teen Boy reading outside with his mom in winter

Bare Minimum Book List for High School


A Lamentably Incomplete List


This article and reading list accompanies Mrs. Eleanor Nicholson’s talk “Raising Virtuous Children in 10 Books” for the Virtual Catholic Homeschool Conference.

Teaching Virtue

Sacred Scripture, particularly the New Testament, is the unspoken presupposition for all of this. Jesus Christ articulated for us the operation of virtue in the moral life, and a living knowledge of His words will far outweigh even the most spectacular of book lists. Beyond this, in establishing a school of virtue, reading the entirety of the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas will not go amiss. For those of us (myself included) who cannot adequately digest so much brilliance, I recommend the beautiful and methodical writings of Servais Pinckaers, O.P., especially The Sources of Christian Ethics and The Pursuit of Happiness. For an excellent curriculum studying the virtues, I strongly recommend that produced by the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.

  • The Bible
  • St. Thomas Aquinas, The Summa, especially the Secunda Pars
  • Servais Pinckaers, O.P., The Sources of Christian Ethics & The Pursuit of Happiness
  • The Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, Education in Virtue series

The Ancients

A robust education in virtue requires knowledge of the classics. The depictions of virtue in Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey are vivid and intriguing. (The Trojan Prince Hector is the best, and someone should roundly kick Paris. Additionally, the anthropomorphized waywardness of the gods can be highly entertaining.) As noted in my talk, I highly recommend Sophocles’ The Three Theban Plays and Aeschylus’ Oresteia, and also urge reading of Virgil’s Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. These works are not only brilliant and rich, knowledge of these classical works pervades the canon. In fact, knowledge of classical mythology is a critical asset, especially when approaching subsequent movements in poetry. We cannot appreciate the rich Christianization of mythical impulses captured by Petrarch in his exquisite Rime Sparse without having read Ovid. How can we make sense of what that egotistical bounder Percy Bysshe Shelley desires to achieve in his Prometheus Unbound without reading Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound? When considering all of these classical texts, we can ask these questions: What was the classical understanding of virtue? In what is this understanding rooted? In what ways is it lacking? To ground these questions, we must not neglect the writings of Plato and Aristotle, especially as concerns poetry. The final book of Plato’s Republic is worthy of attention, and Aristotle’s On the Art of Poetry even more so.

  • Homer, The Iliad & The Odyssey
  • Sophocles, The Three Theban Plays
  • Aeschylus, Oresteia & Prometheus Bound
  • Virgil, Aeneid
  • Ovid, Metamorphoses
  • Plato, Republic
  •  Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics & On the Art of Poetry
  • (Wouldn’t hurt to read Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, too)
a teenager smiling

The Medieval Period

The heroic tones of works such as Beowulf and The Song of Roland, and, to an extent, various representatives of the Arthurian legends, will inspire some rich comparisons with classical epics and the system of virtues celebrated among ancient heroes. I must confess that I personally dislike the obsessive attention often devoted to things Arthurian, particularly since by the sixteenth century legend became a strong element in Tudor propaganda. It is, however, an interesting moment to see how Christian moral understanding is bent in the devising of chivalric romances. Nevertheless, we can see this lengthy period as a high point in moral understanding, especially shown in the moral clarity of Aquinas and his synthesis of Aristotle. We have gone beyond the classical understanding, setting the endeavor for human perfection and earthly happiness in the context of the only One Who is our source of Beatitude. (You also really ought to read St. Augustine’s Confessions, incidentally.) With this in mind, dive into the richness of Dante and the social complexities of Chaucer! What fascinating conversations will unfold! Read Thomas à Kempis to help us move into the next literary era, shored up by personal growth in virtue.

  • Augustine, Confessions
  • Beowulf
  • Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales
  • Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy
  • William Langland, Piers Plowman
  • The Song of Roland
  • Chrétien de Troyes, The Arthurian Romances
  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
  • Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur
  • Thomas à Kempis, Imitation of Christ & Imitation of Mary

The Renaissance

This period gives us many beautiful works, including the lyric poetry of Petrarch, but it also brings many troubles. Now the enduring tussle with humanism really commences. At its heart is the problem of divorcing theology once again from the question of moral action, re-elevating social and governmental powers as the authority for such questions. Inner turmoil is the result, and we can see this in some of the tortuous struggles of Dr. Faustus or the characters of William Shakespeare. Everyone should strive to watch (and participate in) as many adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays as possible. Neglect neither the comedies nor the tragedies and make special study of the histories while you’re at it! In teaching Shakespeare, I recommend several additional resources: Ken Ludwig’s How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare, the writings of Joseph Pearce on the Bard, and the Playing Shakespeare series produced by the Royal Shakespeare Society in the 1980s. For the Tudor propaganda machine mentioned above in the discussion of Arthurian romance, see Spencer. If you want critically to pursue the path of non-virtue in this moment, read Machiavelli’s The Prince and Josephine Tey’s detective novel The Daughter of Time so you can judge the perfidy of the Tudors in true style. The heroism of the English martyrs during this period has special resonance for me, and I recommend both the historical novels of Msgr. Hugh Benson and, if you can find them, of Josephine Ward.

