How to Tackle the Classics

“Read the best books first, otherwise you’ll find you do not have the time.” — Henry David Thoreau

Having grown tired of the number of “should reads” on my “someday” reading list and embarrassed to admit (as a former book editor and self-professed bookworm) I’d not read some of the most towering works of Western literature, I decided to tackle the problem head-on with the focused and nerdy determination of a list-loving schoolmarm.

Photo credit: Patrick Feller

Photo credit: Patrick Feller

I love making lists, and I love researching books, so this nerd-tastic endeavor checks all my little heart boxes!

Creating a single, definitive list of must-read classics is a nearly impossible task, especially if you want to make a thorough yet manageable sweep through thousands of years worth of books in a relatively small amount of time.  The truth is you can (and should!) spend an entire lifetime exploring and enjoying the “Great Books.” This list isn’t intended to be exhaustive and authoritative, nor a stopping point once finished, but it does provide a balanced and thoughtful “first round” of classical reading, with a chronology ranging from 800 B.C. to the end of the 19th Century A.D.

Is it crazy to plan out the next five years of your reading life? Yes, perhaps. But crazy for a good cause! Here we go…

How to Tackle the Classics: Five Year Reading List

Year One | Ancient & Middle Ages

    • Homer’s Odyssey
    • Sophocles’ Antigone*
    • Plato’s Republic
    • Vergil’s Aeneid
    • Ovid’s Metamorphoses
    • Augustine’s City of God
    • Beowulf
    • Dante’s Inferno
    • Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

Year Two | Renaissance & Early Modern

    • Machiavelli’s The Prince
    • More’s Utopia
    • Montaigne’s Essays
    • Shakespeare’s Richard III
    • Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night
    • Shakespeare’s King Lear
    • Cervantes’ Don Quixote
    • Descartes’ Meditations
    • Milton’s Paradise Lost

Year Three | Enlightenment & Age of Reason

    • Moliere’s Tartuffe
    • Locke’s Second Treatise of Government
    • Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels
    • Voltaire’s Candide
    • Rousseau’s The Social Contract
    • Paine’s Common Sense
    • Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
    • Boswell’s Life of Johnson
    • Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Year Four | Early 19th Century

    • Wordsworth’s Selected Poems
    • Goethe’s Faust
    • Austen’s Pride & Prejudice*
    • De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America
    • Bronte’s Wuthering Heights
    • Marx & Engels’ The Communist Manifesto
    • Dickens’ David Copperfield
    • Melville’s Moby Dick
    • Thoreau’s Walden

Year Five | Late 19th Century

    • Whitman’s Leaves of Grass
    • George Eliot’s Middlemarch
    • Tolstoy’s War & Peace
    • Ibsen’s A Doll’s House*
    • Dickinson’s Collected Poems
    • Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov
    • Douglass’ The Life & Times of Frederick Douglass
    • James’ The Portrait of a Lady
    • Twain’s Huckleberry Finn*

* I’ve read a few of these works before but felt they were too important to leave out (Austen, Twain, etc.) I’m excited to read them again in situ alongside their contemporaries.

Undoubtedly, everyone has different opinions on what constitutes “the best of the best.” For advice and guidance in compiling my reading list, I consulted (1) Susan Wise Bauer’s The Well-Educated Mind ; (2) Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon ; (3) Mortimer J. Adler’s How to Read a Book ; and (4) Clifton Fadiman’s New Lifetime Reading Plan. Much of the first year’s reading list was inspired by the online classical bookclub at Life in Grace. (Thanks, Edie!)

My goal is to read one classic per month. Each year’s list contains nine books, allowing plenty of free time for other reading (and to act as a buffer when I inevitably fall behind schedule). In narrowing down which books to include, five years felt like a comfortable time frame — not too rushed or too protracted — and I limited the list to works written before the Twentieth Century. That’s not to say I won’t be reading more recent classics in my spare time, but there’s simply too many to include as part of this list.

I’m sure there will be changes as I make my way through, but this is a good starting point!

So what do you think? Want to join me? What books are on your “should-read” list?

2 Thoughts.

  1. Oh wow! I love that you have planned it out in such detail. That is definitely one way of making sure, you read the classics. I started late with Edie’s book club and am just about to start Antigone. I too use The Well Educated mind as a guide.

    • Making a list of the books you want to read is both inspiring and overwhelming. So many books and so little time! I’m already behind on Year 1, but I’m pressing on. It’s nice to have a challenge and a goal in sight. Happy reading, Carin!

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