Eight Writings Everyone Should Read Before The Age Of Twenty

Image of Daniel Chester French's 1904 Bronze, "Labor Reading"

Photo by takomabibelot

Education rewards its possessors with freedom of the mind as well as success in the marketplace. Nothing adds to a life like opening the doors of the brain and allowing ideas to enter and state their cases. The personal benefits of education are multiple. Learning brings self-satisfaction as well as respect in the community, and financial rewards usually follow.
On a societal level, the advantages of education are equally striking. Advanced reading levels produce smaller families, higher-quality lifestyles, and improved thinking that advances communities. Bequeathing financial assets to progeny is an admirable goal, but providing knowledge that allows offspring to thrive independently is an even finer end.
Everyone has a fundamental right to access the greatest works written. This requires more than simply making the great books available through libraries, bookstores, and booksellers’ websites. We must also encourage their inclusion in high-school and college curricula. Reading is important, but reading the right words is crucial to our advancement.
When students reach academic impasses, one temptation is to direct them to vocational programs whose curricula are in line with what they may end up doing in the workplace. A surreptitious way of couching this caste-forming concept is to offer a “vocational option” as if it were a different-but-equal career path, like choosing between nursing and architecture.
Nothing could be further from the truth, and few ideas are more stratifying and unfair. All persons have an inherent right to read and discuss the classics, which after all, stand as the last bastion between them and slavery. The ideas propounded in those works, if properly understood by a critical mass of citizens, will protect them far more certainly than a command of the skills of any trade. Everyone must know enough about the theoretical underpinnings of society to be able to discuss its tenets and act (vote, sit on juries, obey laws, run for office, dissent, emigrate) accordingly.
Many wonderful writings exist that contribute positively to the advancement of a liberal education. Reading such works should be a goal for all of us, and doing so is a lifetime endeavor that we must encourage one another to adopt.
Some of these works, however, make such dramatic contributions to our lives that they should be required reading before leaving school. I would like to suggest eight masterpieces that every American should read before reaching the age of twenty:

1. Dialogue Concerning The Two Chief World Systems, by Galileo Galilei

Image of statue of Galileo at Galileo's tomb

Photo by Stefano Costantini

This fine book is a delectable repast for students’ intellectual tables. The simplicity and elegance of the mathematical and geometrical principles upon which Galileo expounds both delight and inform the reader. His use of dialogue among Salviati, Sagredo, and Simplicio makes for easy and entertaining reading. Geometry is part of most high-school curricula, and no student should pass through that portal without reading and discussing this important work.

2. Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography

Image of a photo of Benjamin Franklin, modeled about 1906, marble by William Couper

Photo by cliff1066TM

This autobiography deserves attention for several reasons. First, it is reputed to be the most important autobiography ever written. Second, the style is that of an experienced writer who is able to express himself efficiently, lucidly, and gracefully. Third, Franklin describes his development as a highly motivated and disciplined person, and his success in the private and public sectors of his time comes as no surprise to the reader. In addition, he lays out thirteen virtues that he believes will assist their practitioners to become better human beings.

3. Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin

Image of statue of Charles Darwin

Photo by Ed Uthman

From time to time, I engage in conversation with people about the theory of evolution. The discussion is usually dissatisfying, because most of them have never read the main treatise on the subject—Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species.
I shall not delve into the arguments made in those encounters, but I will say that I have been dismayed by folks who opine on evolution and expound on Darwin’s theory while knowing absolutely nothing about the topic. Now, when I discover that the person has not read the book, I simply change the subject.

4. The Federalist Papers, by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay

Image of a statue of Alexander Hamilton

Photo by dbking

The founding fathers of the United States of America were exceptional men who acted exceptionally in exceptional times. The result of their efforts was the United States Constitution, a document that stands out in history as a turning point in the development of civilization. The Federalist Papers is a series of essays written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay with the goal of promoting the Constitution’s ratification. No high-school curriculum is complete without it.

5. The History of Civilization in Europe, by François Guizot

Image of a map of Europe in the year 1200.

