Walter Miller’s sci-fi masterpiece, A Canticle for Leibowitz , envisions a nuclear apocalypse that wipes out the 20th century world, leaving the few survivors in a pretty hard core TEOTWAWKI  situation. Many of the survivors blame the technological horror on human learning, rather than on human sinfulness, and band together to destroy all remnants of western culture. They burn books, and they burn the people who try to preserve them, including Isaac Leibowitz– a major “booklegger”. Leibowitz had organized a group of men into a new monastic order that smuggled books to the relative safety of their monastery, where they copied and memorized them, but these bookleggers are a small, persecuted minority. So, predictably, the book hating majority, who proudly call themselves “Simpletons,” lock their progeny into a centuries-long dark age.
Imagine yourself as a booklegger. Imagine you wish to preserve the best of our culture, after a horrific event devastates our world. If you wait until after such an event, you won’t have much of a choice about which books to save; you’ll have to save what you have or what you can find. Now imagine you wish to prepare to preserve the greatest books of western culture. What should you start with?
There are some apparently easy answers to that question. First, you might want to start by downloading a ton of books onto some kind of electronic device. That’s a great idea. Do that. However, I’d prefer to have some paper copies around, just in case the Kindle quits working.
So here’s another easy answer: you could just buy a set of the “Great Books of the Western World,” and consider yourself sorted. However, for a couple of reasons, that’s actually not the best approach. First, sets like this include an awful lot of chaff. Do you really need a volume of Hegel’s writings or Freud’s? Do those books really belong on a list of must saves? I’m skeptical. Second, and more important, all that chaff comes along with a lot of wheat. Put together, they fill up 60 volumes. That’s 60 large, heavy, volumes. I am assuming that we want a somewhat more compact collection of books. We want to find the best, we want to leave out the not-best, and we want it all to be fairly mobile. It won’t fit in your pocket, but fitting into one box would be nice.
So let me make my question a little tougher to answer. The question was: what should you start with? Let’s say you can stash 15 books in one smallish box. So what about those 15 books?
When you narrow things down like this, I think you’ll find an interesting phenomenon. When you must pare things down to the absolute essentials, five books will jump out as non-negotiables. After those first five, we’ll find ourselves hip deep in controversy, and nobody out there will agree with all of my other choices. However, the first five are virtually incontrovertible.
The Bible . There is nothing more to say about this one.
Then, include Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey . This is a cheat, because these are two books, but they can be found bound together in one volume. Get one. It’ll be big, and it belongs in your box. Homer’s great works were probably written seven or eight hundred years before Christ, and they lay at the heart of Greek culture for centuries.
Plato’s Complete Works . This is another big, fat volume. Plato lived from 427-347 BC. He was a follower of Socrates, and when I say “follower,” I mean that literally. He followed Socrates around and listened to him. Socrates was not a teacher in the ordinary sense, and so had no students. However, many young men, including Plato, liked to hear him argue with the leaders of the day. After Socrates’s execution, however, Plato did settle down. He began a school called the Academy, whose most famous alumnus was Aristotle. It has been said that all of western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato. Even if that’s a bit of an exaggeration, Plato’s thought is fundamental to western culture. Get this book.
Dante’s Divine Comedy . This was written early in the 14th century AD. It is historically significant for many reasons; among them, the fact that it was one of the first important works published in an Italian dialect, but that’s not why the book belongs on this list. It belongs here for its beauty, (you must find a good translation—try Allen Mandelbaum’s), as well as for the way it provides a poetic summation of the Christian vision. Dante is often said to have reproduced St. Thomas Aquinas’s theological treatise Summa Theologiae in verse. Whether that’s correct or not, this poem belongs in the box.
Shakespeare’s Complete Works . This is yet another big, fat volume. It’s impossible to pretend you have a grip on western culture, without having seen Hamlet, Othello,*****check name to see if “and company” is part of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” name or not. I don’t recall that being the case, but I want to be correct here. I think he’s using “company” to refer to the remaining Shakespearean works within the volume.**** A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and company.
As I said, those first few books seem non-negotiable. The remainder of this list will be much more controversial. That’s fine, of course; you should argue and object, and then fill up your box as seems best to you. However, at the very least, the remainder of the books I mention here are very much worth considering, and they’ll go in my box.
Plutarch’s Lives Again . The complete set will be a fairly large volume, but it’s worth it. Plutarch wrote his series of parallel lives late in the first century AD. When it comes to getting a basic grip on the ancient world, there’s nothing else like them. Actually, there’s one thing like them, in my view: Shakespeare’s historical plays. If you put the two together, you can develop a fairly thorough picture of the history of the ancient world. It’s true that both the lives and the plays are kind of hit-or-miss in terms of exact historical accuracy, but that’s fine. As Jimmy Stewart put it, when legend becomes fact, print the legend.
