Great Books Lists: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
What are the Great Books, the classics, "the canon"?
Matthew Arnold called the Great Books, or the classics, "the best that has been thought and known in the world." Ezra Pound called them "news that stays news." These are the books that continue to be read in times, places, and cultures far removed from those in which they were written. Since these works of literature, history, philosophy, etc. have had so much to say to so many different people, they probably have something to say to our generation as well.
The canon is the group of books consistently rated as great by readers and critics down through the generations. The Western world — i.e., Europe and the Americas — has been united by the Bible and Greco-Roman culture for many centuries and close relations between intellectuals of different nations, facilitated by the use of Latin. Therefore, it has a single canon (though there is room for debate about which authors and books should be in it).
Eastern cultures, such as those of India and China, have been largely separated by mountains, deserts, and oceans, not to mention widely differing religions and languages. (Buddhism and Sanskrit have, at times, united large parts of Asia.) The East, therefore, has several canons.
In any canon, though, constant re-evaluation takes place in every generation. Authors join the canon and leave the canon. Shakespeare and Dickens were considered vulgar in their day. The English metaphysical poets of the early 17th century weren't considered great until 300 years after they wrote. On the other hand, some authors considered great in the early 20th century are hardly read today. See the list of authors in the Harvard Classics (first published in 1914), for example, or the early winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
If you have any doubts about whether the classics are worth reading or whether they are relevant in our time, please read Italo Calvino's essay, "Why Read the Classics?" (available in the collections The Uses of Literature and Why Read the Classics?).
More answers to the question, "Why Read the Great Books?"
- Why it helps to read Great Books: Texts, Society, and Time by Constantin Fasolt, University of Chicago
- About the Greatness of Great Books by Eva Brann, St. John's College
- Why Read the Great Books? by Mortimer Adler
- "Grasping at Enlightenment" - Article by James Atlas on 40- and 50-somethings reading the Great Books, in book clubs and on tape (Los Angeles Times, Mar. 29, 2005)
Aren't they all written by Dead White Males?
Dead? It's true that most of the authors on these lists are dead. It takes a generation or more to be sure an author will continue to be read, so most of them are dead before they are considered truly great. About living authors, critics can only take their best guesses. See what Harold Bloom says on this point. I have included some lists of contemporary works. But I hope you will read some of the living works of dead authors. What Euripides wrote about the power of states and religions, for example, is still true 2,500 years later.
White? Great Books have been written by authors of every race. Many writers in the Western canon have been non-white. If you're interested in the other canons, please see the lists of Eastern and World literature I have assembled and my index of authors of non-Western literatures. Again, I hope you will read the works of authors of all races. We all need to learn from each other.
Male? Through much of history, in most cultures, women have had fewer opportunities to create art. (See Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own.) Despite these odds, however, there have been some women authors of the past, such as Sappho and Lady Murasaki, who have overcome them. In some cases, women authors have been unjustly neglected, and feminist critics have worked to rectify that. In the 20th century, many women authors, from Woolf herself to Jeanette Winterson, have been listed in the canon.
What are these lists?
These lists are authoritative attempts by noted critics to list the Great Books — whether of the West, of the East, or the whole world; whether from all times or from the 20th century.
I didn't write any of these lists myself.
Some of the Western canon lists — Adler and Van Doren, Fadiman (3rd ed.), Great Books of the Western World, the Columbia University curricula, and the St. John's College reading list — have a lot of overlap. They all came out of the Great Books movement of the mid-20th century. Some people, such as Mortimer Adler, worked on more than one of these lists.
Martin Seymour-Smith's list of the 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written uses the more objective standard of influence, rather than quality. His list includes more non-fiction works, fewer works of imaginative literature, and only a few non-Western works. (I think the last is more the result of his blindness than any indication that non-Western works cannot be influential.)
Some authors, including Ward and Fadiman (in the 4th edition of his Lifetime Reading Plan, co-authored with John S. Major), have listed classics from Eastern and other non-Western cultures, along with Western works. Rexroth's Classics Revisited and More Classics Revisited are the selections of a poet who appreciates (and has translated) Eastern as well as Western classics.
Approaches to the Asian Classics, Guide to Oriental Classics, and Masterworks of Asian Literature come from Columbia's Asian literature curriculum. Another list comes from St John's College's program in Eastern Classics at its Santa Fe campus.
The contemporary lists were compiled by the novelist Anthony Burgess, by the Book-of-the Month Club, by the editors of the Modern Library series, and as responses to the Modern Library lists of 20th century novels and nonfiction in English. Since it was compiled by college students, the Radcliffe list includes more children's, high school, and college favorites than any of the other lists.
Novelist Jane Smiley's list is limited to the novel, but unlike the Modern Library's list of novels, hers includes novels from other times and languages than just those published in English in the 20th century. However, she makes no claims to the greatness of her choices:
My list is not and was never intended to be a "Hundred Greatest," only a list of individual novels that would illuminate the whole concept of the novel — and almost any list of a hundred serious novels would illuminate that concept. (p. 270)
Two other lists that enumerate influential works were published in the book reviews of the TLS and the Los Angeles Times. These lists include more non-fiction works than most of the others. As might be expected, the TLS leans toward British authors (also the social sciences). The L.A. Times leans toward American authors, with an emphasis on California and the West.
Still can't get enough? See my bibliography of more Great Books lists.
Why isn't [my favorite author] listed?
First of all, are you sure he or she isn't listed? Check the complete Author Index of all the lists.
If your favorite author still isn't there, it could be because I haven't run across the Great Books list that includes that author.
Or maybe your favorite author hasn't been recognized by the critics yet. For the reasons for that, see What are the Great Books?, above.
What are your indexes of these lists?
I've listed the Great Books from all of these lists in two indexes — an index by author and an index by period and culture (broken down into ancient Western; medieval, Renaissance, and baroque Western; modern Western; and non-Western literature).
If you want to read more from a given period and culture, say Elizabethan England or T'ang China, go to the indexes by period and culture. If you want to see which books are recommended by a particular author, see the index by author and title.
What Great Books have you read?
Since I graduated from college without having read every great work of literature ever written, I have been attempting to make up for that deficiency with a Great Books reading program. For your information, I have posted my reading lists.
Answers to related questions:
- Yes, I do read other, lighter books
- Yes, I do make detours and read works out of order. For example, I have read all of Shakespeare's works, even though I have not yet reached his time in my reading program.
Where can I get these books?
Classics are "news that stays news," and most of them are in print. Some publishers issue series of the classics. The classics are sold through online bookstores. Older ones are in the public domain and thus available through E-Text and E-Book Web sites. (Newer translations of old foreign-language works are still under copyright, however. So they probably won't be available online for free.)