5 More Works of Classic Fiction That You Should Know

Classic works from Tolstoy, Milton, Cervantes, Brontë and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Hans Thoma, “A Peaceful Sunday (detail),” 1876
Hans Thoma, “A Peaceful Sunday (detail),” 1876 (photo: Public Domain)

I promise that this is my last book recommendation list, at least for a while!

Beginning next week, I will get back into more depth on specific theological and spiritual topics — although I must admit that I will miss writing these lists. They were well-received by you, the readers, with a great deal of feedback, which I greatly appreciate, coming from your emails and comments that you kindly posted on the article’s page here at the National Catholic Register. And, to be very honest, some of the theology that has affected me the most has come from literature, both explicitly Catholic and from other works of fiction.

I had mentioned that one of the reasons why I wrote this list of 10 pieces of literature that I believe that all people should read is fairly simple: we do not read as much as we should. We live in an age of instant information. We are a very quick-paced, very visual culture now, one — not to propagate a stereotype — that likes to its information quick and under 140 characters.

These novels and poems that I am recommending are certainly more than 140 characters. They require, for the most part, an investment of self and a commitment of energy and interest that many sadly are not able either eager, willing or able to spend in our culture — due to time constraints, as well as the reality of having never been introduced to classical fiction.

And, again to be blunt, this is a reality for many preparing for the priesthood. One of the four pillars of priestly formation, along with spiritual formation, intellectual formation and pastoral formation, is human formation. Although this pillar of priestly formation involves the holistic development of the candidate, and reading literature might primarily be seen as part of intellectual formation, knowing some great works of the Western tradition can’t help but make the seminarian more culturally aware about the way humanity is. Knowing these great works of fiction can also help the seminarian grow to be a better homilist and catechist as well.

This list is not meant for an effete, abstract intellectual who’s not in touch with the reality of how men and women live in the world, but can actually help the Christian understand the world even better.

Now, onto my choices — and again, please note that my list is not exhaustive. There are hundreds of other books that I could have mentioned, but these are my own personal choices as to what pieces of literature in our Western tradition that have most influenced me. Some authors, like Chaucer, Austen and Dickens, were left off the list due to space constraints.

1. Leo Tolstoy’s 1878 work, Anna Karenina, is one of the most profound primers that one could read concerning faith, family and marriage. A work of Russian literature, Anna Karenina is a countess who has an affair with a count, Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky. This count wants Anna to leave her husband, Alexei Alexandrovich Karenina, who is older than she is by 20 years. Alongside this story is the parallel story of Konstantin and his struggles with his family and his faith. This is not an easy or a quick read (it is around 1000 pages), but it is well worth it. Although set in 19th-century Russia, it has universal themes to which all people can relate. Tolstoy writes: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

2. John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667; 1674) is an epic poem, written in blank verse, detailing two narratives, one concerning Satan and the other concerning Adam and Eve. Satan’s story is grand and epic, beginning after the defeat of the fallen angels who are now in Tartarus. We hear the accounts of the angelic war and the defeat of the fallen angels by the Son of God, as well as the creation of the world. Satan willingly volunteers to go to the world and corrupt it. The story of Adam and Eve’s fall and expulsion from the Garden of Eden is recounted from their perspectives. Milton creates a charismatic Satan, filled with pride and arrogance, an Adam who is deeply infatuated with the far more intelligent Eve, as well as the heroic and all-powerful Son of God. Paradise Lost can be read as a commentary on England in the time of her Civil War, but perhaps we might really wish to read it as a biblical epic. Milton writes: “A mind not to be changed by place or time. The mind is its own place, and in itself Can make a heav'n of hell, a hell of heav'n.” 

3. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes is one of the most influential pieces of literature in the world. Originally written in Spanish in two parts in 1605 and 1615, it is the story of the “Man of La Mancha,” the nobleman Alonso Quixano, who, inspired by tales of the knights of old, sallies forth searching for chivalric adventure and to win the hand of his Dulcinea. Aided by his “squire,” his neighbor, Sancho Panza, Don Quixote attacks windmills, believing them to be dragons. It is a fine book about honor and nobility, friendship, loyalty, women and men, fantasy, reality and madness, and finally, basically how to treat people with respect. Cervantes writes: “When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!” 

4. This fourth choice is very sentimental for me — Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Doyle wrote only four novels about the world’s most famous consulting detective, the genius and, at times, misanthropic, Sherlock Holmes: A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of the Four, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Valley of Fear. Most of Holmes’ and Watson’s tales are found in the 56 short stories, beginning with The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and ending with The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes. In my opinion, there is no fictional character greater than Holmes. I have read and reread these stories since I was a small boy and it remains a thrill for me to catch up with my hero from 221B Baker Street. If you can only read a few stories, may I suggest “A Scandal in Bohemia,” “The Speckled Band,” “The Dancing Men, “The Red-Headed League” and “The Final Problem”?

5. I have to admit that I am embarrassed to include only one female author on this list. This is not a matter of sexism or misogyny, but my own reading style. Emily Brontë’s 1846 novel, Wuthering Heights, is not everyone’s “cup of tea,” and, having been forced to read it in high school, it did not get me too excited until I reread it many years later. This story of Heathcliff and Catherine is stark and gothic, but it offers one of the most inspiring descriptions of identifying with one’s beloved:

 ‘It is not,’ retorted she; ‘it is the best! The others were the satisfaction of my whims: and for Edgar’s sake, too, to satisfy him. This is for the sake of one who comprehends in his person my feelings to Edgar and myself. I cannot express it; but surely you and everybody have a notion that there is or should be an existence of yours beyond you. What were the use of my creation, if I were entirely contained here? My great miseries in this world have been Heathcliff’s miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning: my great thought in living is himself. If all else perished, and  remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it.—My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I  Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being. So don’t talk of our separation again: it is impracticable; and—’

Remember this quote from Cervantes: “Finally, from so little sleeping and so much reading, his brain dried up and he went completely out of his mind.” Don’t be afraid! Get some sleep, but keep on reading!