Classic Books to Read
St. John’s College, based in Annapolis, MD has an unusual learning philosophy. Their curriculum is tied to the St. John’s list of great books, which is reviewed annually. And many of those on the list are classic books to read.
"Through close engagement with the works of some of the world’s greatest writers and thinkers — from Homer, Plato, and Euclid to Nietzsche, Einstein, and Woolf — students at St. John’s College grapple with fundamental questions that confront us as human beings."
At its core is a belief that students learn all they need to know from studying great books, that these books are a person’s most important teachers. "They illuminate the persisting questions of human existence and they bear directly on the problems we face today."
St. John’s publishes a list of what undergraduate students read each year.
That started me thinking about putting together my own list of "great" books. The criteria I used ranges from a book that has deeply spoken to me in one way or another, to books that were simply a darn good read.
Here is my top 10 classic books to read:
1. 'Invisible Man' by Ralph Ellison
This novel portrays Ellison's nightmare journey across the racial divide. It delves into the nature of bigotry and the effect it has on both victim and perpetrator. It made a major impact in how I viewed society since I read it at a time in my life when I was just discovering the wider world outside of my somewhat sheltered cocoon.
2. 'The Diary of a Young Girl' by Anne Frank
I remember when I first read 13-year-old Anne Frank’s diary. I was drawn to its compelling reminders that no matter how hideous war is, the human spirit still dominates. Reading it was the major reason I went to Amsterdam to see the attic where Anne Frank and her family lived in hiding for two years during World War II.
3. 'Jane Eyre' by Charlotte Bronte
I love a good romance novel! While this is the story of a young girl coming of age, it is more paramount a passionate love story.
4. '1984' by George Orwell
Written shortly after the end of WWII, 1984, on reflection today, is eerily insightful into today’s society. The novel describes a future totalitarian state where thoughts and actions are totally controlled — and what happens when one person, an "everyman", keeps a diary of his anti-government thoughts.
5. 'The Catcher in the Rye' by JD Salinger
Salinger’s main character, 16-year-old Holden Caulfield, is a cynical adolescent with a vocabulary of virtually nothing but slang. The novel tells the story of a couple of days in his life, just after he’s been tossed out of prep school. It’s amazing to me that it’s as relevant today as it was when it was written.
6. 'Great Expectations' by Charles Dickens
In what has been hailed as Dickens’s best novel, humble orphan Pip dreams of becoming a gentleman, but instead has been apprenticed to the dirty work of the forge. Suddenly, though, one day he finds he is in possession of "great expectations". Filled with compelling characters, this novel is a riveting look at crime, guilt, revenge and reward.
7. 'Michel, Michel' by Robert Lewis
I read this novel because a friend — the author’s brother-in-law — gave it to me. That was 25 years ago. Once I started it, I couldn’t put it down and have never forgotten it. Prior to losing his parents to the Nazis, Michel, a young Jewish boy, is given to a Catholic Frenchwoman to raise. Despite her promise to raise Michel in the Jewish faith, she has him baptized and raises him as a Catholic. The war ends and Michel’s aunt in Israel wants him, but his foster mother refuses to give him up. What started as a small fight ends up involving the hierarchy of the Catholic Church with Michel as the pawn. Torn by the love he feels for parents he only vaguely remembers and that of his foster mother and the church, the novel delves into areas of anticlericalism and anti-Semitism.
8. 'Romeo and Juliet' by William Shakespeare
Probably literature’s most famous love story, 'Romeo and Juliet' spans four days in the lives of these two young star-crossed lovers and how their intense all-consuming love is so powerful they feel it will exist beyond this life, which is dictated by their families’ bitter feud. One of the most famous offshoots of 'Romeo and Juliet' is the long running and award winning musical, 'West Side Story,' which was the first Broadway musical I ever saw.
9. 'The Picture of Dorian Gray' by Oscar Wilde
What would you do to stay young and vibrant forever? Wilde answers that question in this novel, the story of a young, fashionable and handsome man who sells his soul for eternal youth and beauty. It’s a tale of total moral depravity… but I must admit, I’ve always wondered what it would be like if I had a painting like the one Dorian Gray had!
10. 'Crime and Punishment' by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Exploring the theme of redemption through suffering, 'Crime and Punishment' is as relevant today as it was when it first appeared in 1866. It’s the story of a brilliant, but conflicted, young man, Raskolnikov, the murder he commits and the subsequent events.
There you have it, my top 10 classic books to read.