Literature

Literature is the art whose medium is language. Literature stylizes human experience by presenting characters and actions concretizing abstractions.

These are great works of Literature. I recommend reading all of them, and doing so in parallel with studying the History of the corresponding periods. However, if you want to get started by just reading a half-dozen, begin with these:

  • The Iliad by Homer, translation by Rieu. A heroic epic centered on the hero Achilles, his values, character, decisions and consequences. This is the first work of literature to emphasize volition and personal values. Also available in audio, The Illiad.
  • The Song of Roland. A hero pursues his values, despite enemies and treachery, holding to his ideals even up to death. I recommend the Gordon Sayers translation.
  • Paradise Lost by John Milton. The Christian explanation of free will, determinism and punishment, magnificently told. The Roy Flannagan translation is recommended for its extensive footnotes. Also available in audio, Paradise Lost.
  • Othello by William Shakespeare. Shakespeare creates a great man in his hero Othello, none of whose greatness protects him from utter destruction by a triviality. Available on video and DVD.
  • The Man Who Laughs by Victor Hugo. Hugo's most stylized novel, a dramatic, mythological depiction of individualism.
  • Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand. The greatest play. The portrait of a man of honor and panache. Also in Cyrano de Bergerac.
  • Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. A mystery novel, pitting two views of man's mind and two moral codes against each other: rationality and selfishness versus mysticism and sacrifice.

Ancient Greece

  • The Iliad by Homer, translation by Rieu. A heroic epic centered on the hero Achilles, his values, character, decisions and consequences. This is the first work of literature to emphasize volition and personal values. Also available in audio, The Illiad.
  • The Odyssey by Homer, translation by Rieu. This and the Iliad were the intellectual inheritance of the later Greeks. The uniquely Greek world-view developed in the period in which this was composed. The Rieu translation is prose, not poetry, and so loses some of the flavor of the original but this makes the story easier to follow: adventure, revenge, daring and triumph.
  • Oresteia Trilogy by Aeschylus. Three plays, centered on justice, that portray the discovery of objective law in Athens.
  • Antigone by Sophocles. A tragedy, in which the heroine must choose between right and obedience.
  • Assembly of Women by Aristophanes, translation by Mayhew. A ribald comedy attacking communism, this translation is worth the price just for its introductory essay on justice.

See also Ancient Greece, History of

Rome

See also Rome, History of

Medieval Period

  • The Song of Roland. A hero pursues his values, despite enemies and treachery, holding to his ideals even up to death. I recommend the Gordon Sayers translation.

Renaissance

  • Inferno by Dante. The Renaissance conflict between earthly and Platonic values.
  • The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.
  • Le Morte d'Arthur by Thomas Malory.
  • The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser.
  • Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare. Lovers find each other, with their foolishness and the schemes of their enemies equally ineffectual. Available on DVD.
  • Othello by William Shakespeare. Shakespeare creates a great man in his hero Othello, none of whose greatness protects him from utter destruction by a triviality. Available on video and DVD.
  • Paradise Lost by John Milton. The Christian explanation of free will, determinism and punishment, magnificently told. The Roy Flannagan translation is recommended for its extensive footnotes. Also available in audio, Paradise Lost.

Enlightenment

Personal Favorites

In addition to the books listed above, the following are personal favorites of mine.

  • The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope. The vacationing English gentleman Rudolf Rassendyll bears a close likeness to the true king of Ruritania, and his love of justice, adventure and the Princess Flavia lead him to masquerade as the king to defeat a plot by the king's brother to usurp the throne. Dashing bravery, humor and ingenious feats characterize the hero. (ages 13 to 16)
  • The Scarlet Pimpernell by Baroness Orczy. By 1792, the idealism of the French Revolution had degenerated into a Reign of Terror. Ruthless mobs ruled the streets of Paris; and each day, hundreds of royals were executed by the guillotine, with hundreds more condemned to follow. Their only hope lay in being rescued by the Scarlet Pimpernel, the daring leader of an English faction that spirited aristocrats across the Channel to safety. But who was this Pimpernel, whose nom de guerre derived from the scarlet wildflower he employed as a calling card? First published in 1905, this historical adventure story -- timeless in its appeal -- is an irresistible blend of romance, intrigue, and suspense. Readers will thrill to the gallantry of its elusive, brave, and dashing hero who becomes the darling of the people, particularly Marguerite Blakeney, who scorns her foppish husband, Percy, as ardently as she admires the Pimpernel. (Publisher's summary) (ages 13 to 16)
  • Trustee from the Toolroom by Nevil Shute.
  • Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. A comic classic: Educated, athletic, urbane and strong-willed, the newly-orphaned Flora Post chooses to live at Cold Comfort Farm with her rural relatives, the model dysfunctional family. Calmly and with polish, she disentangles their frustrations, helping each person to fulfill his ambitions until all is set to order.
  • The Mating Season by P. G. Wodehouse. Bertie Wooster, defending his bachelor state, becomes a guest at Deverill Hall pretending to be the quintessential drip Gussie Fink-Nottle to preserve latter's engagement with the Basset. Meanwhile, Esmond loves Corky but doesn't know how to tell her and Gertrude, though seemingly pursued by Esmond is the object of the love of Corky's brother, Catsmeat, but none of the pairings can get right against the threat of the Five Aunts and the well-meaning but flawed help of Bertie. And then Gussie, with Jeeves in tow, shows up at Deverill Hall pretending to be Bertie Wooster!
  • All Creatures Great and Small, (series) by James Herriot. Charming, upbeat and benevolent stories of a veterinarian living in rural Yorkshire, England. Composed of many short stories, chronologically arranged, these paint a rich, insightful and entertaining portrait of the many people in Herriot's life, mostly farmers, locals, fellow doctors and his wife and family. A thoughtfully this-worldly, generous, moral outlook shines through these stories.
  • The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. All the works and plays, including the effervescent and optimistic The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband with its wonderful speech in praise of integrity.
  • The Collected Plays of Terence Rattigan. Tightly crafted plays with great psychological insight and deep values.
  • Heart of A Pagan, The Story of Swoop. Pagan self-exultation triumphs over Christian hatred of the good as an Olympian basketball player shows where true virtue lies.
  • Three Plays by Noel Coward. Three of the elegant playwright's witty inventions.
  • The Barretts of Wimpole Street by Rudolf Besier. (out-of-print, see sources.)
  • Aristotle Detective by Margaret Anne Doody. (ages 13 to 16)

Links

Ayn Rand, photo for the dustjacket of The Fountainhead

Ayn Rand, photo for the dustjacket of The Fountainhead

Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo

John Milton

John Milton

William Shakespeare, engraving from the cover of his first folio, 1623

William Shakespeare, engraving from the cover of his first folio, 1623

Edmund Rostand

Edmund Rostand

Friedrich Schiller

Friedrich Schiller

Pierre Corneille

Pierre Corneille

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Nevil Shute

Nevil Shute