30 Recommended Books for More Ambitious College Common Reading Programs

 

MATTHEW ARNOLD – CULTURE AND ANARCHY (1869)

The point of culture is the pursuit of perfection; the uncultured are mere Philistines. Arnold eloquently articulates the High Victorian ideal of culture as singular and normative—a valuable corrective to the modern view of culture as plural and descriptive. Students will learn to consider what they should do during college to acquire culture and leave off Philistinism.

 

JACQUES BARZUN – BERLIOZ AND HIS CENTURY: AN INTRODUCTION TO THE AGE OF ROMANTICISM (1950)

An exemplar of intellectual history, which brings alive the great romantic French composer Hector Berlioz. Barzun shows how to conduct a sympathetic evocation of the past, and lets us know both what was new and valuable about Romanticism and how Romantic we still are.

 

RUTH BENEDICT – PATTERNS OF CULTURE (1934)

Benedict’s classic of anthropology beautifully describes the varying cultures of the Pueblo, the Kwakiutl, and the Dobu. Students will find an eloquent account of the concept of cultural relativism—and also discover how deeply rooted that concept is in the West’s intellectual traditions and academic disciplines.

 

HAROLD BLOOM – THE WESTERN CANON (1994)

Bloom’s enthusiasm for great books is infectious. Students won’t have read many of the books he discusses but will want to.

 

 

BENVENUTO CELLINI – THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF BENVENUTO CELLINI (1558-1563)

Goldsmith, soldier, sculptor, and musician, Cellini’s life embodied the gusto and ambition of the Renaissance. Cellini’s autobiography is the standard by which to measure milk-and-water memoirs—as his life is the standard by which to measure milk-and-water lives. Especially recommended for colleges with concentrations in the fine arts.

 

MIGUEL DE CERVANTES – DON QUIXOTE (1605)

Is Don Quixote a hero, a fool, a madman—or all three? Don Quixote is a rich, gargantuan saga of the adventures of the iconic windmill-tilting knight-errant Don Quixote and his faithful squire Sancho Panza. The book has been called the “first modern novel,” and Harold Bloom writes that the tale of Don Quixote’s impossible quest “contains within itself all the novels that have followed in its sublime wake.” The book might be the longest work a college student will ever read, but it will also be the most memorable.

 

WHITTAKER CHAMBERS – WITNESS (1952)

A former Communist and Soviet spy, Chambers repented and exposed former State Department official Alger Hiss as a fellow Communist and spy. Hiss denied the allegation but evidence emerged that Chambers was right. Though the statute of limitations on espionage had run out, Hiss went to prison on a perjury conviction. In Witness, Chambers goes beyond the details of this case to offer a broad reflection on the course of twentieth-century history and the fate of Western civilization as it faced the challenge of totalitarian Communism.

 

JAMES GOULD COZZENS – GUARD OF HONOR (1948)

The heart of Cozzens’ novel is the story of a racial conflict on an Army Air Force base in Florida in 1943; it expands to include the nature of modern warfare, the way military bureaucracy works, the tissue of American race relations built upon a thousand racial insults, the self-serving ruthlessness of the American left in its claim to care about American blacks, and the profound indifference by all other American whites to the sufferings of American blacks. Decidedly un-PC, triggering with a vengeance in its stenography of racial epithets, this is the great novel of America at war.

 

DANIEL DEFOE – ROXANA: THE FORTUNATE MISTRESS (1724)

Roxana is a bold, self-reliant woman—who must make her living as a courtesan, and who comes to commit an evil action of tragic consequence to preserve the good life she has finally achieved for herself. A gripping subject for freshman debate about what women owe to themselves when the world tilts the playing field against them, and what prices are worth paying in the search for a good life.

 

ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE – DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA (1838)

De Tocqueville remains the best observer of the American social and political experiment. A long read but not inherently difficult.

 

 

FYODOR DOSTOEVSKY – CRIME AND PUNISHMENT (1866)

A psychological masterpiece. No one regrets reading it, though it is a long journey.

 

 

GEORGE ELIOT – MIDDLEMARCH (1871-1872)

The greatest realistic novel in English. Why not have students read the best?

