A February 1982 issue of the Purple & White published an article by Claude Arnett, titled “Lirē Aut Non Lirē: That is the question”. Arnett had set out to create a reading list for college students as a sort of “How-to” manual to becoming “well read”, and invited Millsaps’ faculty at the time to recommend 20 books for students to read in order to be “well read”. The resulting list of most-cited books was essentially made up Western classics such as Shakespeare, Plato, Marx, Dostoevsky, and Jane Austen, the sole female author to make the list.
But, as Arnett, wrote,
“most of the faculty did comment that being ‘well-read’ included reading modern literature […] What the faculty is saying is that ‘well-read’ is one of those ambiguous terms like ‘grown-up.’ One is never fully ‘grown-up’ but always in the act of ‘growing-up.’ ‘Well-read’ is the same way.”
If being “well-read” means to keep up with the constant publishing of new books and ideas, what are the recommended readings for today’s undergraduate students? Keeping in mind Millsaps liberal arts tradition, I asked Millsaps’ faculty the following question:
Which authors and works should every Millsaps student read for a well-rounded liberal arts education? (Please name up to ten authors and/or works. If you would like to, feel free to comment on why these authors/works are important.)
Below are the recommendations of the 11 faculty members who responded, listed in alphabetical order. Books/authors that also appeared in the 1982 reading list are underlined. Suffice to say, the concept of a “well-read” person has expanded far beyond what it meant to professors in 1982; of the 20 authors in the original list, only 5 make a reappearance (although, to be fair, many of the authors listed before published their works after 1982).
Carl Sagan – The Demon Haunted World – A very ‘easy read’ by one the greatest scientists, showing why critical thinking is so important
Albert Camus – The Myth of Sisyphus – We can live and thrive, even in the absurdity
Sandra Cisneros – Loose Women – Because we should all read poems…. hers or someone’s!
Kiese Laymon – Heavy
Brown, Roeder, & McDaniel – Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning
Harriet Jacobs – Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl – Jacobs wrote and published her amazing (and true) story of escaping from slavery in North Carolina under a pseudonym because she was afraid she could still be taken back to slavery by her former “owners.”
Ken Saro-Wiwa – Sozaboy – This novel, written in the voice of a Nigerian man conscripted into fighting in the Biafran War (also called the Nigerian Civil War) of the 1970s, shows the futility of war and the terrible consequences it has on ordinary people. In the mid-1990s, Saro-Wiwa was assassinated for his role in fighting against big oil companies on behalf of his people, the Ogoni people, in Nigeria.
Aphra Behn – The Rover – Behn was the first woman in England to make a living as a professional writer and her plays, her proto-novels (like Oroonoko, often interpreted as an anti-slavery text), and her poetry often feel very modern. In The Rover, set in Italy during Carnival season, two sisters try to escape the tyranny of their brother and a courtesan tries to find true love with a wandering Cavalier from England.
I’ve chosen these to reflect the idea that a liberal arts education as defined when the idea more effectively emerged in 18th century during the democratic revolutions, is about liberating ourselves from our own ignorance. Such liberation should be attuned to the day as it was in the 18th century!
Given our 21st century challenges with the greatest problem humans have every faced–climate change–two books addressing it seem minimally necessary. The Marx and Engels (politically liberal) is balanced with the Burke (politically conservative). The Western focus is certainly partial and requires opening up to the East. To assist this lack I select the Confucius and the Bhagavad Gita scripture. If the majority of humans worldwide are working class or of lower income, and ideas circulating in many industrialized countries including the United States tend to be more of the victors and the powerful, then it would seem to balance out the view of the status quo circulated by the powerful—that we need important minority voices. Two such voices come from Simone de Beauvoir’s landmark feminist work The Second Sex and Anne Moody’s becoming a leader in the Civil Rights Movement and growing up in Mississippi during Jim Crow. I’m less wed to any one of these books than to a strategy that would include similar voices and themes (across time periods, regions, and according to present planet urgencies).
Plato – Republic
Confucius – The Analects
Locke, John – Two Treatises of Government
Edmund Burke – Reflections on the Revolution in France
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels – Communist Manifesto
Anne Moody – Coming of Age in Mississippi
Simone de Beauvoir – The Second Sex.
Paul Hawken – The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming
Richard Powers – Bewilderment.
Comment: First, I think trying to attain a well-rounded education by identifying great authors is a fool’s errand. The myth of the great author largely works to uphold white supremacist and patriarchal viewpoints. I think it’s more instructive to consider important sociopolitical movements and to identify their associated texts. That being said, below is a preliminary list of authors I think every student should read before graduating.
Marshall McLuhan – The Medium Is the Message
Margaret Walker – For My People – A work of poetry
James Baldwin – The Fire Next Time – A non-fiction work
Audre Lorde – Sister Outsider
John Hersey – Hiroshima
Jean Paul Sartre – Existentialism is a Humanism,” (1946)
Aimé Césaire – Culture and Colonization – Speech at the 1956 Présence Africaine conference in Paris
Betty Friedan – The Feminine Mystique
Richard Feynman – The Value of Science
Zoe Leonard – I Want a Dyke for President
The Bible (the Old and New Testaments) – In order to (a) see the story of God’s great love for mankind and (b) to understand the basis for the principles on which this country was founded.
