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February 21, 2006 9:50 PM   Subscribe

The Great Books: where should I start? I seek timeless wisdom.

I've mostly read modern writers, and very little of the classics. I'm looking for books that have really affected your outlook on life. Western canon only. I'm sure the Bhagavadghita, the Art of War, and the Tao Te Ching have a lot of wisdom, but I'm looking for Western wisdom, not Eastern. Should I read the ancient Greeks? The Romans (Cicero maybe)? Proust? Machiavelli? Tennyson?

I am not looking for any recommendations that include postmodernists/deconstructionists, thanks all the same. Let's exclude anything written in the last 50 years.

I know this question is simultaneously overbroad and too picky. What I'm looking for is personal recommendations of books that changed your outlook, helped you grow as a person, helped you understand our society, and so on-because looking at this list, there is no way in hell that I will ever get through it all. So help me out here by narrowing the field.
posted by evariste to Writing & Language (74 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
 
I was talking to a fundamentalist xtian friend of mine about what was worth reading in the bible for heathens (which I'm going to assume you are for the moment). He said to start with John. I'll see if I can dig up the rest of his reccomendations...

I'm reading Moby Dick right now, and really enjoying it. Highly reccomended.
posted by phrontist at 9:57 PM on February 21, 2006


And why make the distinction between "Eastern" and "Western". What exactly qualifies? Do you mean "Judeo-Christian"?
posted by phrontist at 9:59 PM on February 21, 2006


Wings of the Dove by James, but I never would have gotten anything from it (and in fact started it several times and failed to finish it) unless I had read some "starter James" first. It's such a brilliant expression of the possibilities and mysteries and communication that exist in the silences between people.
posted by occhiblu at 10:01 PM on February 21, 2006


You could start at the very beginning and read "The Epic of Gilgamesh."
posted by Captain_Tenille at 10:10 PM on February 21, 2006


The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius
posted by frogan at 10:15 PM on February 21, 2006


phrontist-Given that I'm neither Christian nor Jewish (atheist, thanks) I'm not exclusively interested in Jewish or Christian thought, except as tributaries into the great river of Western thought. I believe I mentioned ancient Greeks and Romans among the traditions I'm interested in. And yes, there is a difference and a distinction between "Eastern" and "Western"; I make it because it exists, and because I don't want any recommendations to read things like the Tao Te Ching, and the Bhagavadghita. I've already read a lot of that. What I want recommendations for is dead white male stuff.
posted by evariste at 10:19 PM on February 21, 2006


Harold Bloom's list is even longer than the Harvard list, but it's been very valuable to me (even though I'm only up to the 1500s or so).

If I *had* to make a shorter list: Illiad & Odyssey; complete works of Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles & Aristophanes; Plato's dialogs; Plutarch's Lives; Bloom's list of Plautus; Aeneid; Ovid's Metamorphoses; Epigrams of Martial; Apuleius's The Golden Ass and Augustine's Confessions.
posted by turbodog at 10:19 PM on February 21, 2006


Don't take "dead white male" too literally, of course.
posted by evariste at 10:19 PM on February 21, 2006


occhiblu-what would you recommend as "Starter James" before I try to tackle Wings of the Dove?
posted by evariste at 10:21 PM on February 21, 2006


If you plan on doing this, I highly recommend you find annotated versions, or at least a good companion text that will help you get the most out of a work. Paradise Lost is one of the greatest pieces of art ever produced by a human, but attempting to read it without a significant amount of background, contextualization and critical theory.

That being said, if you're interested in philosophy, I recommend Hume's Treatise Kant's first Critique (or the Prolegomena, which is the one I actually understood) and Nietzsche's... well, anything by Nietzsche.

For English-language works going back 600-700 years, look at the Norton Anthology of English Literature, which basically defines the canon for millions of college students. It's dry, somewhat boring, incredibly safe in its selections, and hardly comprehensive, but it sounds like that's what you want.
posted by maxreax at 10:22 PM on February 21, 2006


Captain_Tenille-I've always been intrigued by the Epic of Gilgamesh because of Julian Jaynes's mention of it. I suppose that would be a good start :-)
posted by evariste at 10:22 PM on February 21, 2006


Beyond Freedom & Dignity by B. F. Skinner
posted by Human Flesh at 10:23 PM on February 21, 2006


I'm getting ready for bed, will read the rest of you folks' recommendations in the morning. Thanks in advance!
posted by evariste at 10:23 PM on February 21, 2006


You might be interested in the works used by the program at St. John's College, as most of them seem to fit your criteria, being chosen for a similar purpose. It might be helpful also to see the order in which they read them.
posted by Oobidaius at 10:24 PM on February 21, 2006


Immanuel Kant
Adam Smith
Karl Marx
Charles Darwin
Auguste Comte
John Stuart Mill
Friedrich Nietzsche
posted by Espy Gillespie at 10:25 PM on February 21, 2006


Sister Carrie, by Theodore Dreiser, pretty much IS the "great American novel," and it was written on a dare.
Read The Republic, The Iliad, The Oddysey
Read Machiavelli's The Prince, and once you've taken a couple of showers, start Rousseau's "The Social Contract." After Machiavelli, you'll need Rousseau.
Read Jane Austen, but don't think going into it it'll be all tea parties and country rambles. Old Jane had one of the meanest senses of humor I've ever encountered. Mansfield Park singed my eyebrows.
Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women is frequently overlooked in this sort of conversation.
When it comes to James I've always preferred The Turn of the Screw and Daisy Miller.
Read everything by Poe.
I've always wanted to read The Icelandic Sagas myself. Where does all the time go?
Don't forget the Russians! Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky.
posted by Sara Anne at 10:31 PM on February 21, 2006


Oh, also Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy.
posted by Espy Gillespie at 10:32 PM on February 21, 2006


Eh, I can't really see starting a 'Bible for Heathens' track with John. Go for the Book of Job, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon; they all offer deep insight and wonderful poetry. Job is by far my favorite; use an Oxford Annotated edition, the notes explaining the backstory are fascinating.