 

 

 

MOULOUD FERAOUN – JOURNAL, 1955-1962: REFLECTIONS ON THE FRENCH-ALGERIAN WAR (1962)

Feraoun was a Muslim Algerian in love with French civilization, sympathetic to the Algerian demand for independence, and a scrupulous observer of the horrors inflicted by both the Algerian nationalist rebels and the French Army during the savage terrorism and counter-terrorism of the Algerian independence struggle. Feraoun refused to simplify his account and he refused to simplify his own commitments; he was killed in the last year of the war precisely because he was a man who refused to embrace brutal simplicities. His journal is necessary reading during our long war against Islamist terror.

 

PATRICK LEIGH FERMOR – A TIME OF GIFTS (1977)

18-year-old Fermor had no idea what to do with himself—so late in 1933 he decided to walk across Europe, from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. Half a century later he recorded the account in some of the most beautiful prose of the twentieth century. A Time of Gifts depicts Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia before the twin deluges of Nazism and Communism descended on them. Students will learn from Fermor to look at the world around them, seek out its beauty, and try to remember it. They will also learn that they can still do wonderful things if they decide to walk away from college.

 

RONALD FRASER – BLOOD OF SPAIN: AN ORAL HISTORY OF THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR (1979)

Fraser’s bricolage of first-person oral history and third-person narration is stylistically odd, but this is a riveting account of what it’s like to live through a civil war—the changes of heart, the mixtures of ideology and individual choice, and the brutal chaos that puts paid to virtually every revolutionary dream. Students who speak blithely of “revolution” and “civil war” should read this account of what a real ideological civil war was like.

 

JAROSLAV HASEK – THE GOOD SOLDIER SVEJK AND HIS FORTUNES IN THE WORLD WAR (1923)

Svejk wants to be a good soldier; it’s just that he’s a bit slow, so it’s not his fault that he happens to spend much of World War One drinking in a bar or wandering around Bohemia trying to find his regiment. Hasek’s comic novel is an education for every student who wants to avoid the latest great cause without making a fuss.

 

WILLIAM DEAN HOWELLS – THE RISE OF SILAS LAPHAM (1885)

The first great realistic American novel about a businessman, as the business class began their rise in the American scene. Howells satirically dissected the American businessman from without—but also revealed him from within, with considerable sympathy. The world of American business and businessmen is terrifically important; Howell’s novel is an enduringly good introduction.

 

JOHAN HUIZINGA – THE WANING OF THE MIDDLE AGES (1919)

A great work of cultural history, bringing alive the world of late medieval Europe. Students will learn how different the world of the past was, what the discipline of history can do, and how well academics can write.

 

 

HERMAN MELVILLE – BATTLE-PIECES AND ASPECTS OF THE WAR, EXCERPTS (1866)

The Civil War was the shattering event of the day, and Melville wanted to make sense of it in poetry. He produced a strange medley—no easy poems, some weird and baffling, others with a power that continues to the present day and brings alive the Civil War—as military event, as historical sea-change, as spiritual thunderclap. A classic of American poetry, it is also required reading for every student who wants to write poetry or fiction that speaks to contemporary events.

 

HERMAN MELVILLE – THE CONFIDENCE-MAN (1857)

Easy to read but baffling to some readers, since Melville refuses to say exactly who among the large cast of characters aboard the Mississippi steam ship Fidèle is the confidence man. Is America a confidence game?

 

 

VLADIMIR NABOKOV – SPEAK, MEMORY (1951, 1966)

Nabokov recalls his youth, in Tsarist Russia and in exile. A staggeringly beautiful memoir. If students are going to read a memoir, why not one of the best?

 

 

JOHN HENRY NEWMAN – THE IDEA OF A UNIVERSITY (1852)

Newman’s articulation of the ideal of liberal education as an end in itself, embedded within a theological framework, is one of the most powerful and influential conceptions of the purpose of the university. This should be a starting point for any student’s understanding of what precisely they are supposed to be doing in college.

 

EUGENE O’NEILL – LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT (1941-1942)

Edmund Tyrone spends a day with his family—some alcoholic, some drug-addicted, all self-deluded. At the end of the play, all self-delusions are stripped away—but the knowledge gained is of no use to save them from themselves. This harrowing American tragedy is the ultimate refutation of the psychiatric delusion that we may be redeemed by self-knowledge.

