In the past I’ve resisted the idea of making lists of recommended books. One gets the sense that the instant something is committed to a list, many will assume that the list is exclusive, and that other options should not be considered. There is also a personal feeling of distaste I have towards the “listicle” writing format: it seems trite, simplistic, and geared towards the lowest attention span reader.
Yet there is some value in compiling these types of lists. Many readers are simply looking for a place to begin; lost in the vast wilderness of sub-standard material, they only want to get their bearings. There is so much content—most of it middling content—in the world that without some guidance, a young reader’s aspirations will be dashed against the vast and treacherous shoals of bad books. But it is important to state at the outset what this article is not. It is not meant to be a comprehensive list of every recommended book a young man should investigate. Rather, this list is intended to serve as an appetite-whetting invitation to further reading; it is a sign-post along the road. It is also a very personal list. The books described below may, or may not, qualify as timeless classics: it does not matter. They are books that influenced me personally, and helped fire my imagination. I urge readers to make up their own lists using similar criteria. Neither are the books listed below presented in any ordered ranking; they are simply presented.
The Hero From Otherwhere by Jay Williams. I read this book when I was in grade school and its story has stayed with me ever since. It combines themes of fraternal bonding, a shared quest, danger, adventure, exploration, and suspense to produce a truly brilliant story. Williams draws on Celtic and Norse mythology for a story’s background, but these themes are updated with great originality. Two boys of opposing temperament—one a thin, scrappy redhead, the other a taciturn athlete—are natural antagonists. Sent one day to the principal’s office for fighting, the two of them are transported into a parallel universe, summoned by mysterious forces. They are enlisted in a quest to slay a giant wolf named Fenris that terrorizes the land. The quest is accepted, and the boys share all kinds of vivid adventures: an encounter with a hermit swordsman, a period of employment with a sinister professor of “screaming,” a sojourn to a mountain crag, and the like.
Shockingly the book seems to be out of print, so finding affordable copies will not be easy. You will have to be creative. And it is unbelievable to me that it has never been filmed or turned into a television miniseries.
King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard. It would be difficult to name a more compelling and classic tale of adventure. After coming into possession of a treasure map gifted by a dying Portuguese explorer, three swashbuckling Britons join together on an expedition to find the fabled diamond mines of King Solomon. But the mines are not located in the Middle East; they are situated in the heart of Africa, a land that in Haggard’s day was far less known than it is now. This book has it all: elephant hunts, daring escapes, brutal fights (a king is beheaded with an axe in personal combat), riches, and the lure of the unknown. Haggard gives us all of this, with such a direct style that we are tempted to pull our khaki trousers and tunic and join in the expedition. Haggard wrote two other books connected to African exploration, She and Allan Quatermain. Both of them are worth reading, although She is the better work.
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. One can never go wrong with Dickens. His novels feature characters that are so vivid, and so memorable, that they never escape memory. And there is something about this book that touches a nerve. The book’s story spans years; it is an honest reckoning of how a boy grew to manhood, what people had the most influence on his life, and how he weaved his way—often clumsily and haltingly—through life’s journey. In many ways Great Expectations is a meditation on the passage of time, on the immutability of virtue, and on the permanence of noble actions. More than any other Dickens novel, this is a work of human philosophy, a chronicle of the darkest and noblest aspirations of the soul. The original text might be too difficult for very young readers. If this is the case, there is nothing wrong with using an abridged edition. Oliver Twist is another highly recommended novel; but there is darkness in this book, a palpable weight of evil in some of the major characters. So be it. The sooner a boy learns of this reality, the better.
A good anthology of Greek and Roman classical mythology. There are many of these on the market, and I will leave readers to select their own. I myself favor the anthologies of Edith Hamilton for their erudition and enthusiasm for the material, but other readers may have their own preferences. The stories of Jason and the Argonauts, the fall of Troy, the labors of Hercules, the loves and quarrels of the Olympian gods—are not these, and many other myths, some of the greatest achievements of the Western imagination? Knowing classical mythology—just as knowing Biblical lore—is an essential part of one’s humanistic education. It will pay great dividends when one begins to study art and literature, which is filled with mythological references.
Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl. An inspiring true account of how one rebellious Norwegian thought up an idea and had the audacity to risk his life in testing it. Heyerdahl in the late 1940s proposed that the South Seas had been settled by native Americans who had sailed there is great balsa rafts in prehistoric times. No one took him seriously, so he assembled a team of renegades like himself, went to Peru, built a raft, and sailed it to Micronesia. The fact that ethnologists have since refuted his thesis—DNA evidence shows that Polynesia was not settled from South America—makes no difference, for this is a wonderful tale of daring and courage. We need more men like this today.
The Time Machine by H.G. Wells. This was Wells’s first novel (perhaps more accurately, novella) and remains his most profound. There is just something about this little book. It mixes what would become Wellesian trademarks: visionary scientific speculation, a concern for social evils, a sense of loss, and a magnificent ability to sustain suspense.
Outline of History by H.G. Wells. This was one of the first of the “outline” type of books that would become so popular in the first half of the twentieth century. But is there anyone who can write as engagingly as H.G. Wells? He begins at the dawn of time and traces man’s social, political, military, and artistic development over many centuries, bringing the story down to the early twentieth century. It may be “dated” in that sense, but there is more than enough here to keep the reader interested. Sprinkled throughout are Wells’s pungent comments. If I had to recommend one work of general history to a young (or even an old) reader, this would be it.
The Lost World by A. Conan Doyle. This was first published serially in 1912, and describes an expedition to a remote South American plateau where prehistoric animals still thrive. This book may be credited with inventing a new subgenre of science fiction. We know the story is preposterous, but it’s hard to complain when the tale is told with such thrilling gusto. Unless we can inspire our boys with a sense of daring adventure, we cannot hope to awaken the nobler aspects of their spirits. Discovery, adventure, and exploration are the keys that help unlock the secrets of character which, as we know, play such an important role in life.
Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson. A better and more satisfying work than Stevenson’s Treasure Island, this book recounts a young man’s betrayal and attempted kidnapping by his scheming uncle, who has much to lose should the young man inherit what is rightfully his. The friendship of the narrator with the swashbuckling Scotsman Alan Breck Stewart is one of the great partnerships of adventure literature. The scenes are so vividly drawn that one can taste the salty, peaty tang of the Highlands in every page.
The Count of Monte Christo by Alexandre Dumas. This is one instance where a young reader would be better served with an abridged edition than with the full, unabridged novel, which is extremely long and contains far too many digressions. Dumas was not known for his focused writing, but here he hits gold. This epic tale of betrayal, revenge, and the pitiless passage of time never loses its luster, or its power to make the reader’s blood boil in righteous anger.
The Call of the Wild by Jack London. Another novel that will never lose its luster. It is essentially a tale of an inexperienced youth’s awakening to the realities of the world, and this is what has made it a perennial favorite for over a century. A pampered dog is kidnapped and forced to “learn the ropes” as a hard-driving sled dog in the cold North.
The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne. This fascinating tale follows the adventures of five Union army soldiers who escape from a Confederate prison in a hot-air balloon (a novelty at the time). After landing on a island, they soon quickly learn that survival is now a full-time occupation. It was the film version of this book that aroused my interest as a boy; and the book turned out to be just as good.
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. What more be said about this timeless classic, surely one of the greatest novels of all time, which seamlessly blends adventure, confessional reflection, and intense spirituality into one magnificent tale of incremental mastery over one’s environment?
Education of a Wandering Man by Louis L’Amour. This is the personal memoir of famed Western writer Louis L’Amour. He takes us from his early beginnings, through his experiences as an itinerant laborer, a soldier, and then finally as a writer. It is all laid out with such honesty and lack of pretention that we cannot help but admire L’Amour, even if we are not enthusiasts of the Western genre.
This, then, is my personal list of good books for boys. But they are not exclusively suitable for boys; readers of any age may read them with profit. In fact, it is good to re-read these classics at different points in one’s life, and reflect on one’s changed perspectives. Doubtless this will infuriate some, and mystify others; but no matter what the reaction may be, I will consider myself successful if just one of these books inspires some young spirit to set his sights on conquering the unknown.
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