Among book lovers, a never-ending source of simultaneous delight and despair is the awareness of how many books we haven’t yet read. Delight because there is always some wonderful new work to discover. Despair because no matter how much we read, there always seems to be glaring, inexcusable gaps in our reading lists–those books we are downright embarrassed to admit we haven’t yet read.
While these observations are fairly obvious, one thought did surprise me recently when I was considering the long line of books on my “to read” list. I realized that some of the books I haven’t read yet are actually some of my favorite books. Perhaps this sounds bizarre, but I think I’m not alone in this experience. There are some books I just haven’t gotten around to reading yet, but that not only do I know I will love, but I already love. Some of these titles merely fill me with a great sense of anticipation, but I would go so far as to say that some others have deeply influenced my thought and my outlook on life. That was my experience, for example, when I finally read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics for the first time. Before reading the opening line, I already knew this was a book that was, in some sense, already in me–like a city I had seen in pictures, through whose streets I was finally walking in the flesh.
In the hope that other people can relate to this experience, here are my top 10 favorite books I’ve never read. To be fair, I should note that some of these are books I haven’t read in their entirety. That may seem like cheating, but I include them because they are books that demand to be read whole, and the knowledge that I haven’t done so frankly gnaws at me. Also, it’s worth noting that this isn’t a list of the best or more famous books I haven’t read, just a list of my personal favorites.
The Complete Poems, John Keats
“Ode to a Nightingale,” “Endymion,” “Bright Star,”–heck, just the last two lines of “Ode to a Grecian Urn” are enough to make Keats one of my favorite poets ever. And yet, to my great chagrin, that’s about all I’ve read from him! Some other book always seems more pressing, and I’m left dreaming about the day when I’ll get to finally sit down with Keats and take in all his glorious verse.
The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
In graduate school, I signed up for a semester-long class on Dostoyevsky’s most important novel, but the space was full and I ended up in a seminar about War and Peace (which is just as well, as otherwise I’d probably be writing about that book here instead). The Brothers K explores big questions about God, morality, and free will. I love how the book forces us to come face to face with evil and whether “without God, everything is permitted.” Or rather I would, if I had ever read it.
The Violent Bear it Away, Flannery O’Connor
Being that Flannery O’Connor’s writing was one of my main inspirations behind Dappled Things, it is really appalling that I haven’t read her second (and last) novel. By all accounts the book is a brilliant example of O’Connor’s probings into the collision of belief and secularism, shaped by her Catholic faith and Gothic sensibilities, combining at once, as the publisher’s description put it, “irony and compassion, humor and pathos.” I can’t wait to read this one (but for some reason, I keep waiting anyway).
Lost in the Cosmos, Walker Percy
This unclassifiable book by Percy, with a title that pokes a bit of fun at Carl Sagan (or Neil Degrasse Tyson, as the case may be), bills itself as “the last self-help book.” By all accounts, it is a delightfully mordant parody of the self-help book craze of the 1980s that offers no easy answers for “achieving success” or “boosting your self-esteem,” but rather faces you with a series of questions that according to an Amazon reviewer, “will alter the way you watch the evening news . . . , cut your grass, shop for groceries, and generally manage to survive another Tuesday afternoon.” I absolutely love this book, though I haven’t read a page of it.
The Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas
Philosophically, I would not hesitate to classify myself as an Aristotelian/Thomist, which is why it shames me to realize how little of the Summa I’ve actually read. While I’ve tackled Aristotle’s Poetics, Nicomachean Ethics, Politics, Physics, Metaphysics, On the Soul, and even a more obscure work like his Parts of Animals, all I’ve read of the Summa (other than the odd question here and there) is the Treatise on Law and the Treatise on God. I justify this to myself with the dubious argument that as a properly catechized Catholic, I can anticipate what St. Thomas would have said on certain topics when reflecting on Aristotle, but reading just a bit of his actual writing is enough to convince anyone that in many cases this is wishful thinking. St. Thomas is often credited with “baptizing” Aristotle, but as writers like Etienne Gilson have made clear, he really did much more, clarifying, developing, and even correcting Aristotelian thought. The Summa is, without a doubt, one of the books that has most influenced how I think and how I live, and yet I’ve probably read less than 10% of it. So why haven’t I read it? Simply, it’s just so big. I keep putting it off to that glorious day when I’ll finally have time for it. In the meantime, I just seem to get busier and busier.
After Virtue, Alasdair McIntyre
Speaking of Aristotelian/Thomists, Alasdair McIntyre is without a doubt one of the world’s most eminent living philosophers, and After Virtue is his magnum opus, one of the most important books of the twentieth century. In it, McIntyre offers a devastating critique of contemporary moral philosophy, tracing how and why our thinking devolved into a cacophony of competing and incommensurable moral assertions, and offering a tentative way out of the mess. I’ve read enough of the book–about a third–for it to deeply influence my thought about ethics and cure me once and for all of the temptation to think along utilitarian lines. Unfortunately, once I assured myself this was an amazing book, other matters distracted me from it and so far I’ve left it unfinished.
The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene
This is one of the foremost classics of modern Catholic literature, a much celebrated work by one of the best writers of the last century. It introduced the iconic figure of the “whiskey priest,” exploring how grace can work in the midst of terrible conditions and flawed persons. It’s a must read. All the same, I haven’t read it.
The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame
The publisher’s description bills this classic by Grahame as an “unforgettable ode to friendship and one of the most cherished children’s stories of all time.” I love children’s literature, and this book is no doubt one of my favorites. Too bad I haven’t read it. (I’m hoping to finally get a chance to do so when I read it out loud to my children in a year or two.)
Miracles, C.S. Lewis
During college, when I binge-read almost everything by Lewis, I was turned off from reading Miracles after hearing how Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe had trounced C.S. Lewis in a debate centered around the book’s argument that naturalism/materialism is self-refuting. The encounter apparently was deeply shocking to Lewis himself, and reportedly sent him into something of a crisis of faith. While I did hear that Anscombe herself had helped him revise the problematic chapter in order to strengthen his argument, it still sounded to me like the an attempt to make a limp horse win a race, so decided to pass on it. Since then, however, I’ve learned of Alvin Plantinga’s philosophically robust evolutionary argument against naturalism, which was apparently inspired by Lewis’s contentions in Miracles, and that has made me want to go back to read the book. I’d also love to tackle Plantinga’s Knowledge of God and Warrant and Proper Function, where the argument is developed in various forms.
Obviously, as a Catholic the Bible has shaped me in more ways than I can know. I read it daily (or almost), whether at Mass, praying the Divine Office, or simply doing spiritual reading. I’ve also read my share of biblical commentary and criticism, and know a tolerable amount about the Bible’s history (at least enough to torment some Jehova’s Witnesses the last time they came knocking). But I’ve never read the Bible in its entirety, and I know there are books in it about which I know next to nothing. I tremble a bit when I remember St. Jerome’s saying that “ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” Better get reading soon.
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So there you go, my top 10. Some of them I plan to read soon, some I expect it may be years before I finally tackle them. Either way, they remain among my favorite books, ridiculous as that may seem. Are any of your favorites also books that you haven’t read? If so, leave us a comment below.