1) My Antonia, by Willa Cather: Cather’s story of immigrants and the land celebrates the surprising inner strength of one young woman who learns to cultivate the earth, while many who lack her fortitude succumb to the trials of frontier life or give in to their own weak wills.
2) Soldier of the Great War, by Mark Helprin: A modern lyrical epic that explores the height of comedy and the depth of tragedy as one man battles the unjust and the ridiculous in his search for self, love, and the good life.
3) The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene: A sinful priest in Mexico struggles to escape his vocation during a time of persecution, but cannot ignore the simple faith and devotion of the common folk who need him to bring them the sacraments.
4) East of Eden, by John Steinbeck: This beautiful and deeply uncomfortable novel examines the impact of a depraved individual on several families, as well as illustrating the timeless plot line of Creation / Fall / Redemption over several generations.
5) Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson: A quiet, reflective narrative written as an old pastor’s letter to his young son. This touching story focuses on friendship, memory, and the unique balance of temptation and grace experienced by spiritual leaders.
6) Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard: A series of non-fiction reflections on nature, birth, death, and miracles. This lovely books echos Thoreau’s Walden from time to time, but Dillard doesn’t insist on total independence from community, which makes Pilgrim much more palatable.
7) The Divine Comedy, by Dante Aligiheri: Nothing informs our understanding of what it means to be human so much as considering the journey of the immortal soul into Hell, Purgatory, or Paradise.
8) The Brother’s Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky: A gut-wrenching investigation of brokenness and community, this story examines a family of four very different men and their wildly varied life philosophies, leading the reader to understand that ideas have dramatic consequences.
9) Essays, by E.B. White: Simple, thought-provoking, and humorous, White’s collected essays contain his thoughts on everything from farm life to proper use of nuclear power. He’s adept at conveying common human experiences and revealing our true motives to ourselves.
10) Introduction to the Devout Life, by St. Francis de Sales: This guide to holy living by my gentle patron saint reminds me that being human and being good aren’t mutually exclusive. Out of this whole list, I think this book gives the most important insight because St. Francis knows that the more closely we imitate Christ, the more beautifully human we become.