  • The poetry of Petrarch
  • Christopher Marlowe, Dr. Faustus
  • William Shakespeare, *EVERYTHING* (with additional resources mentioned above)
  • The poetry of Sir Philip Sidney
  • Edmund Spencer, The Faerie Queene (with Machiavelli & Josephine Tey)
  • Msgr. Hugh Benson, Come Rack!  Come Rope!
  • Josephine Ward (often published as Mrs. Wilfrid Ward), Tudor Sunset.
a guy reading a book

The Seventeenth & Eighteenth Century

We will leave most of the English Civil War to historians and the myriad complications posed by the so-called Enlightenment to philosophers, but we must take time to read John Milton. There are innumerable theological challenges to be found within John Milton’s Paradise Lost, but there is a great deal of brilliance contained therein too. Further, this English epic had the most extraordinary impact upon the subsequent canon. Consider particularly the depiction of God and the depiction of Satan. Milton’s theology informs these personalities (or, in the case of God, the lack of personality!). The Romantics, however, would stubbornly misread this (see below). Some consideration should also be paid to the emergence of the novel, and we can pick up various cautionary pieces, such as Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (which is so much more entertaining than Robinson Crusoe, which also demands attention, not least because it seems to beg the question what virtues are necessary to survival when marooned on an island), and consider the place of satire via the writings of Jonathan Swift. Attention must be paid to the poetry of John Dryden, John Donne, and Alexander Pope as well. What is the relationship between virtue and social expectations regarding manners?

  • John Milton, Paradise Lost & Paradise Regained
  • John Dryden, Collected Poetry
  • John Donne, Collected Poetry
  • Daniel Defoe, Moll Flanders (& Robinson Crusoe)
  • Alexander Pope, Collected Poetry

The Napoleonic & Regency Periods

It is a truth universally acknowledged that we should READ EVERYTHING written by Jane Austen!!!! Her heroines are wonderful, her heroes are among the best ever concocted, her sentences are exquisite, and her moral understanding is breathtaking. Chesterton would support me when I say: Real men read Jane Austen. Young men, take note! The only question remaining must be: Where to begin? You can commence with the delights of her most popular novel, Pride and Prejudice, but there is a great deal to be said for chronological progress, beginning with her first published novel (Sense and Sensibility). Juvenilia is also exquisite, and even the unfinished novels are worthy of attention. Additionally, for the sake of our young men in particular, I recommend reading of the historical novels of both C.S. Forester (the Horatio Hornblower series) and Patrick O’Brian (the Aubrey-Maturin novels) (the latter is a superior historian and writer, methinks). Lest the young ladies feel thus deprived of historical novels recommendations, the works of Georgette Heyer are delightful and rich in historically accurate details (don’t be put off by the overly pink, girlie covers).

  •  Jane Austen, *EVERYTHING*
  • C.S. Forester, Horatio Hornblower series
  •  Patrick O’Brian, Aubrey-Maturin novels
  • Georgette Heyer, Regency novels
a kid reading her book

The Romantics

After the innumerable challenges of the co-called Enlightenment, with its championing of reason, empirical science, and deist principles, the pendulum swings the other way and we have a movement toward intense feeling, emotion, and things beyond our five senses. Consider William Blake, especially in his monumental and deliberate misreading of Paradise Lost. There is a great deal of beauty here, especially with the “Light Romantics”, Coleridge & Wordsworth. There is also a great deal that is problematic (including atheism and amorality) in the “Dark Romantics”, Byron and Shelley. To see how the philosophy of the latter looks lived out, consider the novel Frankenstein, one of the most famous of all Gothic works. Shelley’s young mistress, Mary, began this book while the couple (and Mary’s sister, with whom Shelley was also having an affair) visited Lake Geneva as guests of Lord Byron. The novel evokes many questions, from the obvious (e.g. What are the consequences when man endeavors to take upon himself the role of the Creator) to the more subtle (e.g. What is the Romantic attitude toward the true Creator, and what are the consequences for morality?) First-time readers will find the novel surprising, especially when the monster pauses, learns to read, and reads Paradise Lost! Also: read John Keats.

