One of my colleagues at the university where I once taught, a math professor and avid book reader, asked me what I thought was the greatest novel I’d ever read. Without hesitation I called Stendhal’s “The Red and the Black,” a pioneering 19th-century French novel that my colleague had never heard of. I read it as a teenager and it haunted me my whole life.
A year later, he enthusiastically told me that the editor of his hometown newspaper, the Des Moines Register in Iowa, agreed with me: In his compilation of a list of “the best books,” my friend said, the editor of the newspaper designated Stendhal’s novel as the best of all time. Thus inspired, I began the lifelong project of compiling my own “greatest” list.
As a general rule, we have no way of knowing how great thoughts or ideas are created in a human mind (otherwise we would mass-produce such thinkers and mass-market their works) as they seem to exist in entirely accidental and providential spheres. of life. But we know by simply understanding the historical developments in various ages and eras that some historical periods are more prone to producing such great thoughts and ideas than others. We often call them “The Golden Age” of this or that development.
Why, for example, did the Renaissance produce such a large number of great artists and sculptors? Why did the 19th century see an abundance of great philosophical ideas that are quite unique to that era?
It’s possible that we – in this age of algorithmic cycle of attention and neglect in America – are actually harboring a good number of great thinkers and great works of ideas among us, like another Marcus Aurelius, only to be discovered and celebrated for centuries after .
Common sense tells us that it is highly unlikely. We just don’t “think big” anymore and the “golden age” of such big thoughts and ideas would never come again. In such reflection and melancholy, facing my twilight years ahead, I decided to “preserve” some of the greatest ideas of human civilization as my “greatest list.”
I selected the list with only one criterion: they inspired my being and my existence. It still continues to feed my intellect and soul.
So here, as a New Year’s gift to the reader – fully aware that such lists are laden with bias and disagreement – is my “Greatest Book List”:
The Greatest Single Book: “The Bible,” written by God, edited by man.
The Greatest Philosophy Book: “The Republic”, by Plato.
The Greatest European Novel of All Time: Stendhal’s “Red and Black”.
Greatest Asian Novel of All Time: “Three Kingdoms”, by Luo Guanzhong.
Greatest American Novel (1): “Moby-Dick” by Herman Melville.
Greatest American Novel (2): “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck.
Greatest Short Novels:
“The Captain’s Daughter” by Alexander Pushkin.
“Ethan Frome” by Edith Wharton.
“The Stranger” by Albert Camus.
The largest translation of the Bible into English: “The King James Bible”.
Greatest Catholic Poetry: Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Greatest Protestant Poem: “Paradise Lost” by John Milton.
Greatest Philosophical Reflections: “Meditations”, by Marcus Aurelius.
Biggest caveat: “Gulliver’s Travels” by Jonathan Swift.
The Greatest Utopian Book: “Utopia” by Thomas More.
America’s Greatest Utopian Book: “Looking Back” by Edward Bellamy.
Greatest Spiritual Companion: “The Imitation of Christ”, by A Kempis.
America’s Greatest Philosophy: “Walden” by Henry David Thoreau.
Biggest Revolutionary Statement: “The Communist Manifesto”, by Marx & Engels.
The greatest biographies:
“Parallel Lives”, by Plutarch.
“The Lives of Butler’s Saints,” by Alban Butler.
“John Brown”, by WEB Dubois.
“Confessions”, by St. Augustine.
“Story of a Soul”, by Saint Therese of Lisieux.
“The Diary of Anne Frank”, by Anne Frank.
“The Autobiography of Malcolm X”, by Malcolm X (and Alex Haley).
Greatest Books About War:
Civil War: “The Red Badge of Courage” by Stephen Crane.
World War I: “All Quiet on the Western Front”, by Erich Maria Remarque.
World War II: “To Hell and Back”, by Audie Murphy.
Korean War: “Pork Chop Hill”, by SLA Marshall.
Vietnam War: “The Pentagon Papers,” by the Department of Defense.
The major American social criticisms:
“The Theory of the Leisure Class”, by Thorstein Veblen.
“White Collar”, by C. Wright Mills.
“The Dead End” by Jon Huer.
Greatest life saving quote of all time: “We have met the enemy, and he is us!” by Pogo.
Recorder columnist and retired professor Jon Huer lives in Greenfield.