 

GARY ROSE, ED. – SHAPING A NATION: 25 SUPREME COURT CASES (2010)

We are a nation of laws—and of Supreme Court opinions. It is a good idea for students to start college having read some of the most important ones.

 

 

ARTHUR M. SCHLESINGER, JR. – THE AGE OF JACKSON (1945)

Irascible Old Hickory loved the common American, and he would break anything that stood in the way of their prosperity—from banks to Cherokees. He also loved the Union, and died muttering that he should have hanged the secessionist Calhoun. In the age of Hamilton, when we excuse plutocracy with a veneer of multiculturalism, too many Americans have forgotten what we owe to Jackson— the storm-god of populist nationalism in the United States. Schlesinger provides the classic apologia for Jackson; students should read it.

 

ROBERT SKIDELSKY – JOHN MAYNARD KEYNES 1883-1946: ECONOMIST, PHILOSOPHER, STATESMAN (2005)

Skidelsky’s biography of Keynes (abridged, but still massive) tells us about the man whose theory still governs the global economy. His personal life ranged from gay affairs in Bloomsbury to marriage to a Russian ballerina; his instant analysis of the economic effects of the Treaty of Versailles predicted World War II twenty years in advance; his General Theory of Employment revolutionized economics and is still the basis of modern economic thought; his economic management carried England through World War II; and at Bretton Woods he helped lay the foundations for the postwar economic order. Skidelsky’s biography is indispensable for understanding the architect of the modern economic world.

 

EUGENE B. SLEDGE – WITH THE OLD BREED: AT PELELIU AND OKINAWA (1981)

The classic memoir of what it was like to fight as a Marine during World War II—everyday courage in hell. Students should know what young Americans are capable of doing for one another and for their country.

 

STENDAHL – THE RED AND THE BLACK (1830)

Julien Sorel is a young, poor man on the make, longing to conquer a world he considers inferior to him; he ends up dead for his pains. The best refutation to the thesis that French novels must be boring; a handy guide for ambitious students to the dos and don’ts of professional success.

 

VIRGIL – THE AENEID (19 B.C. FAGLE’S TRANSLATION, 2006)

An epic in every sense, The Aeneid is one of the masterpieces of Western civilization.

 

 

 

EDMUND WILSON – TO THE FINLAND STATION (1940)

In To the Finland Station, Edmund Wilson traces historical, political, and ideological threads from the French Revolution to the Russian Revolution of 1917. The title refers to the St. Petersburg train from which Lenin emerged to take charge of the burgeoning Bolshevik revolt. Wilson’s narrative is an intellectual and cultural history that reveals the connections between the revolutionary era and the rise of socialism.

 

Criteria

In compiling our list, we had several considerations:

1. We sought diversity—the intellectual kind.

2. We sought books that are neither too long or too short. “Too long” means a book that would defeat even the able, well-intentioned, and determined pre-freshman reader. No War and Peace here. In a few cases we’ve recommended long books but specified that the college should assign selections. “Too short” means a book or essay that would invite the pre-freshman to treat the assignment as a triviality, even though it isn’t. No Kennedy’s “Ask not” inaugural address.

3. We sought books that are not normally taught in high school. The Scarlet Letter is out for that reason.

4.  We sought texts that are just a bit over students’ heads, but not so far that they are beyond reach. We excluded many works of classical antiquity on this basis. Sophocles is best read with the guidance of an instructor. Nietzsche invites wild misreadings from those who lack the philosophical context.

5.  We sought works that are not contemptuous of humanity or dyed in profound cynicism. Some such books belong in the college curriculum but we judge them a poor welcome mat to the pre-freshmen who ought to have a somewhat more positive introduction to why colleges exist and why they are devoting time and money to the enterprise. No Samuel Beckett or H. L. Mencken here.

6. In fiction, we sought works that exemplify elegance of language and a degree of complexity, along with moral seriousness.  

7. In nonfiction we looked for works that exemplify important ideas, lucidly argued, and writers who take their rhetorical task seriously.

8. We sought to accommodate colleges that approach common reading assignments at different levels of difficulty. To that end, we divide our list into two parts. The first is a list of 60 books all of which are appropriate in level of difficulty and length to any college freshman. The second is a list of 20 books that would be much more ambitious choices either because of length (The Guns of August) or intrinsic difficulty (The Confidence-Man.) Our goal is to offer constructive help.

 

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