You might also want to narrow things down a bit - do you want to start with the history of theater (tons of great, easy-to-digest stuff there), Russian lit, original science works, what? I've always found reading 16th-19th century philosophers to be slow going and not really worth the effort for this layman, and would completely avoid Freud as a waste of time (his cases are ridiculous examples of bad science, for one thing). I've had much better luck -- by which I mean more enjoyment and more useful historical insight -- from 1) political essayists like Thoreau, Orwell and Paine, 2) hilariously scathing satirists like Swift, Shaw and Twain, and 3) brilliant observers of humanity in all its awful glory like Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky and Kafka. I think I'll be doing Chekhov next in that category; his influence on the short story is supposed to be incredible, and short stories are easy to digest and a good way to test out a new author.
posted by mediareport at 10:37 PM on February 21, 2006


The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus. Short, yet very deep.
posted by koenie at 10:39 PM on February 21, 2006


You seek enlightenment, grasshopper, so let's cut the crap.

Machiavelli, absolutely.

The Old Testament, esp. Genesis, Ecclesiastes

The New Testament, esp. John & revelations

St Augustine

Aristotle: poetics, Plato: republic

William Blake, esp. Songs of Innocence & Songs of Experience

Shakespeare: Hamlet, Coriolanus.

Milton: Paradise Lost

Nietszche: Also Spracht Zarathustra.

Wordsworth: The Prelude.

Whitman
posted by unSane at 10:40 PM on February 21, 2006 [1 favorite]


Yes, Whitman. Marvelous, highly influential stuff.
posted by mediareport at 10:44 PM on February 21, 2006


I can enthusiastically vouch for the King's Foundation Year Programme Reading List.
posted by sueinnyc at 10:46 PM on February 21, 2006


From the "If-I-Had-College-To-Do-All-Over-Again" Department: The St. John's College Reading List.
posted by cribcage at 10:47 PM on February 21, 2006


The problem with the St John's College Reading List is the problem with Oxford in general: it's a dilettante's paradise. You read everything and understand -- I mean, really understand, very little. Although it IS good to have read everything.

A couple of things that have been missed:

George Eliot: Middlemarch < -- fucking greatbr>
Richard Feynman: QED < -- read in an afternoon, change your view of the universe for everbr>
Richard Feyman: Lectures in Physics (the 3-volume set) <-- will take you 3-6 months to read and understand, but MAN what a privilege, and totally comprehensible (ignore the math, unless that's your thing).
posted by unSane at 11:00 PM on February 21, 2006 [1 favorite]


I would say Daisy Miller and Washington Square are starter James, but he has to be read without any distractions (no music, no grinding bathroom vents, no ranting psychotic neighbor next door....which was the case when I was reading Wings of the Dove). Don't bother with the Jennifer Jason Leigh-Ben Chaplin version of Washington Square--The Heiress is much better. Aunt Penniman is supposed to be a goose, but not evil.
posted by brujita at 11:01 PM on February 21, 2006 [1 favorite]


Speaking as a johnnie, I'd suggest that you pick a primary focus—for example dramatic narrative or philosophy—and then use that as a filter through which you select books to read from one of the various "Great Books" lists.

I strongly disagree with maxreax's insistence that you read annotated versions and follow the notes; doing so will fill you with various dogmatic readings of the texts. Sometimes previous books provide a great deal of context, other times you will be adrift with a text that is very difficult to comprehend without supplementary material. Even so, I recommend an attempt at reading these books with only themselves as context, first, consulting notes for only the most impenetratable portions, develop your own view of each, and then eventually go back and reread them from an historical context and with the help from some critical viewpoints you trust.

I feel this way partly because my experience with many people outside of SJC who are familiar with some or many of these books is that they might as well have read only secondary sources and left the book itself unopened. Not only do they then see these books narrowly through a particular critical tradition or POV, they also don't retain what they think they knew of the books very well because their comprehension was more passive and superficial. And rarely have they read the complete work.

Yes, we read all these books at St. John's. But the seminar-style method of learning at the College plays a huge role in ensuring these readings are productive. If at all possible, find someone with whom you can read and discuss these books; cooperative learning is greater than the sum of its parts.

On Preview:

"The problem with the St John's College Reading List is the problem with Oxford in general: it's a dilettante's paradise. You read everything and understand -- I mean, really understand, very little. Although it IS good to have read everything."

Oh, bullshit. In fact, I think the reverse is actually true. We understand these texts better than others, not worse.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 11:04 PM on February 21, 2006 [1 favorite]


>what would you recommend as "Starter James"

I think I actually first really got into his travel essays about Italy, which are beautiful. For novels, I'd say start with The Ambassadors and then maybe The Portrait of a Lady. His books just got increasingly complex the older he got, and I think it helps to get a feel for his writing and themes before diving into the later works (and I say this as an English major who likes complex works).
posted by occhiblu at 11:06 PM on February 21, 2006 [1 favorite]


Let's exclude anything written in the last 50 years ... helped you understand our society ...

What society of ours that is more than fifty years old are you referring to?

Many interesting elements of culture have emerged within, say, the last 25 years.
posted by StickyCarpet at 11:13 PM on February 21, 2006


I don't consider myself much of a Great Books scholar, but the stuff that had the most impact on me from the liberal arts portion of my college education and from my other attempts to read the classics was probably John Stuart Mill's On Liberty and some of his other essays, Locke's Second Treatise, Kant's Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals (Kant was painful to read though), Nietzsche's Geneaology of Morals (unsettling but effective), some of the major Federalist Papers, and that's all I can come up with right now.

On Liberty is probably the single Great Book that I am reminded of most often by things I read or hear.

I really wish I had done more of my assigned reading. I probably missed out on some good stuff. Never felt quite deep enough, though. Maybe I should go back to some of this stuff now that I'm a bit older.
posted by epugachev at 11:24 PM on February 21, 2006 [1 favorite]


Read 'Starmaker' by Olaf Stapledon (previous mefi post here)...

