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
The Odyssey has endured (alongside the Iliad) as the most influential work of literature in the Western Canon, and for good reason. The complex storyline, the compelling characters, the values it champions (e.g. xenia), and the psychological character development of Odysseus have forced readers of every generation to acknowledge its continuing relevance.
My recommendation on how to read it: Listen to Sir Ian McKellan’s audiobook of the Richard Fagle’s translation while following along with Fagle’s written text.
Resources for study: Elizabeth Vandiver’s Great Course introduces new readers to its perennial gems.
Many Greek Tragedies have survived, and most of them are great in their own right. There are a few, though, that rise to the top. Give these a read/listen/watch. If you’re hankering for more, you’ll easily find more.
- The Oresteia. This is Aeschylus’ most famous trilogy of Tragedies. Together, they might all be performed in 4 or five hours. There is an interesting Taneyev opera that spans all three, but it misses the existential subtlety of a direct reading of the originals. Penguin has a very readable collection of the Oresteia. The most famous of the three is Agamemnon, and there are several more-or-less faithful adaptations of it on YouTube.
- Oedipus Rex. The most famous of Sophocles’ Tragedies–and for good reason–this Tragedy continues to be regularly performed. Like other Tragedies, it is part of a trilogy, but it stands powerfully on its own.
- Medea. Perhaps the most haunting of the Tragedies in this list, Euripides also raises the most philosophical questions. The character of Medea remains within the popular psyche of the West, but probably for the wrong reasons. Read and decide for yourself.
Agamemnon, Oedipus Rex, and Medea have been collected by Penguin into a nice edition. Most works in this Great Books list are here because they celebrate the True, the Good, and the Beautiful in some sense. Tragedies don’t do this. So be prepared. They instead illustrate the meaninglessness of life within a pre-Christian metanarrative, and the powerlessness of the human will in the pagan (and atheistic!) context.
“The Aeneid” by Virgil
For millennia, scholars have debated the status of the Aeneid: Ought we to consider it a masterful piece of literature ascending up towards Homer? Or is it really just Roman propaganda, a cheap imitation of greatness? Ultimately you’ll have to decide. Regardless, it is certainly a great book, Rome’s greatest.
Resources for study: Elizabeth Vandiver has a Great Courses series on the Aeneid.
This epic survives only because of a single manuscript, and yet today there are hundreds of translations. Although mostly known for his showdown with the monster Grendel, Beowulf recounts at length the aging of a great warrior and what it means for not only Beowulf, but also his people, to grow old.
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 version quite well. I recommend listening to this while reading.
“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”
The technical artistry of this poem by an unknown author is second to none in the Medieval period. Further, the way Gawain forces us to explore the themes of virtue and chastity are unrivalled. It is also an example of Medieval romance literature at its best. Compared to other works in this list, The Green Knight is short. But make no mistake, it is also deep.
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
Frankenstein (1818) is the first truly modern work on our list. As such, it explores themes within its modern context: Given the rise of science and enlightenment thinking, what exactly does it mean to be human? What is the role of science in our brave new world? And how will the old world respond to the work of the new?
My recommendation on how to read it: Frankenstein is an easy read. Shelley does not revel in experimental prose (like Melville) or storytelling (like Hugo). You ought to be able to simply sit down and read it. Unabridged audiobooks are legion.
“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. For a quick introduction, here’s a review from Christian Culture Magazine.
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. Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is always a perennial on “greatest ever” lists. Tolstoy calls Les Mis “the greatest of all novels.” Dostoyevsky was even grateful for his 1874 imprisonment because he got to read Les Mis in his confinement. The Catholic Church banned it. Has your interest peaked yet?
My recommendation on how to read it: Do not read the abridged version. I’m recommending the Penguin Christine Donougher translation, but most translations by the major publishing houses are excellent. The reason I’m going with the Donougher translation is so that I can read it alongside Audible’s audiobook version of that translation which is fantastic. If you haven’t used your trial period of Audible yet, use it now and use the free credit to get Donougher’s Les Mis.
“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
Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is easily one of the most important and influential works of literature of the twentieth century, and arguably the greatest work of Christian fiction of the twentieth century. It meets all the criteria for a Great Book with flying colours: It discusses dozens of the Great Ideas, and it revels in the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. It is theologically, philosophically, and artistically profound.
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. See my full page on Lord of the Rings.
“1984” by George Orwell
Published in 1949, Orwell’s 1984 hasn’t been around long. So how can know whether this is a Great Book? Read it. Out of all the books on the list, this one will most directly apply to our current political climate. In fact, much of our cliché political vocabulary comes from the book: Big Brother, doublespeak, etc. For many, the book no longer feels distantly dystopian, but rather too on-the-nose.
My recommendation on how to read it: Compared to many of the other books on this list, the book is short (around 300 pages), and is a quick read. Dozens of editions in English exist. Find one with a good biographical introduction about Orwell, who lived a fascinating life.