about what Christians should learn from a great book may keep the reader from seeing glory of the whole.

God help me, I once became so enamored with a part of one great church that only by chance did I look back and see the glorious whole and then turn again to see twilight Paris stretched beneath her. The parts were wonderful, but the whole was greater. Any one of us might, just might, write a single paragraph as good as any in Jane Eyre, but birthing the whole of Jane takes a Bronte. 

Cruel Limits

Editing the Great Books Reader forced me to pick thirty books where any Western Christian should start. The limits were cruel as the East contains equal treasures, and 30 is not even a tithe of the gems of the West. Reading the complete Shakespeare or Plato would be a good idea without any editorial tyranny. 

And yet we must begin somewhere. Western ideas matter, for good and bad, in the East in ways today that Eastern ideas do not matter in the West. If our first reading cannot be catholic, it can at least start us off to that goal.

Cruelly even a list of 30 books can seem daunting enough to prevent starting. If 30 books are too many, can I provide 10? 

Like some literary Abraham facing the Sodom, finding 10 books to save from the ignorance, vice, and destruction of the ephemeral American idols is damning. And yet Christendom in the West was born of such cruel choices when not even a tithe of the great works of a past age could be saved from barbarians intent on destruction. So our own age has sacked and looted the heritage we should have gained before we even had a chance to choose. As a result my mind is too often a wasteland stuffed containing nothing more profound than Roddenberry or more beautiful that Joss Whedon. 

Here are 10 books that began the rebirth in my own soul of something better. Eccentric though such a list must be it at least has the benefit of actually having helped one person and I have some hope that where it helped one it may help another. 

I have limited myself to one sentence to say why I read them. It is so little to say that nobody will be tempted to think I have captured the essence of any of these books. I have also eliminated works Christians are likely to know to read. If you have not read the entire Institutes or Augustine’s Confessions, you are not a literate Christian whatever your piety, and you already understand this fact.  

Instead, I hope to motivate you to begin, just begin, to participate in a great conversation about these ideas that will last, I trust, for all eternity. 

  1. Odyssey, Homer. The long journey from the darkness of paganism to philosophy begins here. 
  2. Republic , Plato Justice should be sought for its own sake, but we need a man to die and come to life again in order to fully see it.
  3. Consolation of Philosophy, BoethiusEmo-whining gets a dose of tough love from Lady Philosophy, and the result is a poetic vision of reality. 
  4. Divine Comedy,  Dante The world isn’t quite what Dante imagined, but if wrong in details this great poem is truer as a whole than what you will read in today’s paper. 
  5. Faerie Queene, Edmund SpenserProtestants can be romantic and poetic. 
  6. Much Ado about Nothing, William ShakespeareIf not the Bard’s greatest play maybe the best play for us, because this comedy contrasts our cynicism and eroticism with Christian romance while making us laugh out loud (not LOL). 
  7. Paradise Lost, John MiltonWe oft like Milton’s Satan more than Milton’s God, revealing more about us than about Milton. 
  8. Second Treatise, John LockeIf you are an American, this apologist helped create the government you should cherish.
  9. On the Origin of Species, Charles DarwinDarwin tries to remove design from biology and still makes the case better than anyone else. 
  10. Brothers KaramazovFyodor Dostoevsky.Dostoevsky wrestles with seeming meaningless and pain and finds Christ, if not Christianity, victor.

And now a bonus, a book that is easy to read, superficially easy to refute, but profound:

  • Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich NietzscheA refutation of comfortable Christianity and easy secularism by a man who knew the fierce reality of the Fall.

John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute, and associate professor of philosophy, at Biola University. In 1996 he received his PhD in philosophy from the University of Rochester.

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