Daniel Blackman is a freelance writer, photographer, and media consultant based in London, UK. He writes news, features, and interviews for print and online Catholic (and some non-Catholic) news outlets. He has a BA in theology and an MA specializing in systematic theology and ethics.
Imagine if you were asked to select the most important books future generations would need to know and understand, so they could develop and sustain their society.
Thousands of years of thinking, debating, and writing have given us Aristotle and Plato, Dante, Chaucer and Shakespeare, Goethe and Hegel, Austen, Milton, Marx and Proust.
You might not agree with what the biggest thinkers said, or the impact they had, but there’s no doubt Aquinas and Einstein have both made, in very different ways, considerable impact on how we think and how we live.
The Great Books is that list of the most essential works of law, philosophy, religion, science, arts, and fiction we need to really understand Western society, and how it has developed and diverged since ancient times.
That’s not to say there aren’t other Great Books lists, like the Eastern Classics list at St John’s College, and people are free to dispute exactly which books should be included on these lists.
Aside from such debates, hearty Great Books debate has risen again across the US and further afield.
Biola University’s Torrey Honors Institute, University of San Francisco’s St. Ignatius Institute, the Universities of Dallas and Michigan, Notre Dame, Boston College, and the newer Christendom and Thomas Aquinas Colleges all offer students the opportunity to study and discuss Great Books authors.
Further afield you’ll find the Catholic University of Portugal offering a similar course, while the UK’s King’s College London, Bristol, Leeds, Exeter and Essex universities now offers a BA in liberal arts, which look a lot like a revised, modern, Great Books degree.
Which brings us back to our original question: which books would you include if you had to add to the list, and how would you decide?
It was Mortimer Adler, the Jewish Thomistic philosopher, author, and convert to Catholicism via Episcopalianism, who championed Great Books in the US, establishing the Great Books Foundation and Great Books Program.
He said that a book needed to have “contemporary significance—relevance to the problems and issues of the twentieth century.” The books are not archaeological relics and monuments.
The second requirement was “infinite re-readability,” meaning that a book warrants being re-read several times in order to understand it and allow the reader to learn new things with each reading.
The final requirement was “the relevance of the work to a very large number of great ideas and great issues that have occupied the minds of thinking individuals for the last twenty-five centuries.” He listed elsewhere what those great ideas were, in his option.
With that in mind, here’s a list of potential candidates, in no particular order, as suggested by the dozens of people I requested ideas from. Will Register readers in the year 2500 be thanking us or left scratching their heads?
- Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
- Man's Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl
- The First Circle By, World Split Apart, Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
- If This is a Man, Primo Levi
- Catechism of the Catholic Church
- Man and Woman He Created Them, Pope St. John Paul II
- Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton
- Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien
- Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis
- After Virtue, Alistair McIntyre
- A Secular Age, Charles Taylor
- 1984, Animal Farm, George Orwell
- The Conservative Mind, Russell Kirk
- The World of Yesterday, Stefan Zweig
- Beauty, Sir Roger Scruton
- War Against the West, Utopian Mind, Aurel Kolnai
- Postmodernism and Consumer Culture, Mike Featherstone
- The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud, Philip Rieff
- A Social Critique of Radio Music, T. W. Adorno
- The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin
- Notes Towards a Definition of Culture, T. S. Eliot
- The Subtler Language, E. Wasserman
- The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins
- A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawkins
- Animal Liberation, Peter Singer
- Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre
- Necessary Illusions –Thought Control in Democratic Societies, Noam Chomsky
- Capitalism and Freedom, Freedom to Choose, Milton Friedman
- The Road to Serfdom, Friedrich Hayek
- The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, John Maynard Keynes
- Vers une architecture, L’Esprit Nouveau articles, Le Corbusier
- Roe v Wade, Abortion Act 1967
- The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuyama
- The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan
- The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou
- The Double Helix, James Watson