You will be astounded by its breadth of insight into the human condition. Still the best book ever written in my opinion and one of the unhailed classics.
posted by 0bvious at 11:30 PM on February 21, 2006


And despite the last 50 years prohibition, I will state that the books that people really couldn't seem to shut up about tended to be written by Foucault. Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality really rocked the worlds of some people.
posted by epugachev at 11:31 PM on February 21, 2006 [1 favorite]


I strongly disagree with maxreax's insistence that you read annotated versions and follow the notes; doing so will fill you with various dogmatic readings of the texts. Sometimes previous books provide a great deal of context, other times you will be adrift with a text that is very difficult to comprehend without supplementary material. Even so, I recommend an attempt at reading these books with only themselves as context, first, consulting notes for only the most impenetratable portions, develop your own view of each, and then eventually go back and reread them from an historical context and with the help from some critical viewpoints you trust.

As much as I agree with the sentiment behind that statement, English/Western Lit and Philosophy is an incredibly complicated field built on thousands of years of history and culture. Every book you read contains references to countless other texts and traditions, and to read something like "Paradise Lost" without any prior knowledge of the Bible or epic poetry, or to read Ulysses without having any knowledge of Homer's Odyssey or the history of England's colonization of Ireland will never allow you to grasp the full weight of any volume--indeed, it will only detract from your enjoyment of a book.

I trust that you can read critical essays on any of the classics and still maintain your own opinion on any given work; in fact, you'll never really be able to participate fully in the tradition of western literature and thought without reading any and all of the multitude of criticism and history that has accompanied it.
posted by maxreax at 11:32 PM on February 21, 2006


"Many interesting elements of culture have emerged within, say, the last 25 years."

Of course. But let's move a bit away from the sensitive matter of deciding which late-20th century books to read and instead think about film, which isn't a discussion as badly overloaded with ideological bias.

When you look at many attempts at listing the best films, ever, it's always the case that the last 15 years or so are not as strongly represented as earlier decades. One interpretation of this would be that the quality of movies hase declined. I disagree. I believe that it's almost impossible to recognize the truly best works when they are contemporary. As time passes, films once-thought extremely important slowly are seen as mediocre and too reliant on their contemporary mileau to provide a deep context for the work. Others rise in estimation. Some, of course, are recognized as great when they appear and remain great over the years. The problem, however, is that it's hard to differentiate these at the time.

It's not a meaningless coincidence, I think, that the same sort of thing can be seen with scientific discovery. Sometimes the really important stuff is hard to recognize at the time.

I know a number of people who claim that Beloved is the best book of the entire 20th century. Maybe it is. I can't tell. I confidently judge it a very good USAian book, an important book. But the best of the 20th century? Maybe. Maybe not.

Take a look at the history of the important literary prizes and note how many of those books that were judged the best of the best in their day now seem almost expendable.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 11:34 PM on February 21, 2006 [1 favorite]


" Every book you read contains references to countless other texts and traditions, and to read something like "Paradise Lost" without any prior knowledge of the Bible or epic poetry, or to read Ulysses without having any knowledge of Homer's Odyssey or the history of England's colonization of Ireland will never allow you to grasp the full weight of any volume--indeed, it will only detract from your enjoyment of a book."

Yes, of course, which is one reason we read as many of these books as we can at SJC. It's also the reason that I suggested that evariste narrow his focus to a particual subject matter within the canon. If you stay within literature, for example, it's more realistic that an autodidact will read enough to provide a sufficient context.

"I trust that you can read critical essays on any of the classics and still maintain your own opinion on any given work; in fact, you'll never really be able to participate fully in the tradition of western literature and thought without reading any and all of the multitude of criticism and history that has accompanied it."

The criticism vital enough that itself becomes part of the tradition is sufficient for a non-sepcialist, I think. You say you trust that people can be independently-minded, but that simply isn't my experience. On almost any given work, when I discuss the work with non-johnnies I usually will be presented with one of a few "correct" points of view of the work, the "right" interpretation, what it "really" means. I hear the same quotes of secondary sources over and over. People ridicule Straussianism, and rightly so, but I don't think conventional study of these works is much better. Why even have the pretense at all of reading the works themselves?

unSane's criticism is true, but it's necessarily true—you could spend your life studying just one of these books, productively so, and rightly claim to really and deeply understand it. unSane went to Oxford, but his perspective is similar to that of Allan Bloom, a Straussian, and a proponent of the Great Books with the caveat that students need to be told how to really understand them. Educators, of course, are always going to make this claim because their very profession is staked on the truth of that claim. Scholars, of course, are always going to make this claim because they want their hard work and deep comprehension of a work to be the status quo. These are not disinterested parties, these are not people who are capable of trusting the student—though they no doubt made an exception for themselves, as students. That is more accusative than I intended, and I respect educators and scholars and wholeheartedly believe we need them. I just mean to counter the almost universal belief that students need to be told, essentially, what these books are saying. They don't. It's better for them to consider these books as themselves, intimately, and work through them on their own terms, and be "wrong", than it is for them to merely internalize received wisdom.

One reason—maybe the primary and all-important reason—that this is the case is that the real value of these books are not the aquisition of a sort of knowledge about these books, but rather how these books inform a person's life. They can be active and vital. Providing a particular interpretation and the context to support that interpretation robs them of their life, presents them as a roasted carcass, a prepared meal.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 12:04 AM on February 22, 2006


You pretty much have to have read the Bible to get everything out of most of the Western "Great Books" since most of the writers were influenced by it, either paying homage or rifffing off it.

And, speaking as an English major who had to read most of the canon, my advice is, it's OK to like what you like and not like what you don't. You can appreciate the significance of an artistic work without necessarily liking it. (As an example from film, I appreciate the importance of Citizen Kane without it being even close to my favorie movie from the same period.)

A common objection to the idea of a canon is that it's dominated by the dead white males you mentioned. That's true, but I think it's much more a reflection of the historic sexism in Western culture than it is an indictment of the people who make the list.
posted by kirkaracha at 12:16 AM on February 22, 2006


You may enjoy the book Great Books by David Denby. He returns to Columbian University to do reread the classics. I've enjoyed the part I've read so far and it has a list of Columbia's reading list.
posted by meta87 at 12:48 AM on February 22, 2006


Hmm, a lot is being left out here. A few of my favorites, but first the two areas you must study first to have the necessary context for all the rest:

1) From the Bible (KJV - avoid any newer interpretive translation): The Book of Job and Ecclesiastes. Genesis, Proverbs, and probably Psalms as well. Read as much of it as you can. From a literary standpoint, it is a fundamental Western text. This blogger states it well:
"Even trying to understand almost any of the great works of Western culture is impossible without knowledge of what is our foundational text. The fact that the Bible, full of vivid poetry and the best allegorical narratives to be found, is dismissed by secularists as a purely "religious" tome is sad to me. It is also sad to my fellow militant atheist, Camille Paglia, who Ben is in love with. Camille even asserts that the basic text studied in high school English classes should be the Bible, because without it the humanities are virtually inaccessible."
2) Iliad and The Oddyssey - these cannot be skipped either.

