In college, one of the things I was most excited about was all of the great books I was going to read. Even between semesters, I sought out reading recommendations from my favorite professors – I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss anything. Over summer break, I averaged 2 books a week – a habit that, until I went back to school for my doctorate, I was able to maintain long after graduation.
Today, I read an article about the books that most frequently appear on college syllabi, and it got me to thinking about the best books I’ve ever read. If I were ever to design my own course in reading “Great Books,” these are the 7 works I would have on my 15-week syllabus, with explanations. Note: I fully admit that some great books are not on this list, and I’ll also admit a serious Western Lit bias, but this is an impossible project; however it also a fun one to think about. So, in 15 weeks, this is what we would read:
1. The Great Gatsby
I have great affection for Fitzgerald’s most popular book. I love the era it is set in, and I do believe that it is the quintessential narrative of the aspiration, excess, and fallacy of “The American Dream.” An alternative to this on the same theme: Death of a Salesman.
No other novel honestly spooked me as much as Toni Morrison’s Beloved. It is a haunting story of slavery and the impossible, regrettable moral choices the protagonist faces. Shivers. Also in this lane: a contemporary novel called The Known World.
3. Things Fall Apart
Chinua Achebe’s novel is a postcolonial masterpiece. It was one of the first books I ever really read about another culture, and it was fascinating to consider the alternative view of Christianity in the world. In this same vein, also a good bet: The Poisonwood Bible.
Of course there is Shakespeare on this list! My favorite play to watch may be A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but my favorite play to read and sit with is definitely Hamlet. I love this play because, even though I have read it dozens of times, I always find something new it in. I have never read another play like it. Its depths resound. Sorry – can’t find anything really comparable – except maybe Macbeth.
5. The Things They Carried
Of all the books and stories about war, this one is the one I always come back to. Tim O’Brien is an amazing storyteller. I remember the first time I ever read “On the Rainy River.” I was sitting on a beach in Jamaica, and was a real gut-punch. If you like this one, you’ll also love Dispatches – a non-fiction story about a reporter in Vietnam.
I probably like Animal Farm better, but 1984 is just scary. It’s scary because it’s so true. I think even George Orwell would be surprised at how right he was about the world to come. When I first read the book, I kind of laughed at the idea of “Big Brother.” Not so funny now. Huxley’s Brave New World is also frighteningly on the nose.
7. Last but not least, Frankenstein
Mary Shelley’s gothic novel raises all of the questions we are still asking about the limits of human knowledge and achievement along with the ethical responsibilities we bear when we push those boundaries. The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells provokes these questions as well.
So what do you think? If you were assigning “Great Books,” what would be on the list?
© Ryna May 2016