Librarians love lists of books and I’m no exception. In “Hell is Empty” by Craig Johnson, one of Walt’s deputies, Sancho, is making up for a college education spent concentrating on criminal justice by reading more widely in the humanities. His co-workers have helped him out by making him reading lists and he is in the middle of working his way through one of their recommendations, “Dante’s Inferno“, when the story opens. “Dante’s Inferno” also plays a major part in the story itself.
At the end of the book, Craig gives the complete reading lists from Walt and the rest of the main characters in the series. Each list is very reflective of the characters’ personalities and runs the gamut from “The Three Musketeers” (courtesy of Walt) to “Justine” (Vic, Walt’s sassy deputy) to “Pilgrim’s Progress” (Ruby the dispatcher) to “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” (Henry Standing Bear, bar owner and former political activist).
Naturally, I can’t read a list like that without making a list of my own. My mission (and yours, should you choose to accept it) is to draw up a list of “must-reads” in the humanities. The temptation here is to reel off a list of great books. No dice. These have to be books that you have read, enjoyed, and consider classics or seminal in some way. The list is limited to ten. You can make it shorter, but you can’t make it longer.
Here’s my list:
1.) The Complete Works of William Shakespeare
Walt and I are both big fans of the Bard and probably for the same reason. Bill Shakespeare talks about the human condition and does so in a way that has rung true for over several hundred years.
2.) Beowulf (Seamus Heaney translation)
Every time I read this story-poem, I’m amazed by how modern and anti-heroic it is. In fact, I would recommend listening to this story via CD or audio download rather than reading it. It was a word-of-mouth tale and meant to be enjoyed that way.
3.) The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
Holmes’ genius is listening–really listening–to the odd and sometimes bizarre stories of the people who come to him for help and then looking beyond those stories for explanations. He foils crimes by taking people seriously.
4.) The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
When asked to pick out one of Mark Twain’s works, everyone always suggests “Huckleberry Finn” which is a longer, more picaresque tale. I still stick to and stand by “Tom Sawyer” which is shorter, brighter, and more enjoyable.
5.) The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien
Okay, a slight cheat as these are three books rather than one, but you can’t really read one without reading the other two. Tolkien was an ex-soldier and his writing is informed by a sense of melancholy for the friends and the innocence he lost during his stint in World War I. No matter how many times I’ve read this series, I still cry at the end of the third book.
6.) Treasure Island
As a kid, I loved this book for the adventure (treasure! pirates! derring-do!). As an adult, I love this book for its coming of age story. The story is as much about Jim’s path to manhood as it is about Long John’s quest for Flint’s gold.
7.) The Bible
You don’t have to be Christian or believe in God at all to appreciate that the Bible has been at the center of Western history and popular culture. Every time we talk about a tower of babel or turning the other cheek, we are referencing this book.
8.) The Crusades Through Arab Eyes by Amin Maalouf
In the 12th century, the mighty Abbasid Empire, the greatest superpower of its time, was in shambles. Divided by civil war, the empire was soon beseiged by a new enemy: the Franj (Franks). Maalouf, a journalist by trade, writes a highly enjoyable and informative popular history that draws on Arab primary sources to present the Crusades from a Middle Eastern viewpoint. Maalouf has achieved something very difficult: writing a non-fiction history that reads like a novel.
9.) Good Poems edited by Garrison Keillor
As a radio host, Keillor is most concerned with poems that catch the ear when read out loud so this anthology of poetry is heavily weighted toward those that sound good, not just look good on the page. If you were put off of poetry when you were a kid, try this book. Be sure to read the poet bios in the back, too. They are very memorable.
10.) Grimm’s Fairy Tales by Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm
This 19th century collection of German folktales is as central to Western European civilization as the Bible. Get the complete anthology for adults, not the watered version for kids.