A Classic Canon

What classics should we study?

The great works of literature offer lessons that are universal in scope. Questions that everyone grapples with at some time or other. But which classics?

A classic should be something that has stood the test of time and that has appeal to various cultures around the world. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series certainly has been popular, but it’s only been out for a decade or so. Works that retain their appeal over centuries are likely to have insight that is less bound by their time and place and be truly universal in scope.

I like to define a classic as a book that you’ve re-read and from which you learn something new each time you open it. But a superior book will engage people from all walks of life—rich or poor, urban or rural, European or Asian or African. Only a truly noteworthy work can do that.

So, on to my list: the Bible, of course, along with Homer, Virgil, and Dante. These are all from classical antiquity or the renaissance and include prose, poetry, and instruction. Most importantly, they all tell stories. Our brains are hard-wired to think in terms of narratives. The great stories these great works greatly tell inspire us all to greatness.

One final author must be on this list: Shakespeare. It’s been said that Shakespeare invented what it means to be human in the modern sense. That may be going too far. But it is true that the Bard of Avon has been translated into almost as many languages across almost as many cultures as the Bible. And his stories shape how we think today.

This list includes authors from three continents writing over the course of 3000 years. They’re not easy to get through. But the insight they offer is worth the effort.

Douglas R. Tengdin, CFA

Chief Investment Officer

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