The rest - at this point order is not as important, but there is some intertextual dialogue between writers.

Praise of Folly, Erasmus - it captures the spirit and vitality of the Renaissance. There is a great meditation on the discourse and debate between Luther and Erasmus in Jacque Barzun's opus, From From Dawn to Decadence. It provides an excellent companion and great thematic context while you are reading the Great Books of Western literature - it illuminates the background and the details.

Politics: Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli. Explains how tyrants fall out of power, including the Tarquins who were overthrown at the founding of the Roman Republic, how to maintain a regime, and why Christianity weakened the West. A good history of the Tarquins is Shakespeare's poem The Rape of Lucrece, and his fictionalized play, Measure for Measure. The Prince is good, but it makes much more sense if you read the Discourses first.

Utopia, Sir Thomas More. This book inspired an entire genre of utopian fiction, not to mention political thought. If you like it, go further and read Sir Francis Bacon's New Atlantis and the Great Instauration. It's amazingly prescient in its vision of future technology.

Satire: A Modest Proposal, Jonathan Swift (most brutal, eloquent, ingenious satire of all time). If you like it, try Gulliver's Travels. Satire novelized, and a sort of dystopian counterpoint to More and Bacon.

The Tempest, Shakespeare (his final play, sort of a summation of several of his themes and my all-time favorite) - explores the the magic of creating life on the stage, and most importantly the idea of forgiveness. I feel like Prospero is Shakespeare himself, bidding farewell to his loving audience. I know I sound incredibly nerdy, but I can't imagine life without Shakesepeare.

Gargantua and Pantagruel, Francois Rabelais (great letter from father to son giving advice on the liberal arts, the image of the Abbey of Theleme is excellent too)

Candide, Voltaire. How can you not love Pangloss? Also, either this or Gargantua is where the philosophers debate by farting at eachother. It's wonderful, one of the first things in college that got me into the Great Books.

Purgatorio from La Divina Comedia, Dante (get Merwin's translation)

Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes. Because "Knowledge without virtue is like pearls on a dunghill."

Democracy In America, Alexis de Tocqueville. Incredibly insightful look into American character and politics, and his predictions make Nostradamus look like a punkass bitch. (avoid Mansfield's translation, it is needlessly, and amazingly intentionally difficulty phrased, there is nothing gained by reading it)

Pre-Renaissance:

The Cloud of Unknowing, provides an interesting look into negative or apophatic theology.

Beowulf and Sir Gawain the Green Knight. Even if you have a little difficulty, they are incredibly important in terms of English literature.

I second the Milton, Augustine, Aristotle, Plato (if you get Allan Bloom's translation, skip the commentary).

If you end up reading translations done by Leo Strauss (Discourses) or his acolytes Bloom (Republic) and Mansfield (Democracy In America), be aware of their philosophy, if you can call it that, of interpreting the texts. 1, 2

Enjoy! If you've gotten this far and havent' given up yet, keep going! Try Hobbes, Montaigne, Marvell, I have to stop, there is just too much to list.
posted by tweak at 12:49 AM on February 22, 2006


Sorry for the bad grammar. I need to sleep. :)
posted by meta87 at 12:49 AM on February 22, 2006


I just mean to counter the almost universal belief that students need to be told, essentially, what these books are saying. They don't. It's better for them to consider these books as themselves, intimately, and work through them on their own terms, and be "wrong", than it is for them to merely internalize received wisdom.

I think that I may be misrepresenting what I mean, and that you may be misinterpreting the nature of most literary criticism. When I say that the so-called "Great Books" should be read along with companion volumes, I mean two things:

One, that if we're going to make a list of "canon" books, we should think about and understand why these books are considered "canon." No one, and I mean no one, is going to (or can) argue that the "canon," such as it is, is True or Pure or Without Political Motives. The canon has been created and manipulated and moved around as often as literary tastes have been, which is to say quite often. Contextualizing Shakespeare helps us "get" why Hamlet is considered such a great play. In this sense, then, we use criticism and historical works not to tell us what to think but why we think it. Anyone who's embarking on a quest to read the Western Canon has to be sensitive to the fact that there are reasons--political, social and literary--why some books are included and some aren't. Reading secondary sources allows the discerning reader to understand the canon both as a set of great literary works and as an academic creation and endeavor.

Two, I need to make it clear that I don't believe that it's possible to read these books with a "blank slate," which seems to be what you're advocating. The minute you crack open Paradise Lost you're already bringing your own set of preconceptions and thoughts to it--based on books that have both influenced and been influenced by PL. These are not dead texts that remain the same for every reader in every time period; their meanings and worths change with every reader. By examining criticism (with a discerning eye) either before, after or while you read the book, you can begin to see the book as a symbol which signifies different things at different times. Great criticism is meant not to tell you what to think, but to help you gain a greater understanding of impossibly complicated and intricate texts (those which comprise most of the canon).
posted by maxreax at 1:14 AM on February 22, 2006


Oh--this breaks your "50 Year" rule--but an mind-blowingly beautiful, moving and life-changing book is Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. World-encompassing and utterly powerful. It will head the list of 20th-century canon novels as we start to construct it.
posted by maxreax at 1:16 AM on February 22, 2006 [1 favorite]


The problem with the St John's College Reading List is the problem with Oxford in general: it's a dilettante's paradise. You read everything and understand -- I mean, really understand, very little. Although it IS good to have read everything.

Um... you do realise that this isn't St John's College, Oxford that we're talking about, right? Check the link.
posted by altolinguistic at 1:24 AM on February 22, 2006


*Listen* to Seamus Heaney read his translation of Beowulf. I just did, and it's amazing. I love it. At the same time, I just read Njal's Saga (hello whoever mentioned Icelandic sagas above). I read a version in translation that was slightly modernized. I think I will find some other translations and try them out later.

