Greatest Books of the 20th Century
It takes time for a text to become “great” and we’re willing to wait. But we can take a guess.
Mortimer Adler included several 20th-century authors in his “Great Books” collection—Dewey, Nietzsche, James, Hemmingway, Freud—because the sweeping current of their ideas helped carry us to where we are today. We asked classical Christian educators around the country, “Which 20th-century authors do you believe should join the canon of ‘Great Books’?”
What we received was a list of great counter-voices to the 20th-century tide—the underappreciated authors whose ideas we hope will take hold of our culture in the future, and help bring to fullness what the classical Christian movement works to restore.
I J.R.R. TOLKIEN
THE LORD OF THE RINGS
[LotR is] the greatest story of the 20th century. It checks all the boxes when it comes to the great ideas. —Ken Hosier
“Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?” (Tolkien) Almost seventy years ago, “like lightning from a clear sky” (C. S. Lewis), Tolkien offered his readers an escape from the 20th century’s Darwinist-Marxist-Freudian “realist” literary jailers. That was “good news, good beyond hope” (Lewis, again). Today Tolkien continues to offer us a way home … . LotR is the greatest text of the 20th century because it shows us that balrogs and Lothlórien are forever more “real” than the NFL, Hollywood, the stock market, and every photo that’s ever been posted on Instagram. (I would add that as both a sub-creation and a story, it makes the Marvel universe seem like the scribbles of a fifth-grader.) —William “Bill” Bryant
II C.S. LEWIS
THE ABOLITION OF MAN
THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA
THE SPACE TRILOGY
TILL WE HAVE FACES
[The Abolition of Man is] perhaps the most prophetic book of the century; a must read for all who care about education and the nature of goodness, truth, and beauty.
[That Hideous Strength] cements Lewis’ vision as a prophet and understanding of anthropology, and recaptures the vision of the medieval cosmos. —Austin Hoffman
Owen Barfield said, “What [Lewis] thought about everything was secretly present in what he wrote about anything.” … He is the prime example of a classical education that has been baptized into the Christian faith and dynamically employed into the service of God. —Devin O’Donnell
III ALDUS HUXLEY
BRAVE NEW WORLD
Among 20th-century dystopias, this one stands alone as the most prescient. From Neil Postman:
“Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity, and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture … . In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.” —Joe Gerber
IV G. K. CHESTERTON
THE EVERLASTING MAN
These two books make theology and his- tory come alive in a dynamic, life-chang- ing way. Few books possess their degree of intellectual insight combined with razor-sharp wit! —Louis Markos
V ALEKSANDR SOLZHENITSYN
THE GULAG ARCHIPELAGO
Solzhenitsyn wrote with a moral force unequaled in the 20th century. Many in the West cozied up to communism and Stalin’s totalitarianism in the first half of the century, but after “Gulag” was published, the lid was off, the truth was told, and there was no turning back—at least for those with eyes to see. Eerily hopeful, brutal, and beautiful, one is stunned by the juxtaposition of absolute cruelty and tender compassion in these true stories. Gulags and secret police, or something like them, is what you get with governments that reject the transcendent and do not comprehend human nature. —Scott Taylor
VI FRANCIS SCHAEFFER
THE GOD WHO IS THERE
An astute analysis of cultural decline.
VII JAQUES BARZUN
FROM DAWN TO DECADENCE
A most impressive sweep of cultural history from the early Renaissance to the modern world. —Robert Woods
VIII RUSSELL KIRK
ROOTS OF AMERICAN ORDER
EDMUND BURKE: A GENIUS RECONSIDERED
This excerpt from the foreward of The Roots of American Order says it best: “His work has a peculiar quality of being simultaneously timeless and ever timely, at once transcendent and relevant.” —Anonymous
IX T. S. ELIOT
“The Waste Land” and “Four Quartets” both capture the spirit of modernity so well and in the mode proper to modernity. The latter poem brings Christian truth to bear
on that reality. Eliot also engages in a rich conversation with many literary texts from the Western canon. —Andrew Selby
X JOHN STEINBECK
EAST OF EDEN
A modern Cain and Abel story that exemplifies the human condition.
The gateway to the Great Books of the Western World, it captures the major ideas, stories, and discoveries that helped shape Western culture.
What makes a “Great Book”?
Mortimer Adler and his team of scholars dedicated themselves to the pursuit of preserving the greatest of our ideas. Find out more: Great Books… Great to whom? And why it matters.
Find specific definitions here (PDF): Great Ideas from Mortimer Adler
What are the ranking criteria?
For this list, works must lead in being a “Great Book” as defined here. They must engage the world in such a way that ideas impact the Great Conversation over time and reflect the Great Ideas, promote ideas prescient for the times and important in how they play out, be revered among other worthy thinkers, be influential over time, and speak to the transcendent human condition.