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Western Culture's Top 50

In his introduction to World Magazine's Western Culture's Top 50 booklist (Issue: "Supreme warning" July 5, 2003), Gene Veith reminds us of C.S. Lewis's advice to read at least one classic for every three contemporary books. This list of fifty great works of literature is meant to introduce those without a solid literary background (or without a strong education in general) to the beauty and importance of the classics.

Veith is also careful to point out that this isn't an exercise in secular scripture-making, that the editors of World haven't compiled a canon. Others have pointed out that the term "canon" in the context of novels, poetry and the like is a misuse of the word, that it refers to holy books exclusively, and by creating a "literary canon" scholars are simply trying to set parameters for their own idolatrous use of literature.

There is nothing like that here. Many of these books are explicitly Christian, and those that aren't at least portray a biblical or near-biblical attitude about the world. First published in the 5-12 July 2003 issue of World Magazine, this also isn't an end-all list for studying the classics; rather, it's a good place to start for supplementing whatever education you've had, and for pursuing character development through great books.

At the top of their list is the Bible, followed by Milton's Paradise Lost, Shakespeare's King Lear, Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan, and the lesser-known book of devotional poetry by George Herbert, The Temple. The 45 books following are arranged by time period (ancient, Medieval, etc.) and run the gamut from The Confessions of St. Augustine to Crime and Punishment to Shelby Foote's massive narrative history of the American Civil War.

If you're looking for light reading or something to drowse to while swinging in the hammock, these aren't the kind of books you're after. The books on this list are sometimes difficult, frequently somber and even dark, but always rewarding as insights into human nature, the way of the world, and God's relationship to man.

Each title is briefly described and its main theme (or themes) identified. While you can obviously read whichever titles you want and neglect the rest, we'd recommend committing to read all 50—together, they form a coherent picture of the history of the world, the history of thought, and the ways men and women have applied the Gospel throughout each.

World Magazine is dedicated to good education and good Christianity, and this list evidences both commitments. Keep in mind: these aren't for younger readers. You won't find a bunch of sleazy content, but the issues are above the heads of most students younger than 17 or 18, and likely more than they can handle ideologically. For older students and adults, however, these books can't be ignored. The titles we carry are listed below.

