My canon of the very best books that help us understand our humanity would contain no surprises. But Brad Birzer has said he wants to add to his reading list, so allow me to suggest some works that are instructive for reasons quite different from those of the recognized classics.
I Am Legend by Richard Matheson – It’s an untrue truism that good monster stories are really about humanity, but this one is, albeit in an unexpected way. Matheson’s novella has been filmed many times; the only cinematic treatment worth catching is the 1971 Charlton Heston version, “The Omega Man.” I would go so far as to argue that I Am Legend has inspired even more films than is commonly thought, since the mood and menace of “Night of the Living Dead” owe almost everything to this book. But what do zombies—or vampires, in the book—tell us about being human? The answer lies in the twist ending, which I won’t give away. Suffice to say the story viscerally confronts us with how purblind our self-understanding can be.
Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh – His first and by no means his best novel, but it captures so much of the human experience: how it feels to be young, to be at once ambitious and fearful for one’s career, to suffer reversal and suddenly achieve one’s dreams. Possibility, uncertainty, love. You could give this to a Martian and he would begin to understand what these human beings are like.
Culture and Anarchy by Matthew Arnold – An obvious one, and one that won’t add to Brad’s reading list, but it has yet to be mentioned and deserves to be. Being human does not mean being a zealot, a philistine, or a mass man of the “populace,” and being an aristocrat means little if you are a cultural barbarian. Knowledge of “the best that has been thought and said” deepens our humanity and points the way toward reconciling otherwise intractable divisions of class, sect, and politics.
The Family and Civilization by Carle Zimmerman – Prose in places as wooden as an old Viking longboat doesn’t undercut what is still perhaps the best scholarly treatment of family life in the West. Its forms and guiding principles—in particular the contrasting policies of familism and legal individualism—have changed many times over the centuries, but the family has remained the bedrock of human existence. ISI Books produced a condensed edition of this long, and long out-of-print, 1947 classic in 2007. To turn to these pages after reading anything of today’s marriage battles and culture skirmishes is like walking into an IMAX theater after watching a tabletop TV set.
The Immortalization Commission by John Gray – This book presents two beautifully written case studies in an idea often (but incorrectly) attributed to G.K. Chesterton: “When men stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing. They believe in anything.” The “psychical researchers” of late Victorian England had lost their Christianity and sought a pseudoscientific faith—complete with afterlife and Messiah—instead. A little later, the Russia’s Bolsheviks intended to become god-makers and raise the mummified Lenin from the dead. The human desire for transcendence and meaning is on full display here. Gray doesn’t know what conclusions to draw, but the evidence is powerful in itself.
Rousseau and Romanticism by Irving Babbitt – This book, too, looks at what happens to human nature when it’s severed from an institutional grounding in a transcendent order. Once the self-making and world-making ego is emancipated, it has a difficult time finding virtue in a mean between the excesses of formalism or classicism on the one hand and romanticism and feeling on the other. Babbitt comprehends the appeal, and danger, of both extremes.
The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq – The author is provocateur and a pervert, and his later work—what I’ve read of it—doesn’t stand up. But The Elementary Particles is a brilliant exploration of modern man’s predicament: modernity fails to satisfy his nature even as it empowers that nature as never before with technology and wealth. Where can this end? With disillusionment—“depressive lucidity”—and the extinction of the human race.
Reflections on History by Jacob Burckhardt – The work is also known as Force and Freedom, with an introduction by James Hastings Nichols that’s a small masterpiece in its own right. Man is a historical being, and the work of movement through history, at its finest, is a civilization. But flawed creature that he is, man possess within himself the forces that will unwind all he has created. Burckhardt’s brilliance as a historian is one thing; but the character and sensibility of the man that comes through in his writing is an even more important contribution to a liberal and humanizing education.
Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays by Michael Oakeshott – The cure for homo ideologicus. Not everything in life or politics is about achieving an end or maximizing utility; the sense that life is to be lived, rather than regimented toward some supreme effort, is found in many of Oakeshotts works, including two essays (one included here) titled “The Tower of Babel.”
With Charity Toward None: A Fond Look at Misanthropy by Florence King – This is where you risk winding up if you think too much about what human beings mean.