I received a letter in January 2020 from my alma mater, Meridian College of Ohio. We, the class of 1970, would be marking our 50th graduation anniversary on campus in June. Meridian College is known for its Great Books curriculum. The letter invited us to submit our own personal list of great books ("no more than ten") and, in a few words, explain our choices. Our comments would be culled and published in a 50th Reunion Year Supplement and distributed to all graduates and alumni on graduation day. After much thinking I submitted my list.
My Ten Great Books
1. The Bible. "In the beginning God..." What wisdom in positing one creator. It forces us to look for meaning in life. Were there more than one creator, or none at all, how empty our search would be.
2. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. I have not read it. Our high school teacher assigned us the book and warned us not to rely on the classical comic book for his test. I did not heed his words, sadly. I failed the test but also failed the experience of reading a classic. It's still on my reading list. Do the work.
3.The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. Who of us has not imagined himself as Holden Caulfield in New York City in the 1950s on the cusp of adulthood? We are the poorer if we never imagined his experiences as our own.
4. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. A Russian soldier firing a rifle from behind a tree is that soldier's experience of Napoleon's invasion of his homeland. Most of us experience major events of our lifetime in a similar way - personal, encapsulated, not fully grasped.
5. Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories by Philip Roth. God can do anything, even make it possible for a virgin to bear a child.
6. Complete Poems of Robert Frost. In A Lone Striker the poet describes a factory worker locked out of his place of work for arriving a few minutes late. The worker takes himself off to a nearby wood: "He knew a path that wanted walking; he knew a spring that wanted drinking; a thought that wanted further thinking; a love that wanted re-renewing." Work is very important in life but it is at our own peril if we lose sight of the intangible things in life.
7. The Assistant by Bernard Malamud. The rabbi eulogized Morris Bober, the self-effacing and self-sacrificing main character of the book, in these words: "Morris Bober was to me a true Jew. Maybe not to our tradition - for this I don't excuse him - but he was true to the spirit of our life - to want for others that which he wants for himself.... What more does our sweet God ask from his poor people?" All truly religious people must come to this conclusion.
8. Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson.
"In the name of the bee
And of the butterfly
And of the breeze
Our life on earth is all we shall ever have. Cherish it.
9. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. When Huck follows his heart and decides to help Jim, the runaway slave, he is sure that he has condemned his soul to eternal damnation, or, in his own words, "Alright, then, I'll go to hell." Our hearts are our best guides in life.
10. Reader's Digest Magazine. My grandparents did not have the opportunity to go to college. Their colleagues at work did not read. But early on in their marriage they bought a subscription to Reader's Digest Magazine, one that they kept up for more than 50 years. I can picture them evenings, the radio playing softly in the background, reading with pleasure the condensed versions of popular books or the abridged versions of the classics. They would never have the pleasure of studying the Great Books in depth, but their example illuminated that path for me.
A few weeks after I submitted my list I got a letter from the alumni office informing me that they decided to put a copy of Reader's Digest Magazine on the front cover of the supplement along with my explanation of that choice. The letter read, in part: "We hope it will serve as a reminder to all our students what a privilege a fine college education may be."