Don't forget *William* James. what an amazing family!

Bertrand Russell!

The History of The Peloponnesian War, Thucydides. Oh, and then Herodotus. There was a new translation of Thucydides out a few years ago, with cool maps and appendeces. Can't remember the translator.

Pinksey's translation of the Inferno?

For thinking about translation, despite being an example of Asian translation, Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei is very short and insightful. (and for that matter, have you read translations of ancient Chinese poetry? not Tao Te Ching stuff, but t'su (??) poems &c. and speaking of Tao Te Ching, there's a good translation titled Te Tao Ching--but I digress)

I nth the recommendation of The Prince. and throw in Book of The Courtier while you're at it.

History in general is fun to read. History and The Decline of Magic. Giodorno Bruno and The Hermetic Tradition. I wish I had more examples, but I'm ignorant here.

Oh! The Diary of Bernal Diaz! This book is absolutely riveting! (pick a good translation). I did not get into The Conquest of New Peru as much. Speaking of Latin American history, The Limits of Racial Domination.
posted by bleary at 1:49 AM on February 22, 2006 [1 favorite]


The Norton Anthology Of World Masterpeices is a good place to start. Some fulls stories, some selections, each prefaced by historical perspective/literary criticsm/bio. Starts at Gilgamesh, goes through the Bible, The Greeks, Romans, Renaissance, Romanticsm, Realism and some Modern and Eastern Writers. Over 80 authors and the selection is excellent.

It contains many of the works on the lists from King's College and St. John's, but also contains other material. The best single volume literary compliation I own.
posted by sophist at 1:56 AM on February 22, 2006 [1 favorite]


While I have read an almost embarrassingly small number of books, having said this, Siddhartha by Herman Hesse is a favorite, Yes, Siddartha is kind of eastern in a lot of ways, but it was written by a dead white guy and is a great, great book that covers many interesting ideas. Crime and Punishment is one I am currently enjoying and even though I haven't finished it I think it's very good and would recommend it to anyone.
posted by JackarypQQ at 2:45 AM on February 22, 2006 [1 favorite]


Western Philosophy starts with Plato, goes on a bit, there's some Plato in the middle, gets flavored with the Bible and Aristotle, veers sharply to the left at Francis Bacon and Newton, and then returns to Plato again.

It's all about Plato. Read the dialogues. Read all of them. Talk about them with people.
posted by ewkpates at 4:21 AM on February 22, 2006


You can tackle this problem one of several ways:

1) For a fairly complete tour of "dead white males" similar to what you'd get it you'd majored in English as an undergraduate, hit the high points of both volumes of the Norton anthologies: Vol. I and Vol. II. That will cover the British side of things. To cover the American side of things, try their anthology of American literature: Vol. A-B and Vol. C-E. (These used to be published in two large volumes. Now their chopped up to make them easier to carry around).

To figure out what to focus on in the above, you might want to read a literary history.

Norton also publishes an anthology of Theory and Criticism, which I think would be worth the effort.

2) Another method, that might go along with point #1, is to grab some syllabi from your local college English department. See what's getting taught in the English and American lit survey classes. See what's getting taught in the intro to philosophy classes.

3) Any English MA program will have a reading list, some shorter than the one you posted.

4) Why not just take a few lit survey classes? Then you'd get a good overview along with some historical context.

5) Fadiman's Lifetime Reading Plan might be just the thing. He gives you enough to whet your appetite and send you looking for the original sources. I had an older copy of this, found in a used book store, and it kept me on track for quite some time.
posted by wheat at 4:25 AM on February 22, 2006


For wise insights, Proust, Marcus Aurelius and especially Montaigne ("it is easier to make a great sacrifice than a small one").

Of the great writers, I think Dickens is the most consistently entertaining -- and a remarkably accurate craftsman of language, which is rare and pleasing in itself.
posted by futility closet at 5:10 AM on February 22, 2006


I'm glad Montaigne made the list. Very important to read some of his Essays.

Descartes, Discourse on Method. Understanding radical doubt (which leads to cogito ergo sum) is a precondition to understanding, well, pretty much anything. It is not

Marx, read The Communist Manifesto and selections from Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts and The German Ideology. Ignore Capital, but also ignore analysts and such who propose a two-Marx theory if you come across them.

Plato - it goes by several names, but Penguin had a volume called The Last Days of Socrates which is very worthwhile, and of course The Republic. Dip in to this, don't go through the whole thing. You have to learn the Allegory of the Cave at least.

Aristotle's Politics is important as well. Also consider that a great deal of European civilization was essentially organized to keep Aristotle's ideas from circulating for hundreds of years and you see how important this is to be familiar with to some extent.

The Machiavelli references were good, particularly the suggestion that you must read The Discourses AND The Prince. The Prince alone is a very distorted view of what Machievelli was suggesting.

There's too much enlightenment stuff to follow, and it really takes a structured reading to do them justice because they really were arguing with each other over the course of about 150 years and in the process laying down the foundations of most current politics, law, economics, human rights, etc.
posted by mikel at 6:27 AM on February 22, 2006


This list could be as long as Bloom's (or longer) without really putting a dent in what there is to read. I'll keep mine short in order to increase the possiblity of actually reading the books on it:

1) The Illiad and The Odyssey. Start with these two. Read them well, they show up all over the place.

2) Metamorphosis by Ovid, a Roman retelling of the Greek myths that ties them together around the theme of change. Wonderful and crucial.

3) The KJV of the Bible: Genesis, Eccliastes, Job, Proverbs, Psalms, the Gospels, Acts, Revelation

4) Shakespeare: The major Tragedies, Histories and Comedies. Then all of the rest. There really is a reason Shakespeare ia always mentioned.

5) Don Quixote--There's a wonderful new translation available by Edith Grossman. The birth of the novel, and of what is now our defining mode of ironic comedy.

This stuff is foundational. There's a ton to add: Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides (You buya dese.), Dante, Swift, Hesiod, certainly Plato. And that just begins to cover the ancients. But the five above make for a pretty good base from which to work. Hell, just those books are like an intro to Faulkner and Joyce, if you want to see how they end up being used in the 20th century.
posted by OmieWise at 6:33 AM on February 22, 2006


If at all possible, find someone with whom you can read and discuss these books; cooperative learning is greater than the sum of its parts.

