This is my personal collection of the Great Books of Western Culture that I recommend to all my students and anyone at all interested in learning how to think and engage culture. Along with the books themselves are recommended translations and resources for digging into them for the first time. This list is currently incomplete. I’ll have around 25 books when it’s done. (I’m also not constructing this list chronologically. So, if you notice some major gaps between titles, I’m sure they’re forthcoming).

Many of these works were originally meant to be heard, not read, and so very often I will recommend audiobooks versions to listen to while you follow along with the text.

“The Iliad” by Homer

Although some 2,800 years old, its themes, insights, and artistry are timeless (and in many respects still unsurpassed). Still, it can be a challenge to read. Here are some suggestions for working with the greatest literary work of the West.

My recommendation on how to read it: Listen to Charlton Griffin’s audiobook of the Richard Lattimore translation while following along with Lattimore’s written text.

Resources for study: Elizabeth Vandiver has an entire Great Courses series on the Iliad. There is also a useful set of videos that summarize the plot and main themes of each book at Course Hero.

“The Odyssey” by Homer

My recommendation on how to read it: Listen to Sir Ian McClellan’s audiobook of the Richard Fagle’s translation while following along with Fagle’s written text.

“The Aeneid” by Virgil

My recommendation on how to read it: Read the Richard Fagles translation while listening to the audiobook narrated by Simon Callow.

Resources for study: Elizabeth Vandiver has a Great Courses series on the Aeneid.

“Beowulf”

My recommendation on how to read it: For your first foray, I recommend the Seamus Heaney translation. Besides being quite readable, this edition also has summary notes in the margins to help you understand what’s going on. Heaney also narrates the audiobook book version quite well. I recommend listening to this while reading.

“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”

My recommendation on how to read it: The original poem emphasized alliteration (as opposed to, say, rhyming lines). The best translation I’ve read that captures this is Simone Armitage’s translation. Read along as you listen to the audiobook narrated masterfully by Bill Wallis.

“Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley

My recommendation on how to read it:

“Moby Dick” by Herman Melville

Hailed by D.H. Lawrence as the greatest book about the sea ever written, Laurie Robertson-Lorant writes that Moby Dick is ultimately about “man’s search for meaning in a world of deceptive appearances and fatal delusions.” Explorations of subjectivity, epistemology, and the nature of truth abound in a book that’s been described as satire, mysticism, philosophy, a prose poem.

My recommendation on how to read it: Melville’s masterpiece involves a high degree of narrative experimentation. He alternates between different kinds of prose, history, science, and philosophical musings. Reading along with an excellent audio narration (such as Anthony Heald’s found here) will help keep focus, and will add more vividness to an already colourful cast.

“Les Miserables” by Victor Hugo

The musical could very well be great in its own right, but for very different reasons. Do not confuse the two.

My recommendation on how to read it: Do not read the abridged version.

“The Brothers Karamazov” by Dostoevsky

Easily the greatest work of Christian existential literature, Dostoyevsky sets the stage for the next 300 years of conversation on the necessity of God for value, meaning, and purpose in life.

My recommendation on how to read it: The story is so compelling, most translations will get you hooked. McDuff’s translation is great, as well as Luke Thompson’s (no relation) audiobook version of the McDuff translation. Do not read while listening to Tchaikovsky. Try instead Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, or Prokofiev.

“The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien

My recommendation on how to read it: Read it through at least once on your own, and then read it out loud to each of your children at least once, preferably when they reach the age of seven or eight. They ought to reread it to themselves at least once in high school, once in college, and once more to their children.

“1984” by George Orwell

My recommendation on how to read it: