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December 6, 2011 7:37 AM   Subscribe

I want to spend next year reading ~the classics~. So, um, what are they?

Last December, I vowed to read 52 books in 2011, and it looks like I'm going to succeed. Now that I know I can do it, I want to challenge myself a little more in 2012 and acquaint myself with some of the books that a learned gentlewoman ought to have read. (I figure I'll do the same challenge as this year, but only require myself to read 26 'classics,' which will allow me to read trashy sci-fi as well and not get burned out. I could always do more than 26 if I really get into it, too!)

I'd like to get at least a little better acquainted with ancient and not-so-ancient fiction, important scientific books, and some philosophy. As well as anything else you guys can come up with. I'm easy.

My main reason for wanting to do this is to get a firmer understanding of the general cultural background of the world, so I'd like to focus on works that have had a broad impact on later works/culture, and a mix of Western and non-Western works.

I know this cannot realistically be done in a year, or a lifetime... but it's a start!
posted by showbiz_liz to Media & Arts (64 answers total) 152 users marked this as a favorite
I'd like to recommend Pride and Prejudice. Never thought I'd get this sucked into a classic but I feel like I'm reading a romance novel.
posted by biochemist at 7:41 AM on December 6, 2011 [6 favorites]

Books that may (?) be considered "classics" that I actually enjoyed:

Crime and Punishment
The Stranger
any good Poe collection
A Clockwork Orange
I, Claudius

Um, I swear there must be something lighter that I'm just not thinking of...
posted by JoanArkham at 7:44 AM on December 6, 2011

You can't go wrong with Shakespeare.
posted by dfriedman at 7:45 AM on December 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

Obviously this is a hella contentious issue but Bloom's 'Western Canon' is a reasonable place to start.

I would start with Moby-Dick because I enjoy books about whales!
posted by jeb at 7:46 AM on December 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

The Modern Library's 100 Best Novels list could give you some good ideas.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:47 AM on December 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

All kinds o' similar lists here.
posted by Iridic at 7:48 AM on December 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

Flatland, by Edwin A. Abbott.

If you enjoy it, you might consider following up with the non-classic Flatterland by Ian Stewart. I read Flatland since I felt like I really have ought to and it was worth the read and enjoyable, but Flatterland was just delightful.
posted by ZeroDivides at 7:50 AM on December 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

Brave New World
Defense of Socrates/Apology of Socrates/Apologia (same thing) and Crito
posted by clorox at 7:51 AM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Was just going through a somewhat similar process, and looking for free kindle books.

There's always the classic novels, but I decided to branch out from there, and ended up downloading Bertrand Russell's The Problems of Philosophy.
posted by Naberius at 7:52 AM on December 6, 2011

It might be ambitious to read in a week, but I recommend Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. Here's a link recommending How to read it.
posted by pelican at 7:55 AM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Shakespeare (possibly with a concordance, focus on the big plays), and a few good mythological books, again, possibly with a guide for literary readers or something like that. I was lucky enough to go to a school that taught Classical and Biblical mythology and the Odyssey in literature classes and having that background for Western lit is great.

I don't have the knowledge to recommend non-western canon, though, or what guides might be useful, but I feel like the cultural weight of those tends to require some guidance only because it's easy to get overwhelmed.

I did this last year a bit, and I'm glad you already suggested you'd allow yourself more relaxing reading in between; it keeps things flowing well.
posted by cobaltnine at 7:56 AM on December 6, 2011

For your stated purposes, above all I would include ancient Greek and Roman classics. Homer, Vergil, the Greek dramatists, Ovid (especially the Metamorphoses).
posted by BibiRose at 7:58 AM on December 6, 2011

Any canon worth its salt will include Don Quixote.
posted by shakespeherian at 7:59 AM on December 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

Lolita was a surprisingly good read.
posted by slmorri at 7:59 AM on December 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

More lists here

Another list focusing specifically on trying to be a world canon here.

Also there's this slightly kooky website, if you want to look at the old Trivium/Quadrivium.
posted by Wretch729 at 8:01 AM on December 6, 2011

Oh, and maybe some Supreme Court opinions. I'm sure there's a "Greatest Hits" out there.
posted by clorox at 8:03 AM on December 6, 2011

In no particular order:

Ulysses/Portrait of The Artist As a Young Man
Gravity's Rainbow
Infinite Jest
Hamlet/Romeo & Juliet
Pride and Prejudice
Huckleberry Finn
Gulliver's Travels
Moby Dick
Darwin's The Descent of Man
Euclid's Elements
Plato's Republic
Sun Tzu's Art of War
Hermann Hesse - Siddhartha
Any collection of Borges's short stories.
Don Quixote
100 Years of Solitude
Legend of the Monkey King
Tristam Shandy
Thus Spake Zarathustra
Camus's The Stranger
Umberto Eco - Foucault's Pendulum
Lord of the Rings
Sartre's Nausea
posted by empath at 8:04 AM on December 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

I think the answers in this previous question could help you out a ton: "I crave a great novel that's as addictive as a popcorn movie. Please recommend me some literary page-turners." People who say the classics are are boring or whatever? Screw them, they know not of what they speak.

a roundup of other potentially helpful threads: books that "cover a broad topic in an entertaining and engaging way which is easy for the layperson to understand", most unmissable novels of the past decade, and books "everyone should read".
posted by estlin at 8:06 AM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Tacitus: The Annals, The Histories
Yourcenar: The Memoirs of Hadrian
Stendhal: The Red & The Black, The Charterhouse of Parma
Di Lampedusa: The Leopard
Jacobsen: Niels Lyhne
posted by Chrischris at 8:07 AM on December 6, 2011

I've sort of been on a quest to do this myself, only with 20th century classics.

