A close friend recently pointed me to this list of books on Augustana College’s website. As part of the celebration of the college’s Sesquicentennial, they have published a list of 150 faculty recommendations for books to read in your lifetime. I thought it would be fun to do a quick rundown of the books I have read from this list. Much of the list is fiction, and I typically avoid most fiction, so I would not recommend taking my opinion as the deciding factor in whether to read one of these books unless you are of a similar disposition. I am going to divide these books into a few categories 1) Books I Re-Endorse, 2) Books I Do Not (yet) Re-Endorse, 3) Books I Hope To Read, 4) Books I Have No Intent To Read, and finally 5) Books I Know Nothing About. I hope that some kind soul reading this will make the case for any worthwhile books in these last three categories.
1: Books I Re-Endorse
Let’s begin with the list of books I would gladly add my endorsement to:
- The Fellowship of the Ring, by J.R.R. Tolkien
- The Two Towers, by J.R.R. Tolkien
- The Return of the King, by J.R.R. Tolkien
- (and Tree and Leaf, by J.R.R. Tolkien)
I am actually a little surprised to see this listed as three separate works (especially when C.S. Lewis and the Twilight series works are listed as one work), but either way you view it I would recommend digging through all the Tolkien books you can get your hands on. Most of Tolkien’s work is just great, but in my opinion the excellence of Tolkien is that the more of his work one reads, the more one can appreciate it. His body of work is among the least blatantly-intellectual (well, some of it) fiction of which I approve, and my suspicion is that his lack of superficial intellectual depth is more than compensated for by his mythic-historic depth and a complex set of relationships between the works. This is why I would recommend tackling at least The Silmarillion with Lord of the Rings, in addition to at least glancing through lists and tables of relationships, name and word origins, language conventions, and the like. What is fascinating is that Tolkien’s vast, mythological world is realistically consistent (it largely hangs together, but it is not without internal conflict or even contradiction) and well enough endowed with history and variety that if it were an actual set of traditional cultural lore (of, say, Britain), that tradition would be among the richest folklore traditions recorded. Somehow, this body of work was composed by a single man over a few decades of his life, with jobs, wars, and other real-life factors constantly intruding upon his progress.
- The Bible
This one is all too easy to make the case for, especially after having made the case for Tolkien. Conveniently divided into an array of books so variegated, I find it difficult to lump their value into a few qualities as a whole. Leaving aside cultural, historic, and religious significance–a case which I do not think I need to make–I find it most valuable for its great mixture of its wisdom, its narratives and art, and its broaching of salient examples of ethical and theological problems.
- The Giver, by Lois Lowry
While not one of my favorite books, it was certainly formative and I agree that it ought to be widely read. For me, it was the fact that certain ideas were presented in the narrative–not the plot itself–that drew me in. The book altered the way I think about religion, human experience, and social enclaves at an early age–and for the better, I believe.
- The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein
This was a great combination of entertainment, lore, whim, and ethical thought for the young mind.
- My Name is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok
This was likely the most moving fiction book that I read during college. I think Asher’s difficult and strange position mirrors a milder, but much more widespread set of conflicts that endure for many, if not most, humans–when they are susceptible to reflecting on them. Potok’s glory in this book, though, is not that he presents the superficial conflict, but rather he forces the conflict into a zone beyond simple Manichean bifurcation. Like a great early European New Wave film, he refuses to provide us with an adequate resolution to a seemingly simple problem that becomes so mired in emotional complexity as to be beyond defining.
- Summa Theologica, by St. Thomas Aquinas
- Confessions, by St. Augustine
It’s probably unfair to lump these together. The former is fascinating and utterly analytic in nature, and the latter is really (in my mind) to be prized for its exploration’s value in examining the subjective in the world (and, of course, being a thorough confession of a fascinating man), but I need to sacrifice something for the sake of some semblance of brevity…
- A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold
This work of Leopold’s is perhaps my favorite conservationist account. Leopold combines the best of the romantic naturalism of folks like Emerson, Thoreau, and Wendell Berry with a wonderful (if anecdotal) case study of the recuperation of a natural environment. It is also a powerful endorsement of the value that can come from the slow application of thought and care to any environment–a case, I think, for the notion that work and time can bring change with determination without the need for drastic, disruptive alterations.
- Varieties of Religious Experience, by William James
James’s account of religion qua experience is an unusual combination of mystical literature and systematic academic writing. He is serious enough about the subject and about syncretism that his book can be eye opening to the most conservative and the most mystical among the religious (and nonreligious) alike.
- “The Fixation of Belief” (essay), by Charles Peirce
This book is short enough, and–as far as Peirce is concerned–accessible enough, that there is no good excuse for not reading it once you have heard of it.
- Poetics and Metaphysics, by Aristotle
Not the best Aristotle (Nichomachean Ethics? Rhetoric?) nor the worst (don’t get me started on Categories), but well worth the read. Now if only we had Aristotle’s Second book of Poetics1…
- Night Flight (Vol de nuit), by Antoine de St.-Exupéry
There are certainly a few deeper philosophical lessons to take from this book, but through St.-Exupéry’s wonderful style I think the value will be transmitted thoroughly simply through identification with characters and experience in the book (not unlike his other great work 2.
- Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis
This is one of the best Christian apologies I have read, and though I do not think it is Lewis’s greatest work (I’m probably quite outnumbered in thinking that work is A Grief Observed), it deserves to be read by as wide an audience as possible.
- Walden; “Walking”, by Henry David Thoreau
- Nature, by Ralph Waldo Emerson
Somewhat similar, thematically, I think these two works actually express a rather different view of the experiential nature of the relationship between man and nature (or even mind and world), but they are both remarkable for their mellifluousness, character, and the romantic gravity they give to the humans and their interaction with the world.
- The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco
This book perhaps has my vote for the greatest work of fiction (among those read by me, which is admittedly few). While I am neither a fan of detective stories nor a fan of medieval settings, I found this book to be a real page-turner (even the beginning, despite what Eco purportedly intended). I took away from this book not just entertainment, but a wealth of insight. The crux of it, I take to be a Wittgenstein point on knowledge and experience (akin to a lesson in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus). It is a lesson better put in Eco’s literature than non-fiction, but it is certainly not the book’s only insightful gem.
- The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky
One of the longest (nonfiction) works which I have read and still felt it had a ridiculously high payoff:page ratio. Dostoevsky’s depth is remarkable.
- Hop on Pop, by Dr. Seuss
Again, perhaps not the author’s greatest work, but certainly worth the 2.5 minutes to read. Better still are Dr. Seuss’s creative, whimsical tales like Oh The Things You Can Think!, The Lorax, The Sneeches, and McElligot’s Pool.
- Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
The earliest work I read explicitly depicting a southern African American experience in a manner that was not exceedingly trite, I credit this book with altering some of my assumptions about constants of human experience.
- Night, by Elie Wiesel
Along with Viktor Frankl’s work, there is no better account of the horrors of the Holocaust. I think it ought to be read in tandem with The Trial of God, while you’re at it.
- Don Quixote, by Cervantes
- King Lear, by Shakespeare
- Hamlet, by Shakespeare
These are classics which reward a read and a reread. Call me arrogant, but I cannot suffer all classics.
- Ulysses, by James Joyce
This work was eye-opening and esoteric enough to be extremely appealing throughout, despite it’s length, incoherence, and complexity.
I read all of these books. None of them were horrible; none were even “bad”. I might even recommend reading a few of them–most would be worth the time if it weren’t the case that being “worth the time to read” also means “being worth the time to read rather than other, better books you might read”.
- Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov
- The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes
- The Chronicles of Narnia (series), by C. S. Lewis
- A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens
- To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
- Good-Night Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown
- Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
I really, really want to read the following books from the list, based largely on recommendations from others. If there are some that you don’t believe are worth my time, though, feel free to critique!
- Remembrance of Things Past, by Marcel Proust
- Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safron Foer
- Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card
- Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson
- Stones Into Schools, by Greg Mortenson
- Catch-22, by Joseph Heller
- Smith of Wootton Major, by J.R.R. Tolkien
- 1776, by David McCullough
- The Life You Can Save, by Peter Singer
- One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
- Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoesvsky
- Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand
- A Very Easy Death, by Simone de Beauvoir
- The Sparrow, by Mary Russell Doria
- Children of God, by Mary Russell Doria
4: No Hurry…
This is a list of books which I have no intention of reading, currently. Feel free to pitch for a book that is worth the time, though, as my judgments are based mostly on weakly-founded assumptions and the recognition of my finitude.
- Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte
Honestly, from what I know, it just sounds like boring fiction. Don’t forget that I’m not really a fiction kind of guy.
- The Shack, by William P. Young
Religious fiction has occupied some of the lowest rungs of the drivel I have consumed. Popularity of a work such as this really is not enough to dissuade me from making the presumption about this book as well, but feel free to defend it, as I would be eager to come across another work of religious fiction that is not banal or excessively dogmatic.
- The Audacity of Hope, by Barack Obama
My experience with celebrity books (yes, the president is a celebrity–first and foremost in many cases in modern American politics, if you ask me) is that they tend to be shamelessly self-aggrandizing, uninteresting, and as insubstantial as would be implied by anything “ghost-written”. Feel free to explain how this one’s the exception.
- Tarzan of the Apes, by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Adventure stories are not too appealing to me. I presume that’s mostly what this is. Defend it if you can.
- A Time to Kill, by John Grisham
I read another John Grisham book once…or tried to. Does anything make this one stand out?
- The Thorn Birds, by Colleen McCullough
Yes, sad, but I am judging this book by it’s film. I recall catching part of this movie as a child and being turned off.
- Wizard of Oz series, by L. Frank Baum
I’ve read a bit of the first book, but I couldn’t get into it.
- Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell
It’s possible that I have already read this. It certainly wasn’t memorable, nor was the film, if you ask me.
- Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott
Another book wherein I suspect the film has spoiled the paper copy. It was good enough, but I suspect I would not be much more drawn in by the book itself.
- The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, by Arthur Conan Doyle
I read The Hound of the Baskervilles and enjoyed it–but not enough to give a similar work another go.
- Twilight Series, by Stephanie Meyer
Sometimes popularity makes a seemingly uninteresting work that much more unappealing. This is a case in point, but defend it if you can.
- The Wedding, by Nicholas Sparks
Call me hypermasculine, but I cannot imagine sitting down to read this and feeling like I was not wasting my time. Tell me if you can make the case for it.
- Me Talk Pretty One Day, by David Sedaris
In a world where my time is limited, if I need entertainment, I’ll reach for something less time consuming than a book. Comedy seems to me to be mostly about entertainment, and I presume (perhaps unjustly) that Sedaris’s work is primarily about comedy. If there’s some more substantive, lasting value here please let me know.
5: Call me a philistine, but… who?
Most of these books, I really know nothing about. In a few cases, I have read other works by the author, but was notintrigued enough to seek further works or I just simply have no reason to believe that the following would be the work to seek. In a few cases, I did not even know the author existed until I found him or her on this list. I’d love to hear more about any of these books. Tell if you can.
- Illusions: Tales of a Reluctant Messiah, by Richard Bach
- The Snow Tree, by Caroline Repchuck
- Black Child, by Camara Laye
- If it Die, by André Gide
- The Last Lecture, by Randy Pausch
- Straight Man, by Richard Russo
- Last Moon Dancing, by Monique Schmidt, ’98
- Saint Maybe, by Anne Tyler
- Practical Gods, by Carl Dennis
- Peace Like a River, by Leif Enger
- The Next Place, by Warren Hanson
- Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett
- Up the Down Staircase, by Bel Kaufman
- QB VII, by Leon Uris
- Nicholas & Alexandra, by Robert K. Massie
- My Sister’s Keeper, by Jodi Picoult
- The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant
- Dear & Glorious Physician, by Taylor Caldwell
- London, by Edward Rutherford
- Possessing the Secret of Joy, by Alice Walker
- Love you Forever, by Robert Munsch
- The Worldly Philosophers, by Robert Heilbroner
- Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese
- The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien
- The Magus, by John Fowle
- Christ and Culture, by H. Richard Niebuhr
- The Second Coming, by Walker Percy
- Perelandra, by C.S. Lewis
- Miracles, by C.S. Lewis
- The Last Battle, by C.S. Lewis
- Miss Rumphius, by Barbara Cooney
- Jeeves and Wooster, by P.G. Wodehouse
- The Nine Tailors, by Dorothy Sayers
- The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, by Lewis Hyde
- Five Quarters of the Orange, by Joanne Harris
- Sarah’s Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay
- The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak
- Mary Russell series, by Laurie R. King
- The Question of Hu, by Jonathan Spence
- Aging: The Fulfillment of Life, by Henri J.M. Nouwen
- Game Change, by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin
- D-Day, by Anthony Beavor
- The Whistling Season, by Ivan Doig
- The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams
- Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See
- Blind Your Ponies, by Stanley Gordon West
- The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver
- Master Butchers’ Singing Club, by Louise Erdrich
- The Greatest Miracle in the World, by Og Mandino
- The Gift From the Sea, by Anne Morrow Lindbergh
- The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler
- The Cave, by Jose Saramago
- Free To Choose, by Milton & Rose Friedman
- Alphabet series mysteries, by Sue Grafton
- My Antonia, by Willa Cather
- Beloved, by Toni Morrison
- The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
- The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
- The Stone Diaries, by Carol Shield
- Traveling Mercies, by Anne Lamott
- A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engel
- A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving
- The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov
- The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami
- Snow, by Orhan Pamuk
- Loving Frank, by Nancy Horan
- The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow
- Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett
- A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry
- The Witness of Combines, by Kent Meyers
- Two-Part Invention: the story of a marriage, by Madeleine L’Engel
- Waterland, by Graham Swift
- People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks
- March, by Geraldine Brooks
- The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde
- The Dante Club, by Matthew Pearl
- Good Harbor, by Anita Diamant
- Buffalo For The Broken Heart, by Dan O’Brien
- Prodigal Summer, by Barbara Kingsolver
- Asylum, by Patrick McGrath
- Staggerford, by John Hassler
- The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion
- It’s Your Ship, by Mike Abrashoff
- Once a Runner, by John L. Parker
- The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway
- Five Smooth Stones, by Ann Fairbairn
- The Road Less Traveled, by M. Scott Peck
A good way to wrap up would be to give my own list of books, and I am probably arrogant enough to actually put one up and think others would care about it. Luckily, I’m also impatient to publish this list, so you’re spared. Anyone who happens to read this, though, talk back about your book choices, please, as I love recommendations (especially nonfiction!). If you are interested in the books I like, though, you can always peek in my library, or look at some of the books I found very influential.