A Shorter Canon of the Great Books of the Ages, partly based on Harold Bloom’s Western Canon.
Life is not long enough to read everything great.
The problem is not that you only have time to read the great stuff. The problem is that there is not enough time to even read all the great stuff that exists and is deeply well worth reading.
Not only that, but with each new book you need a new entry-point into the text, which in turn takes study, talking, opportunity, time and effort.
Harold Bloom himself observed that as recorded and literate history extends in time, all but the most essential pieces fall away. I don’t see why we can’t prune them away first. The chief difference between my list and Bloom’s is that Bloom is concerned with the lastingly good writers, while this list gives not only the very best of each age (which after all will be the only ones likely to survive in the future) but also the books that best represent the consciousness of that age.
But there are more compelling reasons that time-saving for this Shorter Canon. Each of these books are major entry-points to complexes of other books before and after them. If you can manage to get into even one of these books, you will have at your fingertips a hundred other books accessible and waiting for you. Reading this books, you enter a great library with no end.
The Classical Era:
The Athenian dramatists
The days are upon us already when if one can use ordinary phrases from the Bible it is considered erudite, so this age is lost to most people and much of it is pearls thrown before swine. But it still has essential merits. These books are like the opening theme of a great piece of music that is still playing today, although in unrecogniseable variations, in the background of our lives. These books normally need footnotes and guides. Living guides are best, but genuine classicists are rare.
The Aristocratic Era:
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Edmund Burke (on the sublime)
These guys are still accessible directly with the aid of notes on the page. Thankfully, all their work remains current in one form or another. The birth of humanism and Western self-consciousness can be traced to these distinctive works.
The Romantic Era:
In these few writers can be seen the sources and roots of the modern modes of consciousness, especially effecting our way of seeing beauty, our psychological modes, our models of change and our conceptions of truth.
The Modern Era:
Jorge Luis Borges
These three astonishing writers come face to face with the past and successful absorb it, the first Borges into sheer word-magic, the second Proust into the subjective experience itself, and the third Orwell radically politicizes the past. How Orwell brings to the whole exercise of critical Western modes of consciousness a brutal idoeological simplicity that paradoxically, empowers the complexity of postmodern political consciousness through its starkness, is a whole fascinating other essay.
This is the most ruthless of lists of great writers possible. It eliminates all secondary greatnesses and leaves only the absolute pure gold of writers.
What writers would be necessary in order for our humanity be preserved, were all the libraries to be lost? Look no further than this list. You have to go to another planet, without hope of return, and have only a suitcase to carry twenty seven books in? Get the paperback versions of these ones and cram them in if you want the best to survive at your destination.
The Western bias is evident. I depart from Harold Bloom here: I would add several more Eastern books which have touched my life greatly. These ancient books are the wellsprings of civilisations, and thus of the kind of incalculable merit of the same scope as that of the Bible and Quran:
The Bhagavad Gita, translated by Stephen Mitchell.
The Dhammapada and the Digna Nikaya
Narayan’s retellings of the Ramayana and Mahabharata.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras
Analects of Confucius, translated by Simons Leys.
Finally, of the modern age I would add the following writers whose contribution to the modern world seems especially epochal, the first Hawkins because of his radical Westernization representation of the abovementioned Eastern classics, and the second Robinson because of his masterful recontextualisation of postmodern Western culture as a force of nature, which returns me in imagination to the darkness of the Greek dramatists with its great primal force:
David R. Hawkins
Kim Stanley Robinson
The full list of 27 essential classics, then:
• Dhammapada and Digna Nikaya
• Analects of Confucius, translated by Simons Leys.
• Ramayana and Mahabharata (best retold by RK Narayan).
• Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras
• The Athenian dramatists
• Dante Alighieri
• William Shakespeare
• Francis Bacon
• John Milton
• Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
• Edmund Burke (for his essay on the sublime)
• William Blake
• John Keats
• Friedrich Nietzsche
• Fyodor Dostoevsky
• Leo Tolstoy
• Jorge Luis Borges
• Marcel Proust
• George Orwell
• Kim Stanley Robinson
• David R. Hawkins