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My Reading List for 2013

In Arts & Letters, Books, Creativity, Fiction, History, Humanities, Law, Literature, Novels, Philosophy, Politics, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on December 12, 2012 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

Editorial Note (April 15, 2013):  At this point in the year, I have already discovered flaws in this list. For instance, I gave myself two weeks to read Augustine’s Confessions and one week to read Aquinas’s Summa Theologica.  I should have done the reverse.  Summa Theologica may have required more than two weeks to read, since I found myself rushing through it, and it is not a book through which one should rush.  My schedule has forced me to speed read some texts in order to avoid taking shortcuts.  Some of the texts on this list will therefore appear on my list for next year, so that they get the treatment and consideration they deserve.

2013 will be a good year for reading.  I’ve made a list of the books I’m going to undertake, and I hope you’ll consider reading along with me.  As you can see, I’ll be enjoying many canonical works of Western Civilization.  Some I’ve read before; some I haven’t.  My goal is to reacquaint myself with the great works I fell in love with years ago and to read some of the great works that I’ve always wanted to read but haven’t.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say that everybody ought to read these works, but I do think that by reading them, a person will gain a fundamental understanding of the essential questions and problems that have faced humans for generations.

Some works are conspicuous in their absence; the list betrays my preferences.  Notably missing are the works of Shakespeare and the canonical texts that make up the Old and New Testament.  There’s a reason for that.  I’ve developed a morning habit of reading the scriptures as well as Shakespeare before I go to work.  If I’m reading these already, there’s no need to add them to the list, which is designed to establish a healthy routine.  What’s more, the list comes with tight deadlines, and I’m inclined to relish rather than rush through the Bible or Shakespeare.

Lists provide order and clarity; we make them to reduce options or enumerate measurable, targeted goals.  Lists rescue us from what has been called the “tyranny of choice.”  Benjamin Franklin made a list of the 13 virtues he wished to live by.  What motivated him is perhaps what’s motivating me: a sense of purpose and direction and edification.

At first I wanted to assign myself a book a week, but realizing that some works are longer or more challenging than others, that as a matter of obligation I will have other books to read and review, that I have a doctoral dissertation to write, that the legal profession is time consuming, and that unforeseen circumstances could arise, I decided that I might need more time than a week per book depending on the complexity of the particular selection or the busyness of the season.  Although I hope to stick to schedule, I own that I might have to permit myself flexibility.  We’ll see.

For variety—and respite—I have chosen to alternate between a pre-20th century text and a 20th century text.  In other words, one week I might read Milton, the next Heidegger.  For the pre-20th century texts, I will advance more or less chronologically; there is no method or sequence for the 20th century texts, which I listed as they came to mind (“oh, I’ve always wanted to read more Oakeshott—I should add him.  And isn’t my knowledge of Proust severely limited?—I’ll add him as well.”).  It’s too early to say what lasting and significant effects these latter texts will have, so I hesitate to number them among the demonstrably great pre-20th century texts, but a general consensus has, I think, established these 20th century texts as at least among the candidates for canonicity.

I have dated some of the texts in the list below.  Not all dates are known with certainty, by me or anyone else.  Some texts were revised multiple times after their initial publication; others were written in installments.  Therefore, I have noted the time span for those works produced over the course of many years.

One would be justified in wondering why I’ve selected these texts over others.  The answer, I suppose, pertains to something Harold Bloom once said: that there are many books but only one lifetime, so why not read the best and most enduring?  I paraphrase because I can’t remember precisely what he said or where he said it, but the point is clear enough: read the most important books before you run out of time.

Making this list, I learned that one can read only so many great works by picking them off one week at a time.  The initial disheartenment I felt at this realization quickly gave way to motivation: if I want to understand the human condition as the most talented and creative of our predecessors understood it, I will have to make a new list every year, and I will have to squeeze in time for additional texts whenever possible.  I am shocked at the number of books that I wanted to include in this list, but that didn’t make it in.  I ran out of weeks.  What a shame.