Photo by Christos Nussli

This fascinating book, which comprises a series of fourteen lectures given by François Guizot in Paris in 1828, is credited with being the best general history of Europe ever written. The lecture format lends itself well to classroom study and discussion, and the clarity of the writing and synthesis of the ideas make it especially attractive for students in their late teens.

6. Letter from the Birmingham City Jail, by Martin Luther King

Image of Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial -- The Mall Washington (DC)

Photo by Ron Cogswell

No liberal course of study is complete without reading and discussing the letter written by Martin Luther King while he was incarcerated in Birmingham, Alabama. The historical propriety, the succinctness of the writing, and the extraordinary equilibrium of the author make it an easy choice for social-science classrooms in the United States. The point of studying it is not only to raise students’ consciousnesses regarding the undeniable wrongs referred to in the piece, but also to impress upon them the fairness and balance that a few great leaders are able to acquire.

7. Crito, by Plato

Image of a painting of Plato and Aristotle walking and conversing.

Photo by Image Editor

This short piece consists of a dialogue between Socrates and his good friend Crito and argues in favor of obeying the rule of law. On the day before Socrates’ execution, Crito visits him in jail and tries to persuade him to escape. After presenting an argument that favors adherence to laws once one has submitted to the system that creates them, Socrates refuses to go.
Whether teacher or student agrees that someone who has acquiesced to the laws of a place must always obey them is immaterial. The dialogue presents an excellent starting point for a discussion of the pros and cons of following the law when it appears to work unjustly in an individual case.

8. The Campaigns of Alexander (the Great), by Arrian

Image of a statue of Alexander the Great on his horse.

Photo by Tilemahos_E

In the study of the development of civilization, dates carry some importance. An exact date is usually of little consequence, but knowing rough dates (sometimes the century is sufficient) of selected lives and events is helpful.
For instance, it is useful to know that Socrates lived in the second half of the fifth century B.C., that Plato was his student, that Aristotle was Plato’s student, and that Alexander the Great was Aristotle’s student. Together, these four important lives form a reference point in history that, once learned, orients students with respect to other historical events that take place around that time.
This is only one of the reasons that Arrian’s fine work chronicling the expedition of Alexander is important. The book is not long and is written in language simple and direct enough for high-school students to read and digest. Alexander’s campaigns are exciting, and this reading experience will help students overcome misgivings about studying the works of antiquity.


In selecting this short list of readings for students in their late teens, I have used several criteria. First, the work must have made a significant contribution to the development of civilization. Second, the piece must be written simply enough for young minds to comprehend. Third, it must capture the interest of students who do not have a lot of other preparation. Fourth, it must have stood the test of time. (I have made an exception on this point for Martin Luther King’s letter.)

This reading list is not exhaustive. In the future, I shall present additional nonfiction lists as well as lists of important works of fiction.

Sixteen Qualities Of A Good Teacher

15 comments… add one

  • Andrea January 28, 2012 at 6:03 am

    Thank you for the list. These books seem wonderful, and I’m sure the local library must have them all…. I think I’ll start with Benjamin Franklin’s biography. He was so many things.. He gave us the lightning rod, wrote a book on maritime tides, modified a fireplace for more efficiency, designed the bifocal eyeglasses, was postmaster I think at one time, or maybe firechief, or both?!, he was a diplomat, designed a musical instrument…. I’m looking forward already to his book 🙂

    Reply edit
  • Doug Eikermann January 28, 2012 at 9:27 am

    Franklin’s work is an excellent choice! After that, you might want to try Galileo’s Dialogue. It’s easy to read and has an analytical core that I think you will appreciate. Thanks for reading the piece and commenting, Andrea!

    Reply edit
  • Steve Seibel January 28, 2012 at 8:53 am

    Everything you’re saying here, Doug, is true and thought-provoking.

    However, as an unscheduled early-retiree (not to mention white and male) I feel somewhat betrayed by the educational “system.” We have two successful daughters who really don’t understand my situational feelings — while we continue paying off their college degrees.