  • William Blake, Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience, Marriage of Heaven and Hell
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge & William Wordsworth, Lyrical Ballads
  • Lord Byron, Collected Poems
  • Percy Bysshe Shelley, Collected Poems, including Prometheus Unbound
  • Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
  • John Keats, Collected Poems

The Gothic

In addition to providing a necessary context for Austen’s Northanger Abbey and some of the more tormented impulses from the Romantic movement, this genre opens the door to spectacular cautionary works later in the nineteenth century. To support your reading of Austen, begin with The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, then read selections from Mrs. Radcliffe (she’s really a bit tedious), the infamous The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewes, and John Polidori’s The Vampyre. Polidori began his tale while on a visit to Lake Geneva with his then-employer, Lord Byron, and fellow Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley—the self-same visit on which Mary began Frankenstein. The nineteenth century produced top notch Gothic works, including James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. This last almost made it to my “List of 10”, but was retired because of the complicating biographical factors and the fact that I’m still scared of the 1945 film. This is a fascinating, complex novel, rich in its dark condemnation of Paterian ideas pushed to the breaking point. It should be guided by Joseph Pearce’s incomparable biography of Wilde and counterbalanced by in-home performances of The Importance of Being Earnest. Reading more deeply into the High Decadents can be very enriching, but should only be approached by very mature readers. A startling number of High Decadents converted (or reverted) to Catholicism before death, but in each case exhibited a great deal of appalling behavior and ideas before that point. If the Gothic genre is an hysterical offshoot of the Romantics, the Decadents are the Romantics with a heavy dose of nihilism. Finally, everyone should read Dracula, even though its moral understanding is pretty basic and it has unresolved threads of Manichaeism. This genre may prove challenging to young Catholic readers, since a twisted form of anti-Catholicism often appears in its pages.

  • Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto
  • Mrs. Radcliffe, Selections (because, really, she’s rather tedious)
  • Matthew Gregory Lewis, The Monk
  • John Polidori, The Vampyre
  • James Hogg, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner
  • Robert Louis Stevenson, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
  • Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
  • Bram Stoker, Dracula
a guy with a book over his head


The Victorians

We have attained perhaps the most glorious era of the novel and the field is ripe for a virtuous harvest! Given the fact that we have been dealing with the Romantics, it is appropriate to begin with the Brontës. I personally prefer Charlotte and Anne to Emily, but recommend the reading of all three. Jane Eyre is probably the most approachable. Villette has many delights as well, but also has earned its reputation as the most anti-Catholic novel of the mid-Victorian period. Approach with caution (and with a sense of humor). Agnes Gray and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall both demonstrate a beautiful sanity especially regarding the heroine’s attitude toward men. Reading Wuthering Heights is a rite of passage. Encourage and sustain your children through it and ensure they don’t come away with the absurd notion (popular in places of higher education) that Catherine and Heathcliff are anything more than vicious and thoroughly dislikable.

As to Charles Dickens, this besotted reader of Boz recommends that even my satirical husband read Nicholas Nickleby, A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, David Copperfield, Bleak House, and Our Mutual Friend. Those who fall deeply in love with what they read, should continue on to read The Pickwick Papers, Dombey and Son, Little Dorrit, and Great Expectations. Your most devout Dickens disciples can go on to read everything else for the sake of completion. Do not neglect the journalism or the less famous Christmas stories! The Chimes is both fascinating and unnerving.

Absolutely embrace the fullness of Anthony Trollope’s six Chronicles of Barsetshire: The Warden, Bachester Towers, Dr. Thorne, Framley Parsonage, The Small House at Allington (for which I harbor some resentment) and The Last Chronicle of Barset. I enjoy many aspects of his other series, the Palliser novels, but frequently find myself tripping up due to insufficient knowledge of the finer points of politics. Of the individual novels, I dearly love He Knew He Was Right, primarily for its secondary characters.

It is necessary to read William Makepeace Thackaray. The History of Henry Esmond is much more delightful than Vanity Fair, but both ought to be read and the latter is an eloquent condemnation of vice (though without really doing much on behalf of real virtue).

Some knowledge of John Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites will be aesthetically enriching here, especially as the ideals of that moment informed religious movements of the period. Knowledge of St. John Henry Newman will also be of value.

George Eliot, though there is a great deal to admire in her writing, is a bit challenging owing to her humanism and attendant lifestyle. She lost her faith through translation of German writers concerned in historical critiques of the Bible, she believed evil was merely ignorance and required a social solution, and she lived most of her life in a frankly adulterous relationship (which was decided not open to children). There is, nevertheless, some beautiful food for thought, especially in Silas Marner, Adam Bede, and Middlemarch. Mill on the Floss is as excruciating a read as you could hope to find, comparable to the writing of the irretrievably maudlin Thomas Hardy (whom G.K. Chesterton called “a sort of village atheist brooding and blaspheming over the village idiot”).

