A lot of “Books You Must Read Before You Die” lists are out there, and someone last week asked for my list when I unveiled the books I didn’t think should be classics. On reflection, after being negative last week, I should put forward something positive, so here goes. I wouldn’t be so bold as to tell anyone else which books they HAVE to read, so I’m not going to put together a list of books to read before you die. These are books I’ve read before I died, classics and non-classics, that I’ve found most important and/or illuminating. No movie novelizations area here.
The Bible, by various authors with Divine Inspiration
It’s the essential library of Western Civilization as well as Christianity, however DON’T READ IT ALONE. Read it in the context of a faith community, read it with people you are bound to in faith in Christ, read commentaries coming from differning viewpoints, read the newspapers and magazines for what’s going on in Faith now for the rare times they report it well. The Bible isn’t written for the individual reader: in ancient times, scripture was read aloud to communities of people, who prayed over it, meditated on it, looked at what was going on around them and broke it open as a group. That’s how you keep from using Scripture to proof text your personal prejudices, or at least, the best chance you have of reading it without imposing individual or group personal prejudices on it. If you’re not Christian and/or don’t want to be, at least read a wide variety of interpretations before coming to conclusions about it, as well as some good objective histories of Christianity (sorry, no recommendations right now). The only literature I’d avoid is hagiography, or at least read it with a lot of suspicion.
Philosophy and Religion: Favorite Authors in no particular order
C. S. Lewis, especially The Screwtape Letters
G. K. Chesterton
Augustine of Hippo (who was better than good when he was good, although some of his stuff is problematic.)
Robert Schreiter, especially In Water and In Blood
Spirituality: Favorite authors in no particular order
Theresa of Avila
Francis de Sales, especially the Letters of Spiritual Direction
Henri Nouwen, especially The Return of the Prodigal Son
Still Hereby Ram Dass
A great book on the spirituality of growing older from a Buddhist perspective .
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare
The Inferno, from the Divine Comedy by Dante Aleghri
Samson Agonistes by John Milton
Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
Peer Gynt by Henrik Ibsen
Yes, I love the later plays, but Peer could be a Generation X member, a Wall Street broker or venture capitalist, and his uncertain fate is a challenge in the search to find the meaning of Life. Most folks know about this from Edward Grieg’s music for the play. This story could use an update and become an overpowering classic.
The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
April 1865 by Jay Winik
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
Apollo 13 by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger
A War Like No Other by Victor Davis Hanson
A modern retelling of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta in the 5th Century, B.C. This war was fueled by ambition, misconceptions, popular opinion and paranoia on both sides. The irony is that in the end both sides lost: Athens lost to Sparta on the battlefield, and Sparta lost the peace afterward.
The Birth of the Modern by Paul Johnson
This is a very thick book, but covers a period where the global community as we know it came to be. The fifteen years from the end of the Napoleanic Wars to the Revolutionary Year of 1830 saw the introduction of steam and mass transportation, the conversion of fashion from breeches to pants and the discarding of wigs, and the global economy enforced by colonialization.
Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour by Joseph Perisco
Most people don’t know that the U.S. lost more men on the last morning of World War I, after the Armistice had been signed, than on D-Day. A story of vengeance and ambition, set in the microcosm of perhaps the least logical war in history.
One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate by Tom Segev
The period 1918 to 1948 saw the transformation of the Holy Land from a sleepy backwater in a failing empire to a center stage of current world conflict. The seeds of the Israeli/Arab conflict were planted in the thirty years before this, but they flowered during this time to its current stench. The Brits did their best to create a peaceful modern technological society here for all concerned: their methods are instructive as examples of well-intentioned, directionless. ineffective policies, and their failure is testified by the fact neither side remembers them fondly. A lesson on how we got to where we are today, and how not to make peace anywhere.
God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It by Jim Wallis
Makes an essential point about religion and politics: religion must stay true to itself.
Confederates in the Atticby Tony Horwitz
There’s a lot to be learned from the culture of re-enactors as well as history
Consumed by Benjamin R. Barber
Makes a key distinction between citizens and consumers we should all be aware of.
What’s the Matter with Kansas by Thomas Frank
The story of how a religious movement got hijacked for political purposes. The tragedy is that it’s still going on today in more places than Kansas.
Sex, Drugs and Coco Puffs by Chuck Klosterman
A Generation Xer seeing the flaws in society from the inside.
Boomsday by Christopher Buckley
A story about an ultimate spin doctor and crazy politician, who campaign and lobby to give people incentives to commit suicide at the age of 65, to save Social Security. A wild tale full of insight on the nature of politics and morality.
The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkein(No surprise to anyone, I’m sure)
The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov
Original first three books, the last are kind of like George Lucas’ recent work; well maybe not that bad, but you get the drift.
Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny
Almost anything by Roger Zelazny is worth reading for entertainment and enlightenment, especially the Amber series.
Baseball: these are good cultural studies as well as sports books, and I think have value for non-sports fans
The Glory of Their Times edited by Lawrence Ritter
Eight Men Out by Eliot Asinof
Baseball in ’41 by Robert Creamer
Not only a great book on a great season, but a slice of life of America just before World War II. Creamer’s books on Babe Ruth and Casey Stengel are excellent as well.
No books on other sports to recommend.
A Pause for Now
This isn’t everything on my shelf, or even all the books I’d recommend. If you saw my room, you’d think I was living in a library. If I think some more, I’ll come up with more books that have impacted me I’m willing to share. There are people who have occasional moments that I wouldn’t recommend generally, like Martin Luther (nothing personal to my Lutheran friends), John Wesley (ditto to my Methodist friends) and Friedrich Nietszche (ditto to any of Fred’s fans out there). Obviously I’ve read all the books mentioned in the Frightenly Awful Classics, as well as some that didn’t make that list. I’ve avoided technical books such as Scriptural studies and Music Theory, books that are mindless fun (maybe someday) and books I haven’t gotten to yet. Thomas Merton can make the list if I get up the strength to tackle the Seven Story Mountain. I reserve the right to add, delete or alter this list as long as I’m alive. After that, you’re on your own (well, you’re on your own already, but you know what I mean).
If there’s books you want to recommend to me, feel free. I did this list because Robert asked me to (blame him if you want to); I’m also willing to write essays on topics you’d like my opinion about if I have something unique to say. Ask at your own peril.