A liberal education has always meant a deep knowledge of cultural history, which inevitably meant art and literature. Sadly, the humanities have taken a beating from the Cult-Marx crusaders in the last half century. Critical Theory and its various off-shoots have, as one would expect from the Germans, reduced art and literature to rubble. Just look at the state of poetry. It has been reduced to displays of childish vanity at scream sessions. You find more culturally enriching rhymes on a rest room wall.
The good news is it is easy to bypass the lunatics and go right to the primary texts, which are often available for a song as ebooks. The literary canon is enormous so we’ll focus on the English portion for now. A modern educated man in the English speaking world has to have a broad knowledge of English (and American) literature, but he should also be familiar with the great works of the West in general. There are good translations of the classics from every Western language so you can read Tolstoy without knowing Russian.
Working forward from the deep dark past, the first “great works” of the English literature are Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The language is a little difficult for the modern reader, but not impenetrable. Something more difficult, and often overlooked as a result, is William Langland’s Piers Plowman. The challenge here is threefold. One is the language and the other is the Christianity. It’s also a social satire so you need to know a little about the times, but that should be a motivation.
Then we come to Shakespeare The good news here is all of his works are free as the family no longer has the copyright. There are some smart people who think The Bard is a waste of time. The important themes from the important plays are so baked into the culture that there’s no point in reading them in the original. There’s some truth to that, but the people who say this usually had a first class education. It’s not like you’re going to lose IQ points by taking the time to read some of the great works of English literature.
That said, Shakespeare had some clunkers too. From the comedies, I’d recommend The Merchant of Venice, especially for the alt-right reader, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Taming of the Shrew and Winter’s Tale. From the histories, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VIII and Richard III should be enough. Then read all of the tragedies. You can probably skip Titus Andronicus and Timon of Athens. All, of these are available on video and it is a good idea to see an actual production, even if it is on video.
This is a good time to talk about poetry. Shakespeare’s sonnets are worth reading as an excellent introduction of English verse. And no, reading poetry will not make you gay or Mexican. Similarly, John Donne is one of the giants of English poetry, but I never found his work all that interesting. Instead, I’d read Samuel Johnson’s discussion of Donne and other prominent poets. Finally, Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene is a must read and it is pretty good. If you like Game of Thrones you’ll like this.
In a previous one of these posts, I recommended Utopia by Thomas Moore. Another classic from this period is New Atlantis by Francis Bacon. I won’t say it is good, but it is short. There’s also The Isle of Pines, which is similar and considered the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe. You can get all three in one book! Something better from this period is Morte D’Arthur by Thomas Malory. This was one of my favorites as a kid. The quest for the grail is one of the most influential themes in English literature.
The first work of fiction to be considered a novel is The Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan. It is a Christian allegory, which probably sounds awful, but the fact that it has never been out of print since the 17th century means it is worth reading. Also in the realm of Christian literature is Paradise Lost by John Milton. Everyone has their list of essential books that an educated man should read. Every one of those lists contains Milton, because it arguably defined the English speaking world’s relationship to Christianity.
Finally, to sew up this post on literature, and yes there will be several more, I’m going to suggest something a bit odd. Integral to the English speaking world’s culture is a relationship with nature. It turns up throughout English literature and in American classics like Huckleberry Finn. The Complete Angler by Isaac Walton is a book about fishing that holds up today, but it is also a book about the peaceful enjoyment of nature. Even if you are afraid of the outdoors, an appreciation of man’s relationship to nature is essential.