This page is dedicated to producing a list of texts – from theology to novels, chemistry to philosophy – that have profoundly shaped the english-speaking western world over hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of years.
This list is not intended to profile the best writings, nor the most popular, but texts which have most shaped English-language western culture generally (though some weren’t written in English) and are regularly referenced in other media. That is, if you have read all these, you have a pretty damn good handle on the ideas and influences that have shaped literary and intellectual culture in this society. .
The list actually emerged as my partner and I discovered the popular “1001 Books to Read Before You Die”. Both of us have read a hell of a lot, and across a wide range of subjects and genres. We were surprised and excited, then, to see that we’d each only read a little over a tenth of that list, and set ourselves to reading through the lot. It’s a process that is, obviously, still ongoing, and will be for some time. But what was striking was that the “1001 Books” list seemed to be entirely devoid of any real criteria for its selections. Sure, there are alot of classics. And alot of fine books. But there are also a surprising number of real stinkers. Now, subjectivity being what it is, that is to be expected. But more significant, I think, is that the “1001” includes almost the entire catalogues of some relatively recent authors, whose staying-power and cultural significance is not yet tested, while hugely important works and whole Nobel-prize winning careers are totally overlooked.
So we lay in bed one morning, sipping coffee, Megan reading and me staring off at the walls, as is our normal weekend routine, and I commented on the fact that the “1001” was disappointing because its framework was not specified, and that any “best” book list would necessarily be far too subjective to have any real meaning. More interesting, I thought, would be a list of books that had profoundly shaped culture or permanently entered into our social consciousness in some way. “So why don’t you write a list?”, Megan suggested. And that, as they say, was that.
Where to draw the line, what to count as “significant”, how to handle absolute crap that nonetheless has been important, how to handle those absolutely amazing books that critics around the world cite as exemplary but few outside literary circles have read? These and other questions plagued me as I worked through, and I can’t say as I ever developed clear and consistent answers. Significant would have to mean, generally, that they are widely known, or some central part of the book became widely known, even if the source was forgotten. There would have to be a cultural boundary – in this case that vague but nonetheless meaningful notion of ‘western’ english-speaking culture. Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus – though the epitome of drivel as far as I am concerned – would have to be included because it did indeed become so well-known as to impact day to day parlance. Jose Saramago’s Baltasar and Blimunda, however, would not appear – though one of the best books I’ve ever read, and the one that launched the literary rise of an eventual Nobel-winner – because good does not mean culturally-important.
I guess the best way to describe my general boundary for inclusion is this:
At the beginning of the first Superman movie, little baby superman is sent off to earth in a pod to save him from the destruction of his home planet Krypton. As he hurtles through space month after month after month, crystals in the pod recite to him the accumulated knowledge of the civilization he is going to join, so that he will be able to not only integrate but excel. I have tried to imagine, as I wrote this list and made the decisions on what to put in and what to leave out, what little superbaby would have been hearing. What would we include if we were to create such a library? Not, what is most popular, what is best, what is smartest – but what is most lasting, and has most impacted the way this civilization sees itself and its world?
Such a list would have no defined number of entries. Such a list would not be restricted to novels, but would have to include theology, nonfiction, poetry, plays, children’s literature, and so on. And such a list would invariably have few recent entries, because the cultural significance of a work is rarely evident until a few generations have passed. (A separate list of “Recent Contenders” can be found on its own page for those more recent books that may prove to be significant over time.)
Clearly, in putting something like this together, there is bound to be a whole lot of overlap with what is called “the western canon” – that much-celebrated, much-maligned and always-debated list of the most influential books in western culture as defined by the academy. But it is different, too. The ‘canon’ quite explicitly deals with what we might call ‘high culture’ – those contributions deemed to be most important as intellectual achievements or aesthetic contributions. As such, the canon will include alot of things that have been hugely impactful on cultural elites but virtually unknown among the general population and will exclude contributions that have enormous impact on popular culture but are deemed ‘common’. Think, for example, of kids books and teen fiction – A.A. Milne and Judy Blume aren’t on any collections of canonical works, but they sure as hell shape and form generation after generation. So, this isn’t the canon, and isn’t intended to be, despite the extensive overlap. (And for those who are interested in the western canon, check out Harold Bloom’s list here or Encyclopedia Britannica’s “Great Books” series here.)
And so, with that introduction, here it is. This list, I stress, is just my own. I am relatively widely read, and I have made some effort to turn my mind to things far outside my own experience that I know, nonetheless, have been important. But I am limited by the horizons of my own interests and experiences, and I hope that others will point out to me the vast gaps here – and I know there are vast gaps. So do write, and tell me about things to include – not things that are good, but things that are important, things that somehow changed the world or introduced common phrases or altered the ways people think or behave or believe in what we call modern western english-speaking culture.
Oh, a last word. Let no one think for a moment that I’ve read all of these, or even had heard of them all when I began this project. In almost all cases I had heard of either the work or the author, but there are some I did not know at all, that emerged through the process of collecting titles. I’ve read a number, but there is a long long way to go, and I doubt I’ll ever get there. In fact, it is my hope that the list will grow faster than I could ever hope to keep up. I will, though, be learning about all of them – reading many, and at very least doing a little research about each text so as to produce a paragraph or two to describe it. As those are done, they’ll be highlighted on the list so you can go directly to the information on that text.
A Note on Organization:
There was much discussion between Megan and I on whether or not to break the complete list up into separate ones based on genre. I thought that it would be too unwieldy as is, and difficult for those looking just for fiction, poetry etc. Megan, however, raised a crucial point: this is a list not just of texts, but of ideas – its purpose is to illustrate, through readings, the collective wisdom of a culture. And such processes invariably involve dialogue across disciplines and genres. That is, the scientific revolution, new directions in philosophy, and different forms of literary work all influenced one another, and it is never possible to abstract politics from science from theology from poetry – culture is the interaction and intersection of all these. The result: this list is laid out in simple chronological order, so that we can see how various works and different ideas emerged out of and grew into others over time. Unwieldy, perhaps. But that’s culture for ya.