We are making final decisions on a list of 40 essential works of fiction. The list is a season’s greeting. These are the kinds of projects professors pursue when they can’t face grading exams or working on a law review article.
Designating a “canon” of great works is a daring enterprise in an academic environment that insists on safe spaces. But since we reject the predictably banal objections, we are not deterred.
Some books are simply better than others; some books stand out even among those that are extraordinary. Although there is room for reasonable disagreement here, there are objective tests for greatness — durability and influence being two of them.
We would include “The Brothers Karamazov” in any list of 40; we disagree about whether to include “The Possessed”; we would not include “Brideshead Revisited,” fine though it is.
Our mission, as unapologetic teachers, is to pass on the traditions we ourselves received during our educations, ideally in renewed and reinvigorated form. A true teacher declares with urgency and fervor that these are the things you really need to read — carefully and repeatedly. Trapped between Eliot’s “Waste Land” and Yeats’ “Second Coming,” though, we wonder whether there is even one book that all students read before they arrive at our law schools. Include the Bible if you like.
Some time ago, Stanford, like many other elite universities, gave up a required course in Western Civilization. Somehow the combination of Western and Civilization was deemed offensive, hurtful and wrong. Thus, very few students are taught how much the classical canon was kept alive in Arab translations during centuries when Muslims were more advanced than Christians.
And Great Books courses have gone the way of Western Civilization courses. Graduates from elite universities, knowing little of their own civilization and culture — and still less of foreign ones — then go on to teach in elementary and high schools. There, the talk is of personal feelings and points of view, and students are encouraged to compose in free verse before they learn the basics of grammar and sentence structure.
Rarely do the words honor, virtue and nobility enter the conversation. Buried under the layers of academic drivel is the struggle of Prince Andrei in “War and Peace” to define those terms — and to live up to them.
If a society doesn’t believe in great books, it is less likely that its citizens will believe in anything, let alone their leaders and their institutions. Our Constitution, after all, is based on a shared foundation of natural-law principles. The founders, including John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and James Madison, read from a canon. And Thomas Jefferson, writing for an independent generation, spoke of “self-evident” truths that were “endowed by their Creator.” Since then, as the foundation weakens, everything else comes down.
All is not lost, however. Our project sprinkles its own seeds. Although we don’t agree on exactly which 40 books to select, we share a framework for deciding what is included. Because we agree that great books have a timeless and universal appeal, we don’t track the sex, sexual orientation, race or ethnicity of the authors. Great writers reflect and transcend the limits of their particularity.
You don’t need to be a Nigerian to appreciate Chinua Achebe, a Japanese to benefit from Lady Murasaki, a Muslim mystic to admire Rumi or a homosexual to learn from Proust. For that reason alone, writers like these are needed now more than ever: They are indispensable in a contemporary culture that is both obsessed with clashing identities and forgetful of common humanity.
The characters in great books reveal themselves in full and fascinating terms. Take Austen’s Emma, Hardy’s Tess or Tolstoy’s Anna. Aren’t they more intriguing than most of the women around us? Aren’t Raskolnikov, Hamlet or Odysseus more compelling than most of the men?
There is so much substance and invention in great books that they are worth reading even in translation. To travel with Don Quixote across La Mancha, or with Dante through hell, is far more rewarding than any boat cruise from Miami. The great books give us a broader perspective; they redeem us from the ludicrous parochialism and self-absorption of American life.
Before the invention of computers, smartphones and Facebook, before the horrors of world wars, gulags and concentration camps, a struggling writer from the 19th century shows what happens when people act as if everything is permitted, illustrating how demonic forces — the foul winds of nihilism from Western Europe — lead intellectuals toward revolution and disintegration. The sins of these wayward souls are, of course, different from apathy — maybe better, maybe worse. From there, we accept that our task, more than choosing between “The Possessed” and “The Brothers Karamazov,” is to remind the next generation of the loss from not reading Dostoyevsky at all.
Robert Delahunty is the LeJeune chair and professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. John Radsan is a professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law.
Editor’s note: Below is the authors’ provisional list of the first 39 essential fictional works they agree upon (in alphabetical order). They invite readers to post comments to this story below, recommending substitutions and nominations for a 40th work.
THE FIRST 39
- Absalom, Absalom, William Faulkner
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
- Animal Farm, George Orwell
- Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
- Antigone, Sophocles
- Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
- Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer
- The Cherry Orchard, Anton Chekhov
- Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
- Cyrano de Bergerac, Edmond Rostand
- Death in Venice, Thomas Mann
- Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes
- Emma, Jane Austen
- The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
- The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
- Hamlet, William Shakespeare
- Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
- Iliad, Homer
- The Inferno, Dante Alighieri
- Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
- King Lear, William Shakespeare
- Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez
- The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka
- Moby Dick, Herman Melville
- Odyssey, Homer
- Rabbit, Run, John Updike
- The Road, Cormac McCarthy
- The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne
- Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison
- The Stranger, Albert Camus
- The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
- Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust
- A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
- Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
- Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, John le Carré
- To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
- Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller
- Our Man in Havana, Graham Greene
- War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy