Ten Best: Important books I’ve never read

by Brian Clarey

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare

As everybody knows, this Wednesday marks UNESCO’s International Day of the Book – the day both William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes died in 1616. In honor of this, I’d like to list some of history’s most important works of literature that I have never read. Let’s start with the Bard. Sure, I’ve read a couple of the basics, and in fifth grade my class put on a production of Twelfth Night, but I’ve barely scratched the surface on this guy’s body of work.

The Canterbury Tales; by Geoffrey Chaucer

Chaucer’s Middle English collection about a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket in Canterbury is a seminal work in the British canon. And I believe Chaucer made up all of the spelling as he went along, but I wouldn’t know, as I’ve never read the whole thing.

The Prince; by Niccoló Machiavelli

Prince Machiavelli – the actual guy, not the cheesy ’70s cologne – composed a treatise on the art of manipulating the masses back in Florence during the Renaissance. He was a pragmatist, theorizing that the sanctity and prosperity of the state needed to be maintained, with the absolute goal of holding on to power. He never fully pierces the love/fear relationship a leader must have over his subjects, but otherwise it’s a fascinating read. Or so I’ve heard.

The Divine Comedy, by Dante Alighieri

Man, this is one book I really haven’t read. I didn’t even realize that “The Inferno” is only the first canticle of this larger work, written way back in the 14th century. I didn’t even know what a canticle is! I mean, I get it… hell has circles and each one is worse than the next, or something. Enough to make an exclamation in a bar – This place is like the third circle of hell, like that – but certainly not any real understanding of the book.

Moby Dick; by Herman Mellville

This may be the greatest book I’ve never read. And it’s not totally my fault. In the summer of 1993 I found a paperback copy at my grandmother’s house and fell right into it, but it was so old the pages fell out as I turned them, and when I placed it on my nightstand all the leaves fell out in a musty-smelling avalanche. Fifteen years later I still haven’t managed to secure another copy.

Walden; by Henry David Thoreau

Yeah, that groundbreaking volume, both of its time and yet centuries ahead of it, famously written during Thoreau’s two-year, two-month and two-day stay at his cabin on Walden Pond? The one that explores eternal themes and concisely documents the eternal human struggle? That every human should probably read during adolescence as a rite of passage? Yeah… never read it.

On the Origin of Species; by Charles Darwin

I know it, I love it, I live it. I see natural selection and evolution around me all the time, and the principle is something that helps me understand the world. Or so I assume. Because I’ve never read Darwin’s work on the mechanics of life. I read Galapagos, by Kurt Vonnegut. Does that count for anything?

War and Peace; by Leo Tolstoy

Let me get this straight: Fifteen-hundred pages? Nope, I never read this one and, honestly, it’s probably not gonna happen. I couldn’t even finish reading the list of characters – I stopped at 71, just after the Ns. Sorry Leo; maybe I’ll get the book on tape if I ever drive to the North Pole and back.

In Cold Blood; by Truman Capote

I know: You would think I’d have read this one by now, but I haven’t. I haven’t read “parts” of it or seen the movie, either. I haven’t even seen “parts” of the movie. But it is definitely on my short list. Which is actually starting to look pretty long.

Ulysses; by James Joyce

I believe I tried to read Joyce’s 2,500-word masterpiece sometime during the mid-eighties, but I could be thinking of Trinity, by Leon Uris. It matters not, for I have read neither one to completion. Wow. Writing this list was kind of liberating, but I’m starting to feel like I should get my ass over to the library.