Literary Reading Plan
This Reading Plan will focus on providing you with a good foundation for getting caught up to speed on the essentials of some of the best books of the last hundred years. It is smart to begin with recent literature, and proceed from there. Sure, you could go “back to Homer,” but Homer isn’t easy to appreciate unless you already have a stomach for epic poetry, and starting from that side of history often ends shortly afterward.
These stories are some of the best from the last hundred years or so. They are chosen in part because they’re unusual in a way, but mainly because they thematically deal with “discernment.”
Each stage of the reading plan is scheduled to take about a month. That does not mean you cannot read ahead, but the hope is that the plan sets a steady but challenging pace for you.
1. Gene Wolfe’s Pirate Freedom
Time travel and a pirate turned priest all sound very fanciful and far-fetched, and yet Gene Wolfe with characteristic wit and ability, draws the reader into the story. A life-long Catholic and considered one of the best novelists of the 21st century, Wolfe weaves questions of life, self-fulfillment, and human experience into every page.
2. Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere
Neil Gaiman is a standout storyteller, known around the world for his work and perhaps best known for Neverwhere. A story of sudden kindness which brings one character into dark and difficult situations we can see here a spellbinding case of magical realism. Every character feels real, each with their own goals and desires. A must-read.
1. Iris Murdoch’s The Good Apprentice
Edward Baltram is overwhelmed with guilt. His nasty little prank has gone horribly wrong: He has fed his closest friend a sandwich laced with a hallucinogenic drug and the young man has fallen out of a window to his death. Edward searches for redemption through a reunion with his famous father, the reclusive painter Jesse Baltram. Murdoch with both humor and insight investigates the spiritual crises that afflict the modern world.
2. John Le Carre’s A Perfect Spy
No one said being a spy was easy, and it certainly is not for Magnus Pym. Pym has been all things to all people: a devoted family man, a trusted colleague, a loyal friend—and the perfect spy. But in the wake of his estranged father’s death, Magnus vanishes, and the British Secret Service is up in arms. Is it grief, or is the reason for his disappearance more sinister? An unusual coming-of-age story combined with the morally tangled chronicle of modern espionage.
1. Gore Vidal’s Lincoln
Vidal cracks upon the image of Lincoln as a giant and a titan and shows us the deep and personal turmoil of his soil which so consumed him. From the Civil War and its lead up to the tragic death of his own son, Lincoln breathes again through Vidal's work.
2. Roald Dahl’s Boy
Roald Dahl before his death was a flexible and creative writer, able to produce for both children and adults works of enduring value. With this book, he tells his own story. The boyhood escapades and antics of this author sure to amuse.
1. Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness
An especially interesting book considering that much of our current societal discourse revolves around questions of gender and sex. In this book, a lone human ambassador is sent to the icebound planet of Winter, a world without sexual prejudice, where the inhabitants’ gender is fluid. His goal is to facilitate Winter’s inclusion in a growing intergalactic civilization. But to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own views and those of the strange, culture he encounters.
2. Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
If you have seen the film Blade Runner this will sound familiar. Driven into hiding, unauthorized androids live among human beings, undetected. Rick Deckard, an officially sanctioned bounty hunter, is commissioned to find rogue androids and “retire” them. But when cornered, androids react and these encounters will force Deckard, and the reader, to ask questions they might never have considered before.
1. Frans Bengtsson’s The Longships
It's the 10th Century A.D. and we are on an adventure like few others as we are tasked with following around the character of Red Orm as he is captured by Vikings, the Moors of Spain, only to wash up on the shores of Ireland where he encounters the Christian monks. Trials and tribulations will emerge on every side for Orm and he will have to discern how to respond and where he belongs. Trials and tribulations will emerge on every side for Orm and he will have to discern how to respond and where he belongs.
2. W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge
All of us are seeking after fulfillment and happiness, Aquinas will tell us this and we know it in our own hearts. Our main character is no different. Larry Darrell is a young American in search of the absolute. The progress of this spiritual odyssey involves him with some of Maugham's most brilliant characters - his fiancée Isabel, whose choice between love and wealth have lifelong repercussions, and Elliot Templeton, her uncle, a classic expatriate American snob.
1. Willa Cather’s One of Ours
One of Ours, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 is a portrait of a peculiarly American personality: it is the story of a young man born after the American frontier has vanished, yet whose quintessentially American restlessness seeks redemption on a frontier far bloodier and more distant than that which his forefathers had already tamed.
2. Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons
The Magnificent Ambersons chronicles the changing fortunes of three generations of an American dynasty. The protagonist is George Amberson Minafer, the spoiled and arrogant grandson of the founder of the family's magnificence. Eclipsed by a new breed of developers, financiers, and manufacturers, this pampered scion begins his gradual descent from the midwestern aristocracy to the working class.
1. Sigrid Undset’s Gunnar’s Daughter
One of our favorite novelists, Undset is remarkable here. Set in Norway and Iceland at the beginning of the eleventh century, Gunnar's Daughter is the story of the beautiful, spoiled Vigdis Gunnarsdatter, who is raped by the man she had wanted to love. A woman of courage and intelligence, Vigdis is toughened by adversity. Alone she raises the child conceived in violence, repeatedly defending her autonomy in a world governed by men. Alone she rebuilds her life and restores her family's honor—until an unremitting social code propels her to take the action that again destroys her happiness.
2. Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim (A free version is available to read online via the Gutenberg Project)
Coward or hero? And if we are a coward how are we to live with ourselves afterward? A question for all of us and one asked eloquently through Conrad's novel. In a split-second impulse of self-preservation, a young ship's officer abandons his imperiled vessel and its passengers. He survives, but suffers a wretched existence. He must go forward facing the scorn of the world and his own guilt, as he seeks atonement for the dishonorable choice he made.
PLAN FOR POETRY
Poetry, if it’s not your thing, won't easily become your thing. However, here is a way to mitigate that problem.
You’re not going to be able to breeze through these poems. But read them aloud, to yourself, by yourself. Go over them patiently, one at a time. You’ll like some; you’ll be completely unmoved by others. The ones that you like make sure to mark, so you can return to them later on. Most of the poems, except Chesterton’s and Lord Macaulay’s, can be read in three or four minutes. Chesterton’s and Macaulay’s are “long poems,” but can be enjoyed piecemeal, because in fact they’re also stories.
The following Plan of poems is designed to reach an especially masculine audience. This is not to exclude women, or to undermine their importance, but to eradicate the silly idea that men don’t, or shouldn’t read poetry. Below are manly poems, like Kipling’s “If—” and Lord Macaulay’s “Horatius,” which have inspired generations of men, either to reflect on the purpose of heroism, or to hoist up the flag of freedom and bravery in order to leap into the fray, into the breach.
1. Rudyard Kipling’s If—, and Other Poems.
2. G. K. Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse.
3. Robert Frost’s A Boy’s Will and North of Boston.
4. The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation.
5. Oxford World’s Classics’s Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology.
6. Thomas Babington, Lord Macaulay’s “Horatius at the Bridge.”