Please note that Lyrical Ballads by William Wordsworth & Samuel Taylor Coleridge are included in the collected poems of each author. Ash Wednesday is included in T.S. Eliot: Collected Poems, 1909-1962. The Bear, by William Faulkner, is part of Three Famous Short Novels.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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Western Culture's Top 50
52 Items found Print
1599 Geneva Bible (Black Bonded)
from Tolle Lege Press
for 7th-Adult
in Study Bibles (Location: C08-02B)
Aeneid
by Virgil (translation by Robert Fitzgerald)
from Vintage Classics
Ancient Literature/Epic Poetry for 10th-Adult
in Ancient Literature (Location: CLT-ANC)
Antigone
Dover Thrift Editions
by Sophocles
from Dover Publications
Ancient Tragedy for 9th-Adult
in Ancient Literature (Location: CLT-ANC)
Canterbury Tales
Penguin Classics
by Geoffrey Chaucer (edited by Nevill Coghill)
from Penguin Classics
Medieval Poetry for 8th-12th grade
in Medieval Literature (Location: CLT-MED)
Chronicles of Narnia - Quality Softcover Set
by C. S. Lewis
from HarperCollins
Allegorical Fantasy for 3rd-9th grade
in Fantasy Fiction (Location: A07-02A)
Civil War: A Narrative - 3 Volume Set
by Shelby Foote
1st Vintage Books Ed from Vintage Classics
for 10th-Adult
in 20th & 21st Century Literature (Location: CLT-20C)
Complete English Poems of George Herbert
Penguin Classics
by George Herbert
from Penguin Classics
Lyrical Poetry for 11th-Adult
in 17th Century Literature (Location: CLT-17C)
Complete Poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge
by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
from Penguin Classics
for 9th-Adult
in Poetry (Location: APO-05A)
Confessions of Saint Augustine
Penguin Classics
by Augustine of Hippo
from Penguin Classics
Autobiography/Devotional Material for 11th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: CLT-MED)
Crime and Punishment
Signet Classics
by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
from Signet Classics
Realistic Russian Novel for 11th-Adult
in 19th Century Literature (Location: CLT-19C)
Cypresses Believe in God
by Jose Maria Gironella
from Ignatius Press
for Adult
in 20th & 21st Century Literature (Location: CLT-20C)
David Copperfield
by Charles Dickens
Revised from Penguin Classics
for 10th-Adult
in 19th Century Literature (Location: CLT-19C)
Democracy in America
Penguin Classics
by Alexis De Tocqueville
from Penguin Classics
American Government for 11th-12th grade
in 19th Century Literature (Location: CLT-19C)
Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions and Death's Duel
by John Donne
from Vintage Classics
for 11th-Adult
in 17th Century Literature (Location: CLT-17C)
Divine Comedy set
Penguin Classics
by Dante Alighieri (translation by Dorothy Sayers)
from Penguin Putnam
Medieval Allegory/Poetic Epic for 10th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: CLT-MED)
Don Quixote
by Miguel de Cervantes (translation by Edith Grossman)
Reprint from Harper Perennial
for 10th-Adult
in 17th Century Literature (Location: CLT-17C)
Dr. Faustus
by Christopher Marlowe
from Dover Publications
for 10th-Adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: CLT-REN)
Economic Harmonies
by Frederic Bastiat
Third Printing from Foundation for Economic Education
for 10th-Adult
in Economics Resources (Location: B12-05D)
ESV Reformation Study Bible
2nd edition from P&R Publishing
for 8th-Adult
in Study Bibles (Location: C08-02B)
Faerie Queene
Penguin Classics
by Edmund Spenser
from Penguin Classics
Allegory/Epic Poetry for 10th-Adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: CLT-REN)
Federalist Papers
Signet Classics
by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison & John Jay
from Signet Classics
American Political Philosophy for 9th-Adult
in 18th Century Literature (Location: CLT-18C)
Foxe's Book of Martyrs
by John Foxe
from Baker Books
Historical Non-fiction for 10th-Adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: CLT-REN)
Gorgias
Penguin Classics
by Plato
from Oxford University
Ancient Philosophy for 9th-Adult
in Ancient Literature (Location: CLT-ANC)
Gulliver's Travels
by Jonathan Swift
from Oxford University
Satire/Social Commentary for 9th-Adult
in 18th Century Literature (Location: CLT-18C)
Iliad
Everyman's Library
by Homer (translation by Robert Fitzgerald)
from Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
Ancient Literature/Epic Poetry for 9th-Adult
in Ancient Literature (Location: CLT-ANC)
Innocents Abroad
Signet Classics
by Mark Twain
from Signet Classics
Travel books/Social Commentary for 9th-Adult
in 19th Century Literature (Location: CLT-19C)
Institutes of the Christian Religion
by John Calvin
from Westminster John Knox Press
Theology for 11th-Adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: CLT-REN)
King Lear
Dover Thrift Editions
by William Shakespeare
from Dover Publications
Tragedy for Adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: CLT-REN)
Le Morte d'Arthur
Signet Classics
by Sir Thomas Mallory
from Signet Classics
for 9th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: CLT-MED)
Leaves of Grass
by Walt Whitman
from Oxford University
for 11th-Adult
in 19th Century Literature (Location: CLT-19C)
Lord of the Rings Deluxe Hardcover Set
by J. R. R. Tolkien
from Houghton Mifflin
Fantasy for 5th-12th grade
in Fantasy Fiction (Location: A07-02A)
Major Works of William Wordsworth
by William Wordsworth
from Oxford University
for 9th-Adult
in Poetry (Location: APO-05A)
Master and Man and Other Stories
Penguin Classics
by Leo Tolstoy
from Penguin Classics
Realistic Fiction for 11th-Adult
in 19th Century Literature (Location: CLT-19C)
Moby-Dick
by Herman Melville
from Penguin Putnam
Realistic Nautical Fiction for 9th-Adult
in 19th Century Literature (Location: CLT-19C)
Paradise Lost
Penguin Classics
by John Milton
2003 Revised from Penguin Classics
Epic Poetry for 10th-Adult
in 17th Century Literature (Location: CLT-17C)
Pensees
Penguin Classics
by Blaise Pascal
from Penguin Putnam
Philosophy/Religion for 10th-Adult
in 17th Century Literature (Location: CLT-17C)
Pilgrim's Progress
by John Bunyan
from John L. Dagg Publishing
for 10th-adult
in 17th Century Literature (Location: CLT-17C)
Power and the Glory
by Graham Greene
2nd edition from Penguin Classics
for 12th-Adult
in 20th & 21st Century Literature (Location: CLT-20C)
Reflections on the Revolution in France
Penguin Classics
by Edmund Burke
from Penguin Classics
for 10th-Adult
in 18th Century Literature (Location: CLT-18C)
Robinson Crusoe
Signet Classics
by Daniel Defoe
from Signet Classics
Realistic Adventure Novel for 8th-Adult
in 18th Century Literature (Location: CLT-18C)
Sayings of the Fathers
by Joseph H. Hertz
Bilingual from Behrman House
for 11th-Adult
in Ancient Literature (Location: CLT-ANC)
Sense and Sensibility
Penguin Classics
by Jane Austen
from Penguin Classics
Romantic Realistic Fiction for 9th-Adult
in 19th Century Literature (Location: CLT-19C)
Summa of the Summa
by St. Thomas Aquinas, edited by Peter Kreeft
from Ignatius Press
for 10th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: CLT-MED)
Survival in Auschwitz
by Primo Levi
1st edition from Touchstone
for 10th-Adult
in 20th & 21st Century Literature (Location: CLT-20C)
T. S. Eliot: Collected Poems, 1909-1962
by T. S. Eliot
1st edition from Harcourt
for 10th-Adult
in 20th & 21st Century Literature (Location: CLT-20C)
The Second Coming: A Novel
by Walker Percy
from Picador
for 10th-Adult
in 20th & 21st Century Literature (Location: CLT-20C)
Three Famous Short Novels by William Faulkner
by William Faulkner
from Vintage Classics
for 10th-Adult
in 20th & 21st Century Literature (Location: CLT-20C)
Tristram Shandy
by Laurence Sterne
from Wordsworth Classics
for 10th-Adult
in 18th Century Literature (Location: CLT-18C)
Two Treatises of Government
by John Locke
3rd edition from Cambridge University
Political Philosophy for 10th-Adult
in 17th Century Literature (Location: CLT-17C)
Violent Bear It Away
by Flannery O'Connor
from Farrar, Straus and Giroux
for 10th-Adult
in 20th & 21st Century Literature (Location: CLT-20C)
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