A few:

The Adventures of Augie March
In Cold Blood
Brave New World
The Great Gatsby
posted by phunniemee at 8:07 AM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

adding to what others have written, Anna Karenina, and Pale Fire.
posted by entropone at 8:09 AM on December 6, 2011

Caesar's Commentaries
The Illiad and Odyssey
Canterbury Tales
Slaughterhouse Five
Stranger In a Strange Land
HG Wells' Time Machine
Machiavelli - The Prince
The Divine Comedy
Paradise Lost
Augustine's City of God
Godel, Escher and Bach
Sophocles - Oedipus Rex
Aristotle's Poetics
posted by empath at 8:10 AM on December 6, 2011

Oh, and clearly you're not going to read the Iliad in one week, but you can read a few books. I think it's better to read an excerpt than to leave Homer out.
posted by BibiRose at 8:10 AM on December 6, 2011

Focusing on shorter works to fill in the cracks between Infinite Jest, Moby Dick, Don Quixote, In Search of Lost Time, War and Peace, and Pickwick Papers:

A selection of Michel de Montaigne's Essays.
Any selection of Francis Bacon's essays
Hydriotaphia & The Garden of Cyrus, by Thomas Browne
Richard Savage, by Samuel Johnson
Rameau's Nephew, by Denis Diderot
Virgil's Aeneid
Ben Jonson's Volpone
Izaak Walton's Compleat Angler
Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy
James Joyce's Dubliners
Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier
Antoine de Saint-Exupery's Wind, Sand, and Stars
Any selection of Chekhov's short stories
Any selection of Guy de Maupassant's short stories
posted by Iridic at 8:13 AM on December 6, 2011

Crash course:

The Epic of Gilgamesh
The Homeric Hymns
Plato's Apology of Socrates
Meditations of Marcus Aurelius
Beowulf (Seamus Heaney translation is good)
The Bodhicaryavatara
Hamlet, Richard III, As You Like It – Shakespeare
Persuasion – Jane Austen
Emma – Jane Austen
Middlemarch – George Eliot
Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
Vanity Fair – W.M. Thackeray
Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy
Sons and Lovers – D.H. Lawrence
Mrs. Dalloway – Virginia Woolf
Decline and Fall - Evelyn Waugh
Portrait of a Lady – Henry James
Howards End – E.M. Forster
The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
Collected short stories - Hemingway
Portrait of the artist as a young man – James Joyce
And for a little light reading (but these are classics too):
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Conan Doyle
Dracula – Bram Stoker
Eggs, Beans and Crumpets - P.G. Wodehouse
Three Men in a Boat – Jerome K. Jerome
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass – Lewis Carroll
posted by zadcat at 8:16 AM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Big Sleep
La Morte D'Arthur
Tale of Two Cities
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Critique of Pure Reason
Hobbe's Leviathan and John Locke's Second Treatise
The Epic of Gilgamesh
Life of Samuel Johnson
Bhagavad Gita
Satanic Verses
posted by empath at 8:18 AM on December 6, 2011

The Grapes of Wrath
posted by argonauta at 8:18 AM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Pride and Prejudice -- especially if you've dismissed it before, give it a shot. It gives you a great feel for Western society of the Georgian era, and it's full of surprisingly subtle and hilarious satire. It was also an early example of what pretty much every romantic comedy has adapted as its plot. If you have an ounce of love for the romantic, this one will bowl you over. If you like this, I would also throw in a Bronte, either Jane or Emily.

1984 and Brave New World -- gripping mid-century explorations of what could come of authoritarianism, and no less relevant today.

The Great Gatsby, if you didn't read it in high school. Simply an amazing novel, and the prototypical "Great American Novel."

You'll want to throw in something by Hemingway (for its prose style), something by a writer associated with the Southern Gothic style (I'd recommend a collection of Flannery O'Connor's stories or The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers), and something by Charles Dickens.

A Passage to India is a bit slow at first but a remarkable peek into the emotional complexities of Western imperialism.

These are all very Western recommendations, so you might enjoy exploring and throwing in some African/Indian/Chinese/Middle Eastern works as well (oh! A Thousand and One Nights).

Dracula, Frankenstein, or another of the horror genre might be fun too.. especially if you wait until October.

Good luck!
posted by aintthattheway at 8:19 AM on December 6, 2011

Harold Bloom's Western Canon sought to list the books that should be included in a list like this, and is pretty successful at that. (The importance of that canon, or concentrating on it, is a separate issue.)

You need to decide for yourself what criteria you want to use to do this. There are some suggestions here (Foster Wallace, Pynchon) that will influence things in the future, but are not yet as clearly source material. There are a lot of books that people think are great that don't qualify as classics in the sense you're talking about.

Given your stated criteria I would think that the King James Bible, The Illiad and The Odyssey, and Shakespeare's major plays