The philosopher and educator Mortimer Adler was perhaps the first to recognize the importance of preserving the integrity of what he called the “Great Books” of the Western tradition. Since then lists of great books from Harold Bloom’s “The Western Canon” to The Greatest Books.org have attempted to capture the best and most significant works in Western culture. Like all efforts at preservation and codification, these lists (along with “classics” books series by Penguin, Oxford Classics, etc.) tend to emphasize certain topics, works, and genres, and inadvertently diminish attention to others.
With this in mind, and because I have an affinity for the obscure, I try, when I have the time, to read a stack of books that do not usually find their way to any of the lists. Usually, these works can be found online or in older published translations/editions; however, every so often I find that Penguin or another of its ilk has beat me to the punch. So, here is a list of my favorite books (not surprisingly with a heavy dose of the historical) that are either not very much read anymore (even though they have shaped large portions of Western history) or are not read nearly enough.
1. John Stow, Survey of London
Stow was a 16th century historian who penned what is perhaps the most accessible topographical and sociological study of any city. London at the end of the century was the city of Shakespeare, of Sir Walter Raleigh, and of John Dee: a bustling, burgeoning town that was growing too fast for its own good. In this brief study, Stow provides not only details on buildings and streets but also social conditions and popular traditions of London, giving readers one of the most unassuming and straightforward portraits of the Elizabethan capital.
2. Thomas Browne, Religio Medici
Religio Medici is a spiritual autobiography (perhaps the first of its kind, in any modern sense) that is both highly personal and philosophically poignant. While Browne’s prose demands patience and resilience from its readers, the baroque beauty of his wordsmithing is worth the labor it takes to master it. His sublimity of style is matched only by his openness to other (new) ideas, and his ability to shatter any preconceived category we try to put his thought into (e.g. rationalism, fideism, scientific revolution, Aristotelianism, etc.). Browne weaves fractal-like designs of argumentation and ponderous musings together, as he spells out his own personal theology which is built around the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and love (charity).
3. Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments
Smith is well known for his bestselling Wealth of Nations; however, his Theory is arguably just as compelling, as Smith explores the principle of sympathy as a nexus for human society. Theory is much more concise than Smith’s later (and more popular) work, and it is in many ways the ethical backbone to the Wealth of Nations.
4. Erich Remarque, The Black Obelisk
Well known for his portrayal of World War I in All Quiet on the Western Front, Remarque’s Obelisk is more developed and mature and remains one of my favorite novels about the inter-war period in Europe. Here, Remarque deals with the economic and social depravity of 1920s Germany, illustrating particularly how Hitler came so quickly into power by feeding off of the travesty and humiliation Germany suffered after 1919. As one character Watzek says, “Blood will flow. The guilty will pay … Everything must be changed.”
5. Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards
Paul was a Benedictine monk in the 8th century, who took to writing a history of the Germanic barbarian tribe known as the Lombards. Unlike other examples of early medieval historiography (e.g. Gregory of Tours and Bede), Paul’s work is pithy and accessible. Told from the point-of-view of a Lombard, Paul charts the history of this Germanic tribe from its mythic origins in Scandinavia to its collapse as a political power in Italy after the reign of King Liutprand. NB: Many thanks to my colleague and friend Collin Garbarino for pointing me in Paul’s direction.
6. Thomas Hobbes, Behemoth
Behemoth is important both as a historical example of Hobbes’s political utopia in Leviathan (or, what can happen when the Leviathan is not in control), as well as a contemporary commentary on the English Civil War. As a tutor to the future Charles II, Hobbes was intimately familiar with the English monarchy, and in Behemoth he offers a scathing rebuke of any would-be rebel who would attempt to usurp the absolute, albeit arbitrarily established, sovereignty of the king. His analysis of the years 1640–1642, leading up to the war, remain some of the most insightful comments (or tirades) about these tumultuous years from someone who lived through them.
7. John Strype, Annals of the Reformation in England, 4 vols.
What older history books lack in rigorous analysis, they make up for in robust narrative. Strype’s Annals is one of my favorite examples of this trade off, providing large blocks of primary source quotations to as he puts it “go as near the Fountain-head as possible.” Until the middle of the twentieth century, this was one of the authoritative studies of the Reformation in England, enchanting readers with juicy comments like this about Queen Elizabeth’s relationship with the Duke of Alençon: “Monsieur, the amorous duke, was now come again into England, to prosecute his love-business with the queen; and succeeded so far in it, that she gave him a ring off from her finger”
8. Mabinogion (or Pedair Cainc y Mabinogi)
This is the closest thing to a pre-Christian Celtic collection of myths that is currently extant. The manuscripts were set down in the middle ages but the stories, like the Icelandic sagas of Snorri Sturluson, come from a distant pagan culture that had been almost completely lost by the time the stories were written down. In the tales, we get glimpses of Celtic gods, a culture of riddles and trickery, magical beings from Faerie, and the earliest known Celtic heroes like Pryderi, son of Pwyll and Rhiannon.
9. Táin Bó Cúailnge
In the same spirit as the Mabinogion, the Táin offers us perhaps the only significant Celtic epic. Written in prose, the Táin follows the story of an Irish cattle raid, the battles that ensued, the practice of single combat, and the hero of the raid Cú Chulainn. Like the Greek Iliad, the gods like Lugh insert themselves into the story, and the dreaded Mórrígan even makes an appearance. Like most ancient epics, whether Germanic or classical, the conclusion of the Táin is not about military victory or even the victory of right over wrong, but rather it is about dying well.
10. John of Salisbury, Policraticus
Written in the middle of the 12th century, this is the first major political treatise written in England, and it should be read as one of the most important expressions of English political theory until the industrial revolution. In Policraticus, Salisbury codifies the notion of the body politic as a metaphor for the nation, with the monarch as the head of a the body, and he defines what a tyrant is and how a people should respond to tyranny. Finally, Policraticus sets out many of the ideas that go into the Magna Carta: the monarch’s relationship to the law, the purpose of government, the relationship between church and state, and the rights of the people.