I fancy myself as a rather literary kind of guy. I read quite a bit and not only books with pictures in them; some of them are just words. There’s a whole list of books which are form the core of western civilisation which I should know better. While a don’t want to get into arguments for and against the idea of “The Canon,” the follow are a list of books and authors whose works are continually appearing in one form or another or are being alluded to in pretty much every story being told today.
Homer and Hesiod
Homer‘s The Odyssey and The Iliad are foundation texts of all heroic, action-adventure, divine retribution stories every written in Europe. Hesiod‘s Theogony and Works and Days gives us a way of talking about divine forces and the origin stories of the Greek gods. The plot arcs of these characters keep appearing in everything from Ally McBeal to stuff worth watching.
The Bible (particularly the Old testament)
Being the basis of the three great world-spanning religions should be motivation enough to read this book. But it is also the basis of the common symbolism and themes we see in western art and literature. Again, on this point alone, it should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand the development of western culture. The moral and (pseudo)-historical stopries contained in the Old Testment in particular are familar to pretty much anyone with a european heritage.
This work is the best source we have of hundreds of Greek and Roman myths and legends which permeate western civilisation from Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton to the present day, whether the authors know it or not. Ovid deals with change and the impermanence of the world. The subject matter covers the creation of the world until the rise of Julius Caesar. It was the most popular of all classical books in the medieval world.
The Canterbury Tales
Not only does this book open a window into the middle ages as they were lived but it shows us exactly how to poke fun at people and positions – forming a staple of european (and particularly English) comedy ever since. The satire ranges from the subtle to the obscene. It is also the first great work written in the English language.
Le Morte d’Arthur
This is Mallory’s original, not the tripe produced by Tennyson. What can be said about this book that has not been said already. The stories of Arthur, Gwenevere, Lancelot, The Holy Grail, The Round Table are the common stories of our childhood and fantasies (well, mine at least). The common notions of honour, duty, love and loyalty (with which are rapidly losing touch) are first encountered here.
The Works of Shakespeare
The man was a genius, pure and simple. He enriched the language and gave us stories, mostly plagarised, that have become so familiar to use that we no longer recognise either the true source or even his version of the tale. Our collective debt to this one individual is so immense that it is impossible to measure. Every native English speaker should be familiar with and love this man’s plays and poetry or immediately emmigrate to foreign climes. It’s that simple.
Stepping outside of the western world for a moment, there are some other works which I should know better.
T’ang Dynastry Poetry
This era of poetry in many ways parallels the philosophical developments seen in the west at the end of the middle ages which marked the start of the Renaissance. While in the west, we weighed the individual against society and came down on the side of the individual as the obvious conclusion, T’ang poetry did the same and came down on the side of society being more important with equally valid reasoning.
The Journey into the West
We know this better as the kid’s TV series Monkey but it’s so much more than that. It’s the story of a spiritual development personified in terms of refined culture, “Monkey Nature”, sensual passion and polite logic. It’s probably also the first time that we can see the interactions between the characters we know better as Kirk (Pigsie) and Spock (Sandy).
The Ramayana (and to a lesser extent The Mahabharata)
The great foundation text(s) of south Asia. The Ramayana (The Journeys of Rama) is a rollicking good read with many similarities to the stories of the heroes in Greek mythology. The story of Rama and Sita maybe the the earliest example of the motif of the star-crossed lovers. The Mahabharata is comparable with the books of Hesiod in that it explains not so much the origins of the Hindu gods but what they did and the results of their actions in the material plane.