The Rule of St. Benedict . Now here’s a slim volume for once! Perhaps you can get a copy bound together with The Life and Miracles of St. Benedict, by Pope St. Gregory the Great. St. Benedict wrote his Rule early in the 6th century. The Rule stands at the head of the European civilization of the middle ages, establishing the rules for the monasteries that preserved the best of ancient civilizations after that culture collapsed under its own weight. A humane document with much to teach everyone, not only about our past, but about how to direct our present lives and aim for our future lives.
The Imitation of Christ  has been translated into more languages than any book apart from the Bible, and it is widely considered the most-read devotional book after the Bible. Criticisms of its spirituality aside (both from within Catholicism and from outside of it), the work is so extraordinarily influential that it cannot be ignored. Its authorship was disputed for a long time, but the best evidence seems to show that it was written by Thomas a Kempis, who probably wrote it in the early 15th century.
St. Augustine’s City of God  is, again, so influential on all that comes after it, that in order to understand our world, we must know this book. The Bishop of Hippo wrote his masterwork in the early 5th century. St. Augustine had been a Platonistic-leaning philosopher before his conversion to Christianity, and much of Plato’s influence can be discerned in this work. However, here St. Augustine gathers what is best in Greek philosophy and puts it in the service of the Gospel. He attacks and undermines the paganism of his day and shows how Christianity views and orders the world.
Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales , like the Divine Comedy, were published in a vernacular language—in this case, an early form of English—in the 14th century. They present a delightful, earthy look at 14th century life. While I do not think of Chaucer as a master on the level of Dante or Shakespeare, his work is such a lively compendium of wildly divergent stories that for its variety and humor it deserves a place in the box.
The novel, as a literary form, is so familiar to us these days that it might not occur to us that it’s really fairly new. Certainly, none of the authors I have mentioned so far on the list ever penned a novel. In fact, it is sometimes said that Cervantes’s Don Quixote , published early in the 17th century, is the first novel. Whether that’s true, I cannot say for sure. I can say, however, that it’s a novel I’ll put in my box. Apart from its huge literary influence, the characters and story are just written into the western mind.
Now we come to more recent writings. Here, things will be even more controversial. For me, there’s no hesitation over any of the next three choices.
First,David Copperfield . The later works of Charles Dickens—Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, Hard Times—are much more “serious” than his early works—Nicholas Nickleby, The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist. So those later works are, I think, often considered to be greater or more important. Well, whether that’s true I cannot say for sure. But I can say that David Copperfield falls near the halfway point in Dickens’s career, and might be seen as a kind of transition between his early and late periods, and somehow magically manages to capture the comic abandon of the early works, and the gravity and profound insight of the later works. And there are no characters in the world of fiction who can compare with the awesome Micawber.
When Fyodor Dostoevsky was still a relatively young man, he was arrested for politically subversive activities and condemned to death. As the firing squad prepared to fire, a letter from the Czar was delivered, sparing the lives of Dostoevsky and his fellow “conspirators” and exiling them to Siberia. Eventually, Dostoevsky was able to return to Russia and of course became the greatest of the Russian novelists. The Brothers Karamazov  is his best work, and although it is dark and often chilling, it has a place in the box.
There is no work of fiction that I love more than The Lord of the Rings . Though it is generally published in a 3-book set, it really is just one book. If you want to press me on the “15 books” thing, you can find it published in a one-volume version. If you wonder whether it really belongs in a list like this, I would simply say there was virtually nothing out there that could compete with Homer’s great myths, until the writing of The Lord of the Rings. It is epic in every way.
We’re trying to preserve the best of western culture, but the books I’ve picked are disparate. There’s no unified vision. How does someone take those books and see how the western vision fits together? I close my list, then, with one book that depicts a worldview, a philosophy. GK Chesterton’s Saint Thomas Aquinas lays out the great core of western culture by way of a fascinating study of its most towering intellect.
So there are the 15 books I recommend.
You might be wondering why are there no science books? Why not On the Origin of Species? Why no Freud? I have left out the science books for two reasons. First, the great science books, like Darwin’s, are not really great books, even if they include great ideas. Second, the history of science is a whole different thing from the history of western culture. You can be a cutting-edge scientist without knowing much of anything about Galileo or Darwin, provided you know the contemporary shape of your field. It’s not like that with the western canon, where you simply cannot be well versed in the greatness of our civilization if you don’t know its giants of the past. It follows from this that if we wish to preserve our scientific knowledge through difficult times, the wisest course would be to pick the most up-to-date information. We would also be well advised to recollect older, perhaps more easily recoverable technologies; the metallurgy behind blacksmithing, for example, would be more likely to be important to us than the metallurgy behind microchips. Still, that’s a matter that simply falls outside of the scope of what I’m doing here.
You might also wonder why I’ve included no modern or contemporary politics or history? Why not include the “Federalist Papers” or The Wealth of Nations? Why not Machiavelli’s The Prince? The answer here is simply that in my list I’m going for foundational rather than derivative or recent. There’s no doubt that The Prince is important, as is Das Kapital, for that matter, and if I had a bigger box, I would think seriously about including works like these. If you disagree with my priorities, adjust your boxes accordingly. My only interest here is in trying to help us think through the important matter of saving the best our culture has produced.