The US Constitution
The US Bill of Rights
The Declaration of Independence
Max Weber – The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism – A foundational text in the social sciences, Weber demonstrates that the emergence of capitalism was profoundly influenced by the religious tenets of Protestants in Northern Europe following the Reformation. In short, piety and devoutness led to the emergence of capitalism just as much as industrialization and globalization did.
Marcell Mauss – The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Society – Marcell Mauss established theories on gift-giving and reciprocal exchange that highlight the collective nature of economic transactions, as well as the morality of economic exchange divorced from profit.
Marshall Sahlins – Stone Age Economics – Sahlins challenged many elements of economic orthodoxy with this work, arguing that hunter-gatherers were the “original affluent society”, and that economic behavior is more likely influenced by subjective cultural phenomena such as kinship, religion, and class than rational decision-making.
Jordan Ellenberg – How Not to Be Wrong, and Shape
Miguel A. De La Torre – Reading the Bible from the Margins
Edith Eva Eger – The Choice
Comment: Here are five of hundreds:
Thomas Paine – The Age of Reason – Paine—falsely dubbed a “filthy little atheist” by Teddy Roosevelt—lays out his exposition of the fundamental pitfalls associated with excessive societal reliance on organized religion. Paine, however was not an atheist and his work was intended to inform readers that they have a responsibility to use their intelligence, reason, and ability to think to fundamentally shape the world around them. In short, Pain argues that reason is the most powerful tool given to us from God. It separates man from the animal and makes us able to think critically about things around us without being told how to do so through divine texts or intervention. A must given our current political climate.
David Halberstam – Summer of ‘49 – Professional baseball is the greatest game ever invented in the history of humankind and it is uniquely American. Halberstam traces the development of the Golden Age of the game of baseball in the years just following World War II in which the game’s top talent had returned from service in the war to mix with a collection of highly talented younger players to create this incredible time in the nation and in the world of professional sports. If you want to understand modern America, you need to understand this book, particularly the growth of the greatest rivalry in American professional sports between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. The book also examines the growth of sports management, the business and politics of professional sports, technology and media evolution and innovation, as well as personalities that shaped the era.
Samuel L. Huntington – The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order – American political scientist Sam Huntington provides a sweeping post-Cold War interpretation of world politics in an effort to explain how future conflicts will largely be shaped by variables associated with culture and identity rather than by the nation state. Huntington was writing prior to the emergence of the internet and social media as we know it today, yet predicted that the world was becoming smaller, thus making the differences between cultures and what he frames as “civilizations” more likely to erupt as their major points of disagreement or difference come into focus. It should be pointed out that Huntington’s theory first emerged in a 1993 speech and his book was published in 1996, noticeably prior to September 11, 2001.
Catherine Drinker Bowen – The Miracle at Philadelphia – Anyone who asks the why questions such as why is the American governmental system designed in such a way, why did the Founders do X, Y, and Z instead of A, B, and C when forging the Constitution and giving structure to the American federal system ought to read this book. Catherine Drinker Bowen helps to frame all of this by carefully weaving a narrative of the delegates in attendance at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, their personal and political interests, and the intense debate between them that resulted in one of the most consequential documents ever drafted.
Barry Goldwater – The Conscience of a Conservative – The United States is largely a center-right nation. The former United States Senator from Arizona and 1964 Republican presidential nominee is the godfather of American conservative thought because he understood the necessity of practicing and implementing these ideas both theoretically and practically. Goldwater’s book is the blueprint for understanding why conservatives think the way they do. Although conservatism in the United States has changed significantly since Goldwater’s time, the philosophical underpinnings have largely remained the same. People who want to understand American political conservatism would have a more clear and accurate sense of what we are experiencing in politics today (although the standards by which “conservatism” is shaped have shifted) by studying this treatise.
Dr. S. Smith
Plato – The Republic – determinative of Western thought, a starting point for many philosophical discussions to this day.
Augustine – Confessions – adaptation of Platonism to biblical tradition and vice versa, even MORE determinative of Western thought.
Confucius (Kongzi) – The Analects (the LUNYU) – immensely appealing practical philosophy and a Chinese cultural touchstone.
The Bhagavad Gita – the best classical touchstone for South Asian thought, a one-stop shop for major ideas.
Immanuel Kant – Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals – powerful statement of the most powerful modern ethical position. (I’m being partisan here, putting Kant’s Groundwork ahead of Mill’s Utilitarianism)
Charles Darwin – The Origin of Species – Not just for the ideas about evolution but for the powerful reasoning and language.
Hannah Arendt – The Human Condition – Extremely illuminating description of major structures of our life by a historically grounded philosopher (author of Eichmann in Jerusalem and Origins of Totalitarianism).
Fyodor Dostoevsky – The Brothers Karamazov – The greatest Western spiritual thriller.
Virginia Woolf – To the Lighthouse – A very different kind of spiritual thriller by possibly the most gifted of all English writers.
Gabriel García Márques – One Hundred Years of Solitude – A magnificent portal to South American experience.
Author’s note: Thanks to the Millsaps faculty who responded to the survey. To see the original 1982 book recommendations, visit: archive.org/details/millsapscollegepurpleandwhite19811982/page/n81/mode/2up