    I’m wondering if any others in our generation (make that classmates of ’70 at BHS) are feeling the same sort of generational disconnect.

    Reply edit
  • Doug Eikermann January 28, 2012 at 9:35 am

    It’s great to hear from you, Steve! No doubt many others feel the same way. Affluence and success can sometimes cause folks lose contact with the real things that got them where they are. The educational system is part of the problem and could become part of the solution. Thanks for reading and commenting!

    Reply edit
  • Katie Wilkerson January 28, 2012 at 10:38 am

    Excellent list! I have read two of these so now shall further my knowledge with the rest. This came at a perfect time when my daughter will be graduating from high school, I too believe I will start her with the readings by Benjamin Franklin. Thank you Doug!

    Reply edit
  • Allie Kay Spaulding January 30, 2012 at 10:31 pm

    Hi, Doug,

    Great list of readings, even for people somewhat over 20. I must confess I’ve read only one of them, but I have a brand-new Kindle, so…off I go!! Wonderful to get to know you better as an adult. Love to your mom. Allie Kay

    Reply edit
  • Doug Eikermann January 31, 2012 at 9:50 pm

    It’s never too late, and these works merit several readings in a lifetime anyway. Good luck with your Kindle. I’ve been using mine a lot recently, but the books I want are not always available for Kindle. Thanks for reading the article and for making your comment.

    Reply edit
  • Sharon January 31, 2012 at 12:44 am

    Thanks Doug! I appreciate having a roadmap to aid in covering this material. I’m thinking I’ll start with The History of Civilization and from there pick up on The Campaigns of Alexander; hopefully by summer I’ll be through the list. This is also useful to pass on to grandchildren. I look forward to seeing the other works of non fiction and fiction you present. I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin again a few months ago and was struck with how this work resonates even today, though written in the 1850’s. Keep writing!

    Reply edit
  • Doug Eikermann January 31, 2012 at 9:54 pm

    That’s an ambitious reading schedule, Sharon, but if anyone can do it, you can. Thanks for your encouragement and support!

    Reply edit
  • Ann January 31, 2012 at 9:27 pm

    Thanks for the thoughtful list of readings. I will begin with MLK and pass along this article to teachers and parents who will be grateful. Along with the appeal for interest with the students, I like the point you make of time-tested works. As to the comment of generational understanding, we just need to keep our communications going so our kids remember.

    Reply edit
  • Doug Eikermann January 31, 2012 at 10:02 pm

    I thought you might like to encourage the folks at Alvin Ailey to incorporate the reading of Martin Luther King’s letter, or excerpts from it, into the summer-camp curriculum. Thanks for reading the article and for commenting.

    Reply edit
  • Marc G. February 2, 2012 at 7:30 am

    Great list Doug! I’ll have to read these as well! I will encourage my 14 yr old to read them.

    Reply edit
  • Doug Eikermann February 3, 2012 at 5:15 pm

    Thanks, Marc! These works may be a bit advanced for a 14 year old, but you could try The Campaigns of Alexander to see if it works. If not, waiting a couple of years might be a good idea. If kids read these works when they’re too young, they might get turned off, unless they read them under the supervision of a good teacher. Thanks for commenting. It’s good to hear from you.

    Reply edit
  • Mike February 3, 2012 at 8:17 am

    These writing is must read for everyone not just those before age of twenty. Of course it would be better to read then but not everyone understands these books at that time and they call them lame and over the years they realize that how useful these writings were for them
    Mike recently posted..Samsung Confirms Galaxy S3 DelayMy Profile

    Reply edit
  • Doug Eikermann February 3, 2012 at 6:05 pm

    I completely agree, Mike! Everyone should read these works, no matter what their ages. It would be better, though, if they did so early in order to digest them, reread them, and put the principles into practice. Young people who read them should do so in school under the supervision of a teacher, and that’s what I propose in the article. The readings are not difficult, but some people in their teens may find them challenging to read alone. Thanks for reading the article and for commenting!

    Reply edit

Leave a Comment

CommentLuv badge