Here is my list.  I hope you enjoy.

December 31 – January 5

Plato, The Republic (approx. 380 B.C.)

January 6 – January 12

Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (1962)

January 13 – January 19

Plato, The Laws (approx. 380 B.C.)

January 20 – January 26

Mises, Socialism

January 27 – February 2

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (approx. 350 B.C.)

February 3 – February 9

Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom

February 10 – February 16

Aristotle, Politics (approx. 350 B.C.)

February 17 – February 23

William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury

February 24 – March 2

Saint Augustine, Confessions (approx. 397-398 A.D.)

March 3 – March 9

Proust, Swann’s Way

March 10 – March 16

Saint Augustine, Confessions continued… (approx. 397-398 A.D.)

March 17 – March 23

Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

March 24 – March 30

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica (1265-1274)

March 31 – April 6

Hayek, Individualism and Economic Order

April 7 – April 13

Dante, The Divine Comedy (approx. 1308-1351)

April 14 – April 20

Cleanth Brooks, The Well Wrought Urn

April 21 – April 27

Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales (late 1300s)

April 28 – May 6

Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition

May 7 – May 13

Machiavelli, The Prince (1532)

May 14 – May 20

C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

May 21 – May 27

Cervantes, Don Quixote (1605-1620)

May 28 – June 1

Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

June 2 – June 8

Ben Jonson, Bartholomew Fayre (1631)

June 9 – June 15

James Burnham, Suicide of the West

June 16 – June 22

Descartes, Discourse on Method (1637)

June 23 – June 29

Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences

June 30 – July 6

Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy (1641)

July 7 – July 13

Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio

July 14 – July 20

Hobbes, Leviathan (1651)

July 21 – July 27

Norman Mailer, The Naked and the Dead

July 28 – August 3

Milton, Paradise Lost (1667)

August 4 – August 10

Nabokov, Lolita

August 11 – August 17

Spinoza, Ethics (1677)

August 18 – August 24

Robert Nisbet, The Quest for Community

August 25 – August 31

Locke, Two Treatises of Government (1689)

September 1 – September 7

Murray Rothbard, For a New Liberty

September 8 – September 14

Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759)

September 15 – September 21

Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams

September 22 – September 28

Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757)

September 29 – October 5

Russell Kirk, The Politics of Prudence

October 6 – October 12

Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (1781)

October 13 – October 19

Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim

October 20 – October 26

Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807)

October 27 – November 2

William James, Pragmatism

November 3 – November 9

Goethe, Faust (1806-1829)

November 10 – November 16

Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

November 17 – November 23

Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments (1844)

November 24 – November 30

Heidegger, Being and Time

December 1 – December 7

George Eliot, Middlemarch (1871-1872)

December 8 – December 14

Irving Babbitt, Literature and the American College

December 15 – December 21

Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy (1872)

December 22 – December 28

Christopher Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Civilization

December 29 – January 1, 2014

Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1873-1877)

  1. I’ve printed off the list…it’s wonderful…but I am not going to stick to your one week schedule. I just know that some of these, given their content are going to nail me down to a month. In fact, I think I’m going to begin my year with Tolstoy, given that I wanted to read the book before I go to the movie. I’ve never read Anna Karenina. It will be interesting to see what titles move into 2014. Thanks for this.

  2. Good list. I’ve recently read Paradise Lost and recently re-read Goethe’s Faust, the Hayek, and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. In fact, I am reading through the Faust myth in its various forms and transformations, in plays and novels — all in preparation of my continuing work on my play “President Faust.” 🙂

  3. I had a question about some of the earlier works on your reading list: how will you go about choosing a translation to read? (I’m specifically thinking of Plato, Aristotle, and Augustine). I’ve been wanting to get into these myself, but have had difficulty selecting a reliable translation.

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