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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