I think this is the best advice given thus far - that, and to read Plato. Starting a reading book, or at least a conversation. It's difficult to know how broad and deep you actually want to go; everyone (well, everyone who also has to make a living, that is) at some point will have to content themselves with a superficial acquaintance, if any, of a vast number of the works in "The Canon", so let your interests guide you and don't make it into a syllabus. When a theme or a work inspires an impassioned reaction in you, go on the rest of the author's oeuvre, his context, his interlocutors; find works that he was responding to, and those who responded to him.

A very short list, for me (former philosophy student), would include major works by Plato, Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Kant, Hume, Schopenhauer, Hegel, and Nietzsche; I recommend reading Marx and Freud along with/after Nietzsche, though others surely won't. Don't forget about Wittgenstein (although he is 20th century, many would argue that he's the most important philosopher of the century, and, i find, a fascinating character and a great pleasure to read).

One novel that hasn't come up yet, and isn't nearly as widely read as it deserves to be, is Halldor Laxness's Independent People. (I haven't read the Icelandic Sagas yet, but his book made me want to, and is incredible on its own.)
posted by xanthippe at 6:52 AM on February 22, 2006 [1 favorite]


Well, I searched this page for Joseph Conrad and didn't see him. Heart of Darkness is the launching point for 20th century literature. Under The Volcano by Malcolm Lowery is going on 65 years old.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 6:53 AM on February 22, 2006


Err.. 'incredible' = 'wonderful, magnificent, amazing', not 'unbelievable without having read the Sagas'.
posted by xanthippe at 6:55 AM on February 22, 2006


I know I'm late to the party here, and this has been suggested once already, but as a reader gradually tackling the classics, my indisensible guide is Fadiman's The Lifetime Reading Plan. (I actually prefere the older editions, but the new one is just fine.)

Fadiman does a fantastic job of culling the what from the chaff. He provides a page or two on each book he recommends, explaining its context, explaining why the book is important, and often discussing the author. He recommends ancillary books. He indicates connections between the books he recommends.

I've browsed most of the other reading lists suggested here, and have read the other reading-list books, but the one that I return to again and again is Fadiman's. It works for me. Perhaps it will work for you.
posted by jdroth at 7:20 AM on February 22, 2006 [1 favorite]


I can't believe I'm saying this, but you may want to see if you can get your hands on a syllabus for some freshman year core comp-lit class at a big university. At NYU we had to take this thing called "Conversations of the West" ...I don't really recommend the class in general, but the reading list would span exactly what you're looking for--the very foundation of Western literature and philosophy. I could mention a spattering of things we read--Sophocles, Seneca, Virgil, parts of the Bible of course, St. Augustine, eventually moving on to Shakespeare and other things. But if you had a syllabus it would be a more comprehensive list in some deliberate order chosen by a professor, and a reasonable amount of reading for a normal person to do over the course of a few months, as opposed to trying to read every influential piece of literature ever.
posted by lampoil at 7:25 AM on February 22, 2006 [1 favorite]


Lots of great advice here. I want to echo what others have said about it being useful to have some help with this stuff, either via annotated editions or a reading group. EB's concern that annotations lock you into one semi-official reading of a text is legitimate, but overstated. There are far more instances where annotations will help with obscure historical and cultural references that would otherwise fly right past you.

One of Saul Bellow's novels features a protagonist who inherits a multi-volume edition of the great books. I can't recall the name of the set, but I often see it in used book stores--about 50 hardcover volumes, originally distributed I believe as a bonus for those who bought a complete set of encyclopedias. You can pick up the set for under a hundred bucks. It would look great in your living room, especially with a big red bookmark hanging out of one of the middle volumes to advertise your seriousness to the world.
posted by LarryC at 7:27 AM on February 22, 2006 [1 favorite]



One novel that hasn't come up yet, and isn't nearly as widely read as it deserves to be, is Halldor Laxness's Independent People. (I haven't read the Icelandic Sagas yet, but his book made me want to, and is incredible on its own.)


It is incredibly wonderful!

I'll also second Sister Carrie, and the Russians.

I think some Dickens would be a good start, then some Hardy and Austen--it'd ease you into it.
posted by amberglow at 7:35 AM on February 22, 2006


Larry C, I believe you are referring to the Harvard Classics - which comes with reading lists and lectures. 50 volumes and you get a little slice of everything, including (at least in my edition, which I believe is the 1907 version) a lot of stuff that's probably fallen out of favour - but the gold is all there.

When it comes to Homer, I think the Fagles translation is the most "raw" but it lacks the music of the Fitzgerald version. It's good either way.

Happy reading.
posted by theinsectsarewaiting at 8:08 AM on February 22, 2006 [1 favorite]


My first post centered on British and American lit, if you want a more global perspective, I reccomend Wilkie and Hurt's Literature of the Western World Volume I and Volume II. These two were used for the world lit classes at my college. I had the good fortune of studying under Dr. Wilkie--one of my thesis advisors--and his introductions are very good. I liked these anthologies so much that I kept them after the classes and still refer to them.

As for the philosophy side of things, I'd start with Plato. Read the dialogs, read all of The Republic (and read Karl Popper's The Open Society and its Enemies, Vol. I for an interesting take on Plato as a precursor to fascism).

Finally, with each author you read, read up on them via Wikipedia or other reference works. This will lead you to other books you'll want to read. Since you can't read everything, part of what makes your own life as a reader interesting is the particular path you cut through the canon. Letting one book lead to the other is a big part of the fun.
posted by wheat at 8:37 AM on February 22, 2006


The bible is eastern, but if you are going to throw that into a list you might as well throw in the Koran.

Don Quixote and Candide
posted by Pollomacho at 8:40 AM on February 22, 2006 [1 favorite]


I have a somewhat radical opinion about this sort of thing, but...

Reading Plato and Aristotle is really a big waste of time for most people. Skip ahead to the core stuff and go straight to Hume, Kant, and Schopenhauer. These texts will deliver the most punch you'll be able to glean insights into the really important cores of the primitives like Plato, Aristotle and Descartes and the also-rans like Leibniz and Spinoza. (In some ways, Schopenhauer has a better understanding of Plato than Plato himself!) If you find yourself really interested then by all means go back and read Plato and Aristotle and the others. Don't read Plato and not Aristotle. That's bad.

On the same note, read Nietzsche. Skip Freud. Skip Hegel. Read Kierkegaard.

Plutarch and Thucydides and Herodotus. Valuable not only for historical explanation but also as commentary into the basics of human civilization.

Augustine, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke and Marx.

Voltaire, Montaigne, Emerson and Thoureau.

The European popular classics: Don Quixote, The Three Musketeers, Hunchback of Notre Dame. Shakespeare and Dante. Very entertaining and full of insights in the 'messy beginnings' of modernity. And no, you don't need encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible to get a lot from these texts.

Finally, yes, the ancient myths: the Bible, Beowulf, the Iliad and the Odyssey.
posted by nixerman at 8:48 AM on February 22, 2006


Like others have said, you can't forget about Homer, but I'd suggest an audio version. I'm currently listening to the Iliad* and it's a real joy.

*translated by Robert Fitzgerald
posted by luneray at 9:58 AM on February 22, 2006


" I can't recall the name of the set, but I often see it in used book stores--about 50 hardcover volumes, originally distributed I believe as a bonus for those who bought a complete set of encyclopedias. You can pick up the set for under a hundred bucks."

That would likely be Encyclopedia Britannica's Great Books of the Western World, edited by Mortimer Adler, which is more or less the St. John's College list because Adler is one of the primary shapers of the college's "Program". Incidentally, I just discovered Wikipedia's entry on SJC; it includes the reading list.

"I think that I may be misrepresenting what I mean, and that you may be misinterpreting the nature of most literary criticism. When I say that the so-called "Great Books" should be read along with companion volumes, I mean two things..."

Yes, but I don't think these should be read, for most purposes, from the perspective of literary criticism. I simply disagree with you that your preferred analytical approach to these works is the only one sensible—I'm oddly charmed by your naive hubris which sees itself as sophisticated. I also think it doesn't and cannot apply to the specific case we're discussing here—the mostly casual, autodidactical context. The critical approach you advocate requires an apparatus, the kind of support that a formal education provides. Especially in the case of the more informal reader, the critical approach is worth less than nothing. Of course, I suspect you and others would claim exactly the opposite! An experience of these books without guidance, in the view of some, is inherently misleading. I believe that underestimates the student and overestimates the scholar.

By the way, I notice that both the English Literature "canon" and the Western Tradition "canon" are being conflated here. I won't recommend one over the other because I believe the utility of each varies by purpose. It's also why I haven't advocated any particular work. A student might embark on a lifelong quest to read, digest, and discuss the best of both the western and eastern traditions and would need a few lifetimes to do it. Any reading list will so ruthlessly elide a great many very important books that I can't imagine recommending one particular variation as most useful for all students.

It may be best for evariste to sample a wide variety of foundational works and then refine and narrow his reading list according to a (hopefully) clearer view of what he means to accomplish. He may indeed realize that he strongly wants to approach these books from the critical perspective maxreach advocates. He may find he has no taste for philosophy and prefers literature. Most of my fellow johnnies and I are aware, I think, that even four years of intensive education in these books is only a starting point. If so, how could a list for a casual reader be complete? It can't.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 10:12 AM on February 22, 2006


If I were trapped on an island with the absolute minimum of three or four books, they would be:

Homer: The Iliad
Shakespeare: Hamlet and Lear
Tolstoy: Anna Karenina

Read Anna Karenina. It is, I think, the greatest novel ever written, and almost certainly the greatest 'classic' novel. (That's just my opinion, of course--really it just means that I like it a lot. It's the best novel I've read since starting my Ph.D in literature) My 'field' in graduate school is "the novel," and these are the novels from my reading list that seem to me most important and awesome, wisdom-wise, in chronological order. I've stolen them right from my orals reading list:

18th and 19th c.:
Cervantes: Don Quixote
Goethe: The Sorrows of Young Werther
Austen: Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Persuasion
Stendhal: The Red and the Black
Dickens: David Copperfield, Great Expectations
Turgenev: Fathers and Sons
Flaubert: Madame Bovary and Sentimental Education
Tolstoy: Anna Karenina
Dostoevsky: The Brothers Karamazov
Eliot: Middlemarch

20th c.:
James: The Portrait of a Lady and The Golden Bowl
Conrad: Lord Jim
Mann: Buddenbrooks
Proust: Remembrance of Things Past
Lawrence: Sons and Lovers
Kafka: The Trial and The Metamorphosis
Joyce: Dubliners and Ulysses
Hemingway: The Sun Also Rises
Woolf: Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse
Faulkner: As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury
Camus: The Fall
Beckett: Waiting for Godot and the Trilogy
Nabokov: Lolita, Pale Fire
Bellow: Seize the Day, Herzog

... and I think that brings us right up to 50 years ago. Of course, these are all novels. My advice re: poetry is to read the Norton Anthology of Poetry. Everything in it is genius. Buy Helen Vendler's book, The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets, which contains all the sonnets with a short essay on each one. And read all of Shakespeare (something I'm still working on.)

I hope that helps!
posted by josh at 10:17 AM on February 22, 2006 [1 favorite]


maxreax: Contextualizing Shakespeare helps us "get" why Hamlet is considered such a great play. In this sense, then, we use criticism and historical works not to tell us what to think but why we think it.

I think you sort of said it all hear, maxreax, and I think evariste would be well-advised to think carefully about this statement. If you want to know WHY a work is "considered" great, if you want to know WHY you think something about it, then yes, by all means, read lots of criticism and commentary. If you want to simply read Shakespeare (and Plato, and Tolstoy, and Cervantes, etc), languish in their words, images, ideas, expression - burn all the criticism. It's secondary. I think Shakespeare does a perfectly suitable job all on his own of convincing the reader that Hamlet is a great play. I don't need Harold Bloom to tell me that. And neither, I suspect, do you, evariste. If you want to know what Harold Bloom thinks about Hamlet, then by all means - dig in! That said, seems like you may want to know what YOU YOURSELF think about Hamlet first.

(I think there is absolutely nothing wrong with depending on notes to assist with the nuts and bolts comprehension of a text. For example, some of Shakespeare's language is archaic, and a modern reader will need some guidance. On this level, notes on a reading are essentially the same as a translation - they are only minimally interpretative.)
posted by fingers_of_fire at 10:48 AM on February 22, 2006


Actually, it strikes me that maxreax's statement quoted above makes literature a form of sociology. Or is that sociology and history are varieties of critical theory? Or is it that everything is a variety of critical theory? Hmm.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 10:57 AM on February 22, 2006


Nah EB, it's just all connected :)
posted by tweak at 1:48 PM on February 22, 2006


Actually, it strikes me that maxreax's statement quoted above makes literature a form of sociology. Or is that sociology and history are varieties of critical theory? Or is it that everything is a variety of critical theory? Hmm.

I just don't think that "Literature," as a field, exists in a vacuum. It's like what tweak said--everything is connected.

Reading "canon" works because they're canon is an inherently self-conscious endeavor. Picking up and reading Shakespeare because you like the book cover is an entirely different act than picking up Shakespeare because he's "on the list," as it were. Reading the books on the St. John's list without an eye towards the theory behind the canon is reductive. I'm not discouraging evariste from forming his own opinions, but Milton, Donne, Shakespeare, Pope, Dryden & co. aren't simply just good "on their own terms."
posted by maxreax at 2:08 PM on February 22, 2006


Well, for what it's worth, I don't think there's much controversy here. As a reader, when I'm confused or lost or want to know more, I look to criticism. When I'm not, I usually don't. No one is under any obligation to read with or without criticism. I will happily read Gulliver's Travels with footnotes; not so much other books. (Speaking of which, I forgot to put Gulliver down on the list of books I contributed--Swift is a genius.)

Sure, Shakespeare isn't good only on his own terms; at the same time, though, Shakespeare has defined some of the terms by which other books are judged. Reading Shakespeare is itself a way of getting background and guidance for other books.

There's no right or wrong here; you do what's practical. That's why I recommended Helen Vendler's book on Shakespeare's sonnets. It's very practical, the essays are useful and draw your attention to things you might not have noticed, and, since the sonnets themselves are included, it's easy on your budget: text + perspective on text in one volume.
posted by josh at 3:12 PM on February 22, 2006


Especially in the case of the more informal reader, the critical approach is worth less than nothing.

What a colossal overstatement. As an "informal" reader of the classics, I've always found notes to be wonderful supplements, adding depth and context that only added to my enjoyment. EB's dug himself into a hilariously rigid trench here; you can safely ignore the extreme position he lays out.
posted by mediareport at 3:41 PM on February 22, 2006


I'm coming in a bit late here, but I'm actually engaged in the same project, though more focused on fiction and poetry, and including non-Western stuff.

I don't have much to add to what's already been said, but if you're going to read the Icelandic sagas(something I would recommend doing), I'd also read the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda. Norse mythology hasn't had quite the same level of influence on Western culture as Greek mythology has, but it's still been pretty important and influential in various ways.

As for the Icelandic sagas themselves, Njal's Saga, Egil's Saga, and the Laxdaela Saga are generally considered to be the best. This book has Egil's and Laxdaela, among others, and I found it to be a very readable and enjoyable collection. It leaves out Njal's Saga, though, and for that one I read the translation by Magnus Magnusson, which seemed to be the best of the various translations out there. I think it's out of print now, though.
posted by a louis wain cat at 3:59 PM on February 22, 2006


Amazing advice, thanks everyone! I'll read it and mark my favorite answers now, but really, you pretty much all deserve best answer.

Mr. Bligh...listening to a johnnie friend talk about school gave me the idea for this AskMe post!
posted by evariste at 6:28 PM on February 22, 2006


Very interesting, thanks all! maxreax, Ethereal Bligh: I found your intellectual joust over annotation/criticism fascinating. I think I'll be reading well-recommended annotated versions of only the most impenetrable texts; otherwise, original sources.

Everyone has given me a lot to chew on. Mr. Bligh, I want to especially thank you for the idea to find a theme to focus on, as an autodidact, rather than trying to drink the ocean all at once. I'll keep it in mind as I construct my reading list.

Right now, I've got the following books to read:
nonfic:

The Debian System-Concepts and Techniques (Krafft)
The Peloponnesian War (Donald Kagan)

fic:

Great Tales of Jewish Fantasy and the Occult (ed. & trans. Joachim Neugroschel)
The Other Wind & The Dispossessed (Ursula K LeGuin)
The Legend That Was Earth (James Hogan)
I Am Charlotte Simmons (Tom Wolfe)

It'll take me a couple of months to clear out this backlog, at which time I'll return to this marvelous thread and plot my next (few hundred?) book purchases.
posted by evariste at 6:50 PM on February 22, 2006 [1 favorite]


"What a colossal overstatement."

Yeah, it may have been. What I had in mind was someone reading these books very sparsely, such that they will not be very aware of references within the canon and will then be very focused on the commentary they're reading. That commentary will present a certain viewpoint on the reading, and the reader will come away from the book remembering primarily that supposed correct reading.

And I suppose I really do believe that's worth less than nothing because I think knowing, supposedly, what some writer "really said" is worth far, far less than being active and engaged in the work.

I also happen to think that, though valuable, knowing "why" a writer said what he said, and why we think what he said is important, is not among the most important things you can get from a reading. Others disagree.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 10:54 PM on February 22, 2006


I don't know why every thread of this sort has to turn into a sophomoric criticism vs naive "appreciation" argument. That wasn't what the poster asked for. If you don't value criticism, fine. But there are those who do, and they should feel free to pass that belief in its utility along. If you read Shakespeare in anything other than a facsimile copy, you're already reaping the benefits of criticism and scholarship anyway, whether you're willing/able to appreciate it or not.

The more I study any work, the more I get out of it. There's a lot of crap criticism out there. But there is also enlightening criticism and scholarship that helps bring these works to life.

Here's the major lesson of 20th century literary criticism: there is no one correct reading of a work. Take that huge grain of salt with you as you venture forth. And happy reading.
posted by wheat at 2:22 PM on February 23, 2006


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