I’d be curious to see Tyler’s “completist” list. In other words, authors whose entire body of work merits reading. If this does get a response, I’m most interested in seeing the list begin with literature.
I’ll repeat my earlier mention of Geza Vermes. And to make the exercise meaningful, let’s rule out people who wrote one or two excellent books and then stopped. Adam Smith is too easy a pick. I won’t start with literature, however, but here are some choices:
1. Fernand Braudel.
2. George Orwell. Plato. Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. Hume. William James.
3. Franz Kafka, he died young.
4. T.J. Clark, historian of art and European thought.
5. J.C. D. Clark, the British historian.
Let’s stop here and take stock. Many historians will make the list, because if they are good they will find it difficult to produce crap. Without research, they cannot put pen to paper, and with research a careful, thoughtful historian is likely to be interesting. With thought you could come up with a few hundred historians who were consistently interesting and never wrote a bad book. Then you have a few extreme geniuses, and J.S. Mill might make the list if not for System of Logic, which by the way Mill himself thought stood among his best works. Timon of Athens hurts Shakespeare but he also comes very close.
Do any producers of “ideas books” make this list? Other than those listed under #2 of course. And are there truly consistent (and excellent) authors of fiction, other than those with a small number of works? I’m not thinking of many. How about Virginia Woolf or John Milton or Jane Austen?
One also could make an “opposite” of this list, namely important authors whose works are mostly not worth reading, and you could start with Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, and Aldous Huxley. The existence of Kindle makes it easier to discover who these people really are.