By Mike Hammer for Next Avenue
Have some time on your hands? This list of 20 great books is a good way to raise your literary IQ. It’s by no means the “definitive” list, but each of these masterpieces is at least as relevant and powerful today as when it was written. And they’re all still terrific reads.
The Bible, various authors, ca. 1446 BC
Not only is it the cornerstone of Judaism and Christianity, but this perennial best-seller is still a prerequisite for understanding many of the world’s literary classics.
The Iliad/The Odyssey, Homer, 1194–1184 BC
The world’s first and still baddest sandals-and-swords epics (poems, in this case, not Kirk Douglas or Russell Crowe vehicles) lend comic book muscle to actual and mythical Greek history from the Trojan War and the tales of brave Ulysses’ 10-year commute back home.
Hamlet, William Shakespeare, 1602 (estimated)
“To be, or not to be?” On this list, it’s a no-brainer. Arguably the most widely read and iconic piece of fiction ever. Shakespeare’s play mirrors the monarchal brutality of King Henry VIII — yet resonates with readers of all eras and cultures.
Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, 1818
The mother of all monster stories gave birth to the moral dilemma of whether science and mad ambition should trample on God’s private property — as well as to a million sequels, movies and TV spinoffs.
The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas, 1844
A wrongly imprisoned man returns from 12 years in the Bastille as a mysterious and wealthy gentleman to exact revenge on the not-so-noblemen who stole his life, family and dignity. Written 150 years before the Innocence Project made its debut.
David Copperfield, Charles Dickens, 1850
Possibly the first “creative memoir.” Dickens calls this novelization of his childhood his favorite novel, and he’s been joined in that opinion by plenty of other literary giants including Kafka, Tolstoy and James — not to mention countless devoted fans.
Moby Dick: Herman Melville, 1851
Whether or not you ever got past “Call me Ishmael,” the greatest fish story ever told is an important one to know. A maniacal Captain Ahab casts away his crew and humanity when he blindly fishes for revenge from the whale that took his leg in a good vs. evil parable of biblical proportions.
Les Misérables, Victor Hugo, 1862
Widely considered one of the greatest novels of the 19th century, this Dickensian novel with a French accent indicts the post-revolutionary Gaul-ing justice system through the struggles of a wrongly convicted, righteous man hounded by a twisted prison guard.
War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy, 1869
The blueprint for epic storytelling, the count’s grandiose tale of the Napoleonic invasion of Russia straddles the line between brilliant historical fiction and gut-wrenching romance novel.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain, 1884
A spectacular specimen of homespun storytelling that repudiates the dubious morality of the slave-era South through a simple white boy’s realization that a black man is not only human but decent and moral — and the best friend he ever had.
The Jungle, Upton Sinclair, 1906
The catastrophic experiences of a devastated early-20th-century immigrant family provide a gripping argument for American Communism in this literary manifesto for economic and social change. The important book was a catalyst for massive sanitary reform in Chicago’s meatpacking industry.
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925
Considered by many to be the great American novel. In this jazz-era classic, Jay Gatsby falls in love with rich girl Daisy Buchanan and devotes his entire life to becoming wealthy and throwing over-the-top parties to impress her. But ultimately, he’s never good enough and dies alone.
As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner, 1930
Arguably his finest work, this story, told from multiple points of view, offers insight into the motivations of members of a poverty-stricken and dysfunctional Southern family traveling across Mississippi to bury their manipulative mother.
Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell, 1936
The epic telling of the devastating impact of the War Between the States on a scarred nation and the individuals whose lives, wealth and sensibility were shattered by it. The movie version is considered one of the greatest American films ever made.
The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck, 1939
A monumental indictment of Hoover-era America takes the reader deep into the Depression through the tragic life of a family of displaced Okies, the Joads, who seek the promise of the American dream but instead find bigotry and social inequity.
For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway, 1940
The master’s sparse story of a Yank fighting in the Spanish Civil War opened the eyes of Americans to the larger struggle between Fascists and Communists for the hearts and minds of the people in 1940s Europe.
Diary of Anne Frank, Anne Frank, 1942
A heart-wrenching first-person account of the horrors of Nazi-imposed anti-Semitism and genocide, written by one of the Holocaust’s most famous (14-year-old) victims. Frank’s book continues to be at least as impactful as any academic account.
The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand, 1943
The struggle between individuality and conformity as told through the eyes of a 1930s architect who chooses obscurity over compromise to defend a personal vision provides a microcosmic warning of the growing frenzied fascination with pre-war Nazism in Europe. Espousing a system she called “Objectivism,” Rand is an enduring source of inspiration for libertarians and conservatives.
Animal Farm, George Orwell, 1945
“All animals are equal … but some are more equal than others” is just one of the many timeless lines in this political allegory that’s required reading for most school kids. Revisiting it as an adult recasts all governments in a new light.
The Naked and the Dead, Norman Mailer, 1948
Call it Apocalypse Then. This graphic glimpse into the dark and often hopelessly pointless existence of World War II American GIs in the South Pacific eerily foreshadows the lunacy of war as brought to the screen in Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam War magnum opus.
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