The Great Books Reader

This is one of the 210 lists we use to generate our main The Greatest Books list.

  • The Odyssey by Homer

    This epic poem follows the Greek hero Odysseus on his journey home after the fall of Troy. It takes Odysseus ten years to reach Ithaca after the ten-year Trojan War. Along the way, he encounters many obstacles including mythical creatures, divine beings, and natural disasters. Meanwhile, back in Ithaca, his wife Penelope and son Telemachus fend off suitors vying for Penelope's hand in marriage, believing Odysseus to be dead. The story concludes with Odysseus's return, his slaughter of the suitors, and his reunion with his family.

  • The Republic by Plato

    "The Republic" is a philosophical text that explores the concepts of justice, order, and character within the context of a just city-state and a just individual. It presents the idea of a utopian society ruled by philosopher-kings, who are the most wise and just. The dialogue also delves into theories of education, the nature of reality, and the role of the philosopher in society. It is a fundamental work in Western philosophy and political theory.

  • The Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle

    This philosophical work focuses on the concept of ethics, specifically virtue ethics, and how it relates to a person's character and happiness. The author argues that happiness is the highest good and the end goal of life, and that it is achieved not through pleasure, but through virtuous actions. The book also explores the nature of practical reasoning, the different kinds of virtues, the importance of friendship, and the role of luck in human welfare.

  • The Aeneid by Virgil

    This epic poem tells the story of Aeneas, a Trojan who travels to Italy, where he becomes the ancestor of the Romans. It includes a series of prophecies about Rome's future and the deeds of heroic individuals, and is divided into two sections, the first illustrating the hero's journey and the second detailing the wars and battles that ensue as Aeneas attempts to establish a new home in Italy. The narrative is deeply imbued with themes of duty, fate, and divine intervention.

  • Confessions by Augustine

    "Confessions" is an autobiographical work by a renowned theologian, in which he outlines his sinful youth and his conversion to Christianity. It is written in the form of a long, introspective prayer directed to God, exploring the author's spiritual journey and deep philosophical ponderings. The book is renowned for its eloquent and deeply personal exploration of faith, making it a cornerstone of Christian theology and Western literature.

  • The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius

    "The Consolation of Philosophy" is a philosophical work written in the 6th century, where the author, imprisoned and awaiting execution, engages in a series of dialogues with Lady Philosophy about the nature of life and human happiness. The author grapples with the harsh realities of his own life, including his fall from favor, his unjust imprisonment, and impending execution. Through these dialogues, the author learns to understand life from a philosophical and spiritual perspective, finding consolation and peace amidst his dire circumstances. The work is a profound meditation on fate, free will, time, and eternity.

  • Summa Theologica by Thomas Aquinas

    This comprehensive text is a seminal work in the field of theology, written by a prominent medieval philosopher and theologian. The book is structured in a question-and-answer format, tackling complex philosophical and theological issues such as the existence of God, the nature of man, the purpose of life, and the intricacies of morality and ethics. It is one of the most influential works in Western thought, particularly in Christian theology and philosophy, and continues to be a vital reference in these fields.

  • The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

    In this epic poem, the protagonist embarks on an extraordinary journey through Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio), and Paradise (Paradiso). Guided by the ancient Roman poet Virgil and his beloved Beatrice, he encounters various historical and mythological figures in each realm, witnessing the eternal consequences of earthly sins and virtues. The journey serves as an allegory for the soul's progression towards God, offering profound insights into the nature of good and evil, free will, and divine justice.

  • The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

    The Canterbury Tales is a collection of 24 stories that follows a group of pilgrims traveling from London to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket. Told in Middle English, the tales are narrated by a diverse group of pilgrims, including a knight, a miller, a reeve, and a pardoner, who share their stories to pass the time during their journey. The tales, which range from chivalrous romances to bawdy fabliaux, provide a colorful, satirical, and critical portrayal of 14th century English society.

  • The Praise of Folly by Erasmus

    This satirical work is a critique of the practices of the Church and the wider social behavior of the time. Narrated by Folly, the female personification of foolishness, the book humorously criticizes various aspects of society such as superstitious religious practices, scholarly pedantry, and the excesses of the upper classes. The book is a bold critique of its time, using humor and irony to expose the follies of its society.

  • Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin

    This book is a comprehensive introduction to Christian theology and doctrine, written during the Protestant Reformation. The text outlines the author's views on subjects such as the nature of God, the authority of scripture, original sin, and salvation through Christ. The book also provides a detailed examination of the Ten Commandments and the Apostles' Creed, while offering a critique of the Catholic Church and its practices. The author's interpretation of Christianity, as presented in this work, has had a significant influence on the development of Protestant theology, particularly within Reformed churches.

  • The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser

    "The Faerie Queene" is an epic allegorical poem that follows several medieval knights, representing various virtues, as they navigate quests assigned by the Faerie Queene. The narrative is deeply imbued with Christian symbolism and Elizabethan political allegory. Each book in the series focuses on a particular virtue and the knight who embodies it, presenting a complex, interconnected tapestry of moral, ethical, and political conduct. The poem is renowned for its intricate allegories, rich characterization, and the creation of a unique verse form known as the Spenserian stanza.

  • Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

    This classic novel follows the adventures of a man who, driven mad by reading too many chivalric romances, decides to become a knight-errant and roam the world righting wrongs under the name Don Quixote. Accompanied by his loyal squire, Sancho Panza, he battles windmills he believes to be giants and champions the virtuous lady Dulcinea, who is in reality a simple peasant girl. The book is a richly layered critique of the popular literature of Cervantes' time and a profound exploration of reality and illusion, madness and sanity.

  • Much Ado about Nothing by William Shakespeare

    This classic play revolves around two pairs of lovers in the city of Messina. The first pair, Hero and Claudio, are young and innocent, while the second pair, Beatrice and Benedick, are older and more cynical about love. Throughout the plot, the couples face various challenges including deception, public humiliation, and the faked death of Hero. However, with the help of their friends and family, they overcome these obstacles and the story concludes with a joyful double wedding.

  • Meditations on First Philosophy by Rene Descartes

    "Meditations on First Philosophy" is a philosophical treatise that introduces the concept of radical doubt as a foundational element of knowledge. The book is known for the famous philosophical statement, "I think, therefore I am," which the author uses to establish the existence of the self as a necessary truth. The author also presents arguments for the existence of a benevolent God and the immortality of the soul, while examining the differences between the mind and the body, the nature of reality, and the limits of human understanding.

  • Paradise Lost by John Milton

    "Paradise Lost" is an epic poem that explores the biblical story of Adam and Eve's fall from grace in the Garden of Eden. It delves into their temptation by Satan, their subsequent expulsion, and the consequences of their disobedience. The narrative also provides a complex portrayal of Satan as a rebellious angel, who, after being cast out of Heaven, seeks revenge by causing mankind's downfall. The poem is a profound exploration of free will, divine justice, and the human struggle with good and evil.

  • Pensées by Blaise Pascal

    "Pensées" is a collection of philosophical and theological thoughts and ideas by a renowned French mathematician and physicist. The book delves into various aspects of human existence, exploring the nature of faith, reason, and the human condition. It also presents arguments for the existence of God, including the famous wager argument. The book is known for its profound insights into the human experience and its exploration of the complexities of belief and doubt.

  • An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke

    This philosophical work explores the concept of human understanding, proposing that all knowledge is derived from experience. The author argues against innate ideas, suggesting instead that the mind is a blank slate at birth, filled over time through sensory and reflective experiences. The book covers a wide range of topics, including language, memory, identity, and the limits of human knowledge, and is considered a foundational text in empiricism.

  • Two Treatises of Government by John Locke

    "Two Treatises of Government" is a seminal work in political philosophy, which outlines the author's theories on social contract and natural rights. The first treatise refutes the divine rights of kings, arguing that political power does not come from God but from the people. The second treatise introduces the idea of a government that exists to protect the rights of its citizens, particularly life, liberty, and property. The author posits that if a government fails to protect these rights, the people have the right to overthrow it. This work greatly influenced the development of democratic thought and the structure of modern democratic governments.

  • Principia Mathematica by Issac Newton

    This seminal work is a comprehensive exploration of classical physics, laying the groundwork for much of modern science. The author presents his three laws of motion and law of universal gravitation, effectively bridging the gap between the abstract world of mathematics and real-world phenomena. The book also delves into the principles of calculus, a mathematical discipline the author significantly developed. This work has had a profound influence on the scientific understanding of the physical universe.

  • John Wesley's Sermons: An Anthology by Albert C. Outler

    This anthology is a compilation of sermons by John Wesley, a renowned theologian and co-founder of Methodism. The sermons cover a wide range of theological and moral themes, offering a comprehensive insight into Wesley's spiritual teachings and beliefs. They reveal his profound understanding of Christian faith and his commitment to the application of religious principles in daily life. The anthology serves as a valuable resource for those interested in Wesleyan theology, Methodism, and Christian spirituality.

  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

    Set in early 19th-century England, this classic novel revolves around the lives of the Bennet family, particularly the five unmarried daughters. The narrative explores themes of manners, upbringing, morality, education, and marriage within the society of the landed gentry. It follows the romantic entanglements of Elizabeth Bennet, the second eldest daughter, who is intelligent, lively, and quick-witted, and her tumultuous relationship with the proud, wealthy, and seemingly aloof Mr. Darcy. Their story unfolds as they navigate societal expectations, personal misunderstandings, and their own pride and prejudice.

  • Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville

    This influential book offers an in-depth analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of 19th century American democracy. The author, a French political thinker, provides a detailed examination of the democratic process and its impact on society, politics, and the economy. The work highlights the importance of civil society, local institutions, and the spirit of equality in ensuring the stability of democracy. It also delves into the dangers of majority tyranny, the potential for democratic despotism, and the critical role of religion and morality in sustaining a democratic nation.

  • Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels

    This influential political pamphlet advocates for the abolition of private property, the rights of the proletariat, and the eventual establishment of a classless society. The authors argue that all of history is a record of class struggle, culminating in the conflict between the bourgeoisie, who control the means of production, and the proletariat, who provide the labor. They predict that this struggle will result in a revolution, leading to a society where property and wealth are communally controlled.

  • On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin

    This groundbreaking work presents the theory of evolution, asserting that species evolve over generations through a process of natural selection. The book provides a comprehensive explanation of how the diversity of life on Earth developed over millions of years from a common ancestry. It includes detailed observations and arguments to support the idea that species evolve by adapting to their environments, challenging the prevailing belief of the time that species were unchanging parts of a designed hierarchy.

  • Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

    Set in 19th-century Russia, this novel revolves around the life of Anna Karenina, a high-society woman who, dissatisfied with her loveless marriage, embarks on a passionate affair with a charming officer named Count Vronsky. This scandalous affair leads to her social downfall, while parallel to this, the novel also explores the rural life and struggles of Levin, a landowner who seeks the meaning of life and true happiness. The book explores themes such as love, marriage, fidelity, societal norms, and the human quest for happiness.

  • The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

    This classic novel explores the complex, passionate, and troubled relationship between four brothers and their father in 19th century Russia. The narrative delves into the themes of faith, doubt, morality, and redemption, as each brother grapples with personal dilemmas and family conflicts. The story culminates in a dramatic trial following a murder, which serves as a microcosm of the moral and philosophical struggles faced by each character, and by extension, humanity itself.

  • On the Genealogy of Morality by Friedrich Nietzsche

    This philosophical work is a critical exploration of the origins and development of moral values. The author challenges conventional notions of good and evil, arguing that they evolved not from any inherent sense of justice, but rather as a means of exerting control over society. He presents a historical analysis of how morality has been used as a tool by the powerful to dominate the weak, and critiques the influence of religion and societal norms on our understanding of morality. The book is a profound examination of the nature of morality, its origins, and its impact on human behavior.

  • Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton

    "Orthodoxy" is a classic work of Christian apologetics that explores and defends the beliefs that are central to Christian faith. The author presents his personal journey towards faith, arguing for the reasonableness of Christianity. He challenges popular assumptions of his time about religion, faith, and the world while presenting a compelling case for orthodox Christian belief, using both logic and wit. The book combines personal anecdotes, historical critique, and philosophical discourse to present a deeply intellectual and sincere exploration of Christianity.

About this list

Book, 29 Books

"In this volume you will be guided by esteemed professors and writers who have selected excerpts from the most important books in Western Civilization. A brief essay illuminates each excerpt and puts the work in context. Take your education to the next level by letting some of the best thinkers of today walk you through the most influential books in history."

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