Western Culture's Top 50 Books

"Western Culture's Top 50 Books" Continued...

Issue: "Supreme warning," July 5, 2003

The Wealth of Nations

Adam Smith

Out of a Christian concern for the common man, Smith attacked special interests who said they were acting to protect the poor but were actually using government to preserve their own standing. He showed that competition and free trade reduce poverty and spur helpful activity, since "man's self-interest is God's providence": Service with a smile is most likely when we profit by serving.

The Federalist Papers

James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay

Witness the mind of the founders of the American Constitution at work, as they try to figure out how to design a free republic that, unlike those of the past, will last.

Reflections on the Revolution in France

Edmund Burke

Predicting accurately that French revolutionary ideology would lead to dictatorship and terror, Burke advocated the political pursuit of limited goals grounded in historical experience. He opposed the Enlightenment approach (now called "progressivism") of attempting to rearrange social and political institutions according to abstract principles.

19th century

Sense and Sensibility

Jane Austen

Perhaps the best English-language novelist shows in a witty and wise way that true love, leading to marriage, needs to be a matter of the head as well as the heart.

Lyrical Ballads

William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Wordsworth, writing about ordinary people and things in such a way that they seem extraordinary, essentially invented nature poetry. Coleridge, writing about extraordinary things in such a way that they seem ordinary, pioneered the genre of fantasy with poems such as "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Romantics later went off the deep end, but these two young poets had a balanced sensibility that was a refreshing reaction against the "Age of Reason." Both later became conservative Christians: Wordsworth recognized the importance of moral duty, and Coleridge, despairing of his own moral failures after vain attempts to kick his opium habit, turned to Christ for forgiveness.

Democracy in America

Alexis de Tocqueville

This French observer's emphasis on the importance of religious and community institutions in American life during the 1830s shows the deep roots of compassionate conservatism. Even more, his analysis suggests why the United States is the biggest national success story of the past three centuries: Religious belief, civic associations, and that sense that "among Americans honest callings are considered honorable" have contributed to prosperity combined with liberty.

Economic Harmonies

Frederic Bastiat

Following on Adam Smith, Bastiat argued that free markets and free trade most often led not to savage dealing but to harmonious relationships among people. If the rule of law could be emphasized and government intervention minimized, a market economy would maximize both liberty and prosperity.

David Copperfield

Charles Dickens

You could pick just about any book by England's most enjoyable novelist and find his trademark of memorably eccentric characters, strong moral sentiment, and devastating social criticism. This coming-of-age saga, following a young man growing up, is probably his best.

Moby Dick

Herman Melville

Captain Ahab is a combination of Milton's Satan and Shakespeare's Lear. Rich with a symbolism that is sometimes difficult to harpoon, this sea saga for good reason (despite the intrusion of more information about whaling than you'll want to know) is considered the great American novel.

Leaves of Grass

Walt Whitman

Whitman was a Romantic poet who went off the deep end, but he loved America, and his innovative poetry captures the texture, the ideals, and the values of the early Republic. It also embodies some of the problems of American culture-such as a demand for freedom at all costs and a contempt for the past-that we still struggle with today. But Whitman is worth reading at least to counter those who think existence is meaningless: Whitman has a way of showing that ordinary existence-such as a leaf of grass-is not meaningless but rather amazingly wonderful.

Innocents Abroad

Mark Twain

Read America's most enjoyable novelist before he became bitter (though those later works are worth reading too). This, his first book, is a comical treatment of his trip, as a backwoods frontiersman, to the sophisticated scenes of Europe. The contrast between the American way of looking at things and the European remains instructive.

Crime and Punishment

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Plunge into the depths of the human soul with the tormented Russian novelist, who, for all of his psychological intensity and personal struggles, is one of the greatest Christian writers of all time. Here, a young man, influenced by the fashionable atheism all around him, commits a murder as a philosophical exercise: After all, if there are no absolutes, why not? He experiences a guilt he cannot explain and meets another sinner, a prostitute, who tells him about Jesus. What does he do?


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