Saturday, September 21, 2019

30 books everyone should read

A friend, Ken Samples (whose weblog and books I'd recommend), posted this on Facebook: "30 Books Everyone Should Read At Least Once In Their Lives".

For what it's worth, if anything, here are my comments:

I think I've read the majority of these, but I don't think they're all worth reading. For example, I admire Orwell, but I'd agree with C.S. Lewis' assessment of 1984 and Animal Farm: 1984 is much weaker than Animal Farm. Animal Farm is the far better book. Animal Farm says more with less. The exception is the "The Principles of Newspeak" appendix in 1984 which is, indeed, brilliant.

Another example is Fahrenheit 451. I think Fahrenheit 451 is one of Bradbury's weaker works, though I've read a lot of Bradbury and generally have enjoyed him for what he is. He writes beautifully. I think Bradbury's best works are his short stories, but for novels I'm somewhat surprised The Martian Chronicles didn't make the cut. Of course, The Martian Chronicles is essentially a collection of short stories.

Likewise, this may be considered sacrilege by some, but I wouldn't rank Tolkien's The Hobbit and LotR as highly as most Christians or people in general do. I think they're good stories, but not great stories that "everyone should read". I find Tolkien often laborious to read. He was a philologist by training. I'd say this is reflects both the strengths and weaknesses of The Hobbit and the LotR. I've also read The Silmarillion which I likewise enjoyed to a degree but wouldn't rate highly. Much of The Silmarillion is Tolkien's reworking of various mythologies (e.g. the fall of Gondolin paralleling the fall of Troy in Homer and Virgil). Not original fare, but it's interesting if you want to hear Tolkien's take on classic myths.

I appreciate Dickens, and I love his wordsmithery, but I think A Tale of Two Cities is like an inferior Victor Hugo. (And I don't even think that highly of Hugo. Among other issues, I think Hugo's Les Misérables is emotionally overwrought. I believe G.K. Chesterton once compared Hugo with Dickens; I'd agree with Chesterton's assessment of the two.) At the very least I think Dickens had far better novels that could have arguably made the list over Two Cities (e.g. Pickwick, Great Expectations, maybe David Copperfield).

Same with Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Sure, I enjoyed the tale of "star-crossed lovers" in "fair Verona", but Shakespeare had superior plays, whether tragedies (e.g. Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, King Lear) or comedies (e.g. A Midsummer Night's Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, The Tempest). Or others (e.g. histories like Henry V).

Likewise the first Harry Potter book shouldn't have made the list, I don't think. I think the best is the third one, The Prisoner of Azkaban. The first two books are still very much light-hearted romps in my view, while the deeper thematic and tonal shift that Harry Potter is best known for are well-introduced in Azkaban. Rowling's later Harry Potter books suffer from bloat. But Rowling has an inventive ear for words. Not unlike Dickens before her.

These books are generally fiction, but there's some non-fiction as well. I think it'd be better to draw separate lists for fictional and non-fictional works. For instance, The Diary of Anne Frank is valuable and worth reading, but I'd say it should be compared alongside other firsthand accounts of the Holocaust rather than compared alongside the likes of Bradbury, Orwell, Dickens, and Shakespeare (e.g. Elie Wiesel's Night, Corrie ten Boom's The Hiding Place). Or at least compared alongside other works of suffering imprisonment and death in totalitarian regimes (e.g. Solzhenitsyn).

There are a few books I've never been interested in reading. Probably because I'm a guy rather than a girl. I'm referring to books like Little Women and Gone with the Wind. Maybe that's my loss.

Just to show I'm not so calloused, I do agree with a lot of the books on the list, viz. Huckleberry Finn, Of Mice and Men, Lord of the Flies, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Charlotte's Web, Frankenstein, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and maybe Alice in Wonderland.

I'd note Frankenstein and H2G2 are militantly atheist books. Frankenstein is subtitled The Modern Prometheus which the Romantics saw as a defiant figure against the gods. It was also written by a young Mary Shelley who ran in the same literary circles as her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron among other atheists du jour. Both her husband and Lord Byron lived somewhat ignominiously as rebels against authorities and had tragic ends to their short lives. H2G2 is a hilarious send-up of the absurdities of life from an atheistic perspective. I regard it as something of a modern Candide (Voltaire). Still I see value in reading these two atheistic works to see what the best atheist literature has to offer in terms of tragedy and comedy, respectively.

And I'd say books worth reading are worth re-reading. Not just once, but many times in one's life.

Anyway I've gone on for long enough. I'd better stop here.


  1. I can't agree about Animal Farm and 1984. Both are great books. Animal Farm is brilliant in its simplicity. An allegory on the Russian Revolution.

    1984 is greater because it's prophetic. He forsees the debasement and perversion of language. The totalitarian surveillance state. The two minutes of hate anticipates the modern left.

    1. Thanks, Andrew. That's completely fair and why it's often fun to debate the place of literary works. :)

      By the way, in case you or anyone else might be interested, I found C.S. Lewis' review of the two Orwell books.