Some of the readers here may know that I’m in the middle of writing The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, the latest in the series by Regnery.  (If you have any suggestions, warnings, requests, heads-ups, by all means send them along; part of the appeal of such books is their debunking of commonly knowledge that happens not to be true.  I have a very nice "adjustment" of our view of the great but irascible Galileo, written by an admirer of his named Einstein.  Also a nice refutation of the "fact" that the Christians hijacked an old pagan holiday for Christmas; you see what I mean.)

     In any case, the project has plunged me back into books I haven’t read in a long time, and that’s been really refreshing.  It has occurred to me that old books have their own sort of stock market.  For several centuries, stock in John Donne was about a penny a poem, then Coleridge bought a little, and T. S. (Kingmaker) Eliot bought a lot, and Donne surged to the heights of the Poetry 500 list, though in recent years he’s begun to fade a bit.  Byron stock was untouchable throughout the nineteenth century, particularly in Deutschland, but now he’s a good buy and ready for some reevaluation.

     So that has set me to wondering if I could come up with a top 20 list of great underrated or underread books.  The problem these days would be in limiting them to 20.  My criterion is not greatness simply, or oblivion, but the degree to which a book has been neglected and doesn’t deserve to be.  Here’s the list:

20. Plutarch, Lives.  The old educational staple; even newspapermen used to know a little about what Plutarch said about Pericles or Fabius Maximus.  You can hardly find a clearer and quicker introduction into how the ancient Romans and Greeks lived and thought.

19. Samuel Johnson, Rasselas.  Voltaire’s Candide is as inferior to this book in thought and feeling as it is the more famous.  Johnson is to Voltaire as the wise is to the wiseacre.

18. Joseph Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture.  A neglected critique of modernity from an oddly lyrical Thomist angle.  It’s a book that can help change your life.

17. Italo Calvino, Cosmicomics.  A series of witty meditations upon modern science, Marx, Freud, Darwin, you name it, from the point of view of a very Italian narrator who was there when it happened — the Big Bang, the Last of the Dinosaurs, the condensation of the galaxies.

16. Francois Mauriac, Viper’s Tangle.  Flannery O’Connor in France.

15. Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit.  This novel falls between the cracks.  It is too late for the zany semi-novelistic embracing of all things strange and wonderful — it isn’t Pickwick, and it isn’t Nicholas Nickleby.  It’s too early for the brooding masterpieces, like Bleak House and Dombey and Son.  Still, it is a great book with memorable characters: the drunken nurse Sairy Gamp, the "spiritual" hypocrite Mr. Pecksniff, the cheerful Calvinist with a bad conscience, Mark Tapley.  And it’s his only novel set partly in America.

14. The Book of Wisdom.  Johannine theology, 150 years before the Gospel of John.  It’s a fascinating challenge to the Greek world: if you want Wisdom, we know not just where you need to go, but to whom.

13. Henryk Sienkiewicz, By Fire and Sword, The Deluge, Pan Michael.  A trilogy of novels about the Polish defense of Europe in the late 1600’s; the account of the miracle at Krasna Gorya (spelling?) is unforgettable.

12. Sigrid Undset, The Master of Hestviken.  Every bit as powerful as the far better known Kristin Lavransdatter.

11. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France.  I’m not sure that this book is genuinely neglected, but it was so prescient, and it examines so shrewdly the worth of tradition and hierarchy, that I feel it deserves a place on the list.  It is balm for all those who detest grand intellectual systems for reconstructing human relations.

10. Torquato Tasso, Jerusalem Delivered.  It’s the greatest literary work of the Catholic Reformation; it tells the story of the storming of Jerusalem in the First Crusade.  Doesn’t apologize for it, either.

9. Robert Browning, The Ring and the Book.  The masterpiece of twelve dramatic monologues by the man who perfected the genre.

8. Ludovico Ariosto, Orlando Furioso.  A mad Italian romp across the continents — knights in wild search of fancy helmets, beautiful maidens from China, glory in battle, Hector’s armor, flying horses, and whatnot.  Once upon a time, like Tasso, read by everybody.  Particularly by Cervantes; without Ariosto, there’s no Don Quixote.

7. John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice.  Actually, any of four or five works by Ruskin could qualify here.  He can veer into sentimentality, but there was no Victorian who knew better the playfulness of the Gothic, and none who saw more clearly what was lost, if much was gained, by the Industrial Revolution.

6. The Quest of the Holy Grail.  Not the account in Malory, but one of his sources, written in Old French by a Cistercian monk.  A great tale told superbly, and with profound theological insights into sin and repentance, and the mysteries of what eye hath not seen, nor tongue uttered.

5. Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale.  If you want the single most stunning final scene in the history of theater — and a coup de theatre unlike any other — this play delivers it.  If you have a heart, be ready to feel it wrung.  Similar to the far better known Tempest, but in some ways superior to it, and more ambitious.

4. The United States Constitution.  No comment.

3. Pearl.  This poem, the greatest in English for sheer technical virtuosity, is also a moving narrative meditation on death and bereavement, and hope in the Lamb.  Read it in the original if you can work through the crazy Midlands dialect; otherwise the Marie Borroff translation is the one to get.

2. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Idiot.  This novel seems to have become the forgotten one of the Great Five (Brothers K, Crime and Punishment, Notes, Devils).  That’s too bad; it can hold its own with the greatest works of just about anybody not named Dostoyevsky.

1. Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene.  C. S. Lewis: "I never met a man who said he used to like The Faerie Queene."  It’s the longest poem in English (26,000 lines), possibly the greatest (Paradise Lost and The Canterbury Tales are the only competitors), and by no means an easy read for us nowadays.  Hawthorne used to read it to his daughters by the fireside, but that was back in the day when people enjoyed poetry.  The poem is about — what is it not about?  Love, sex, the body, the soul, the nation, the Christian faith, matter and spirit, justice, courtesy, time and eternity.  It has the greatest ending of any poem I have ever read — almost an ending fit for all poetry, the end of ends. 

     Naturally, I’ve indulged some idiosyncrasies here.  Do you have any other candidates?