We are lucky as Hillsdale students to read so many great books with our classmates. We read the words that have guided and shaped Western civilization, from the Old Testament and Herodotus to Herman Melville and C.S. Lewis.
There are many we ought to read, however, that we may miss during our time here, depending on the majors and electives we end up choosing. Some never get assigned at all. Here is a list of ten essential unassigned texts, in no particularly strict order, that every Hillsdale student ought to read before he graduates.
And if you don’t get to all of them in the course of your four years, have no fear: these are all excellent titles to keep on your lifelong bookshelf, to see you through moves and seasons of life, loyally waiting to be picked up again to reveal new truths and new beauties.
- The Space Trilogy by C.S. Lewis
This trio of novels, disguised as science fiction, are woven with truths on technology, human nature, and man’s relationship with God. Lewis’s images are bewildering and his understanding of man’s weaknesses is acute. If you’re discouraged by the length of all three, read the last one: “That Hideous Strength” (you don’t need the first two to understand it).
- Love and Responsibility by Karol Wojtyla
Don’t shrug this one off for the author’s religion (which, for the record, is never sufficient excuse to dismiss a book.) Wojtyla — better known as Pope John Paul II — based his novel on a philosophy of the human person, which is applied to an ethic for relationships. “Love and Responsibility,” through its explanation and defense of human dignity, is a sturdy lesson on how to treat the other, particularly in romantic relationships.
- On the Laws by Cicero
You might remember the excerpt of Cicero’s “On Duties” included in the Western Heritage reader. “On the Laws” (De Legibus) is a dialogue considering human nature and unity of the classes that ends in a suggested political order. Most interesting is the (pre-Christ) vision of Christian humanism in Cicero’s distinction of civil and natural law and the importance of building the former upon the latter.
- Waiting for God by Simone Weil
Simone Weil is a 20th century French philosopher and mystic. Her perspective on asceticism and political philosophy at times generated criticism, but “Waiting for God” is a consistent and profound collection of essays reflecting on the relationship of man and the transcendent.
- Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis
I couldn’t help but include two Lewis titles on this list; really, I could make an entire list of Lewis essays and novels. “Abolition of Man,” if you’ve managed to escape it so far, deserves your attention. One of Lewis’s more popular titles, the novel is one of the shortest titles on this list and raises his concerns about the shifting priorities of education. If your strength is struggling to rejoice in the giant hassle of liberal education, maybe Lewis can restore your gratitude and wonder at this rare place and what we’re up to here.
- Leisure: The Basis of Culture by Josef Peiper
If the mention of our motto reminded you about your list of homework due tomorrow, you might be interested to hear that the English word for “school” comes from the Greek “skole,” meaning leisure. Who knew Josef Pieper begins his novel with that revelation and spends the book explaining how Western culture is built on leisure, and why it’s important we hold onto that.
- Fragments by Heraclitus
OK, so you don’t have time to add another book to your schedule (How much time did you spend scrolling on your phone today? But I digress…) You should read Heraclitus’s “Fragments,” a collection of notes including some sharp observations on human experience. They range in length from one sentence to several, perfect to pick up and put down without losing your place.
- Eccentric Culture by Remi Brague
You might remember Remi Brague, a French philosopher, visiting campus last Spring to give a talk called “Our Own Others.” “Eccentric Culture” deals with many of the topics Brague addressed in his lecture: Western culture grew up in Europe, yet its roots are in Jerusalem and Athens. The secondarity this presents is a trait of Western culture contributing to the conversation on humanism and ethics.
- Essays in Anthropology by Robert Spaemann
I know what you’re thinking: that title suggests an unbearably dense read. Spaemann, considering the philosophical content of his essays, writes with a particularly fresh style. Try his third essay first: Human Dignity.
- Lord of the World by RH. Benson
What about a dystopian novel to close out the list? Monsignor R.H. Benson wrote the novel in 1907 out of his frustration with many contemporary utopian attempts (Atheism, Marxism, etc.) “Lord of the World,” one of the first novels dubbed “dystopian” rather than “utopian,” depicts the antichrist’s reign at the end of the world. It has been called prophetic by prominent theologians and multiple popes.
I will conclude with an honorable mention: “The Day of the Jackal” by Frederic Forsyth. We read great books and hard books in our time at Hillsdale. They challenge us, teach us, and improve us, and we should continue to take up such growth following our graduation. While these challenges are good and necessary for us, John Miller, director of the Dow Journalism Program, is keen to point out that it’s also good to read fun books. The “Day of the Jackal” is his suggestion for a “fun read.” The story — a thriller, because he loves thrillers — describes an assassin targeting the president of France, and it’s captivating until the last page.
Whatever the genre is for you, don’t be afraid to indulge, but remember the rich culture, history, and lessons hiding behind a bit of a challenge.
Reagan Cool is a senior studying philosophy and religion. She is a columnist on faith and culture.