Read Wilkie Collins, continuing Gothic preoccupations and opening the door to sensation fiction and detective fiction too. Morality by this era has been largely divorced from the coherent theological context for virtue; how does this impact the understanding of virtue itself? Elizabeth Gaskell and (for fun!) Mary Elizabeth Braddon are also worthy contributors.

This is an excellent moment to glance toward the French and Russian authors. Read Victor Hugo and read Gustave Flaubert. Note that the latter was outraged and appalled when he realized readers were taking Madame Bovary as a celebration of vice, instead of, as he had intended, the contrary! There is value in reading Tolstoy, but I strongly prefer Dostoyevsky. Tolstoy is too prone to pause his book to preach about his bizarre religious notions.

For heroic virtues, read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island & Kidnapped, Rudyard Kipling’s Kim & The Jungle Book. You can also glean a lot from historical novels such as R.D. Blackmore’s Lorna Doone, Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur, Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis, or by going back to the father of the historical novel: Sir Walter Scott. Don’t neglect Fabiola or, the Church of the Catacombs, by Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman, or Callista by Newman.

For poetry, read Alfred Lord Tennyson, Christina Rossetti, Gerald Manley Hopkins, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Francis Thompson.

Finally, if you are so fortunate as to come across a copy of Josephine (Mrs. Wilfrid) Ward’s One Poor Scruple, snatch it up and read away! In fact, her books, which are tragically difficult to find, are superb and worthy of reading and republication!

  • Sir Walter Scott, Rob Roy & Ivanhoe
  • The Brontës, Jane Eyre, maybe Villette, Wuthering Heights, Agnes Gray, & The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
  • Charles Dickens, READ *ALMOST EVERYTHING*
  • Anthony Trollope, The Chronicle of Barsetshire & He Knew He Was Right
  • William Makepeace Thackaray, The History of Henry Esmond & Vanity Fair
  • George Eliot, Silas Marner, Adam Bede, & Middlemarch
  • Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone and The Woman in White.
  • Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford, North and South, & Wives and Daughters
  • Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret & The Trail of the Serpent
  • Victor Hugo, Les Miserables & The Hunchback of Notre Dame
  • Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment
  • Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary
  • Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island & Kidnapped
  • Rudyard Kipling, Kim & The Jungle Book
  • R.D. Blackmore, Lorna Doone
  • Lew Wallace, Ben-Hur
  • Henryk Sienkiewicz, Quo Vadis,
  • Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman, Fabiola or, the Church of the Catacombs
  • John Henry Newman, Callista
  • Alfred, Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam & Collected Poetry
  • Christina Rossetti, Collected Poetry
  • Gerald Manley Hopkins, Collected Poetry
  • Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Collected Poetry
  • Francis Thompson, Collected Poetry
  • Josephine (Mrs. Wilfrid) Ward, One Poor Scruple or anything else you can find!

The Americans

Regarding the American school, I recommend (without enthusiasm) reading this extensively as well, though personally I find it dry, depressing, and dourly Calvinistic. If I must read the Americans, my personal favorites are Edgar Allan Poe (Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque and his three C. Auguste Dupin detective stories) and Nathaniel Hawthorne (The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables). Read Herman Melville and congratulate yourself for heroic persistence when you make it to the end. Introducing the detective fiction tradition opens up a grand opportunity to explore in depth questions of justice and mercy—and of course you ought to go back to the British and read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories in full. I don’t like Henry James, so I won’t recommend his novels. For the rest of them, alas, I recommend you find someone passionate in their defense to produce an enthusiastic book list.

  • Edgar Allan Poe, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque & detective stories
  • (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the Sherlock Holmes stories, which really belong with the British authors above)
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter & The House of the Seven Gables
  • Herman Melville, Moby Dick & Billy Budd
a kid reading his book

The Twentieth Century

Having attained an age of maturity and suffered through graduate courses on the High Modernists, and with my clear Anglophilic tendencies, I really do have to work to persuade myself to read most books from the twentieth century (excepting Chesterton, Tolkien, Lewis, Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, various mystery novelists, and a few other exceptions). This is a personal issue, perhaps, but one I am not yet motivated to overcome. Basic knowledge of the High Modernists is pretty critical to survival of twentieth century literature, so take a dose of James Joyce and get it over with as quickly as possible. Then go read the Inklings (or some murder mysteries) and you will feel much better.

  • Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim
  • George Orwell, 1984
  • T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland, Collected Poetry
  • James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
  • J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit & The Lord of the Rings
  • G.K. Chesterton, The Ball and the Cross (& his writings on Dickens & his little book on the Victorians & pretty much everything else)
  •  C.S. Lewis, Chronicles of Narnia & Space Trilogy
  • Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited
  • (Oh, and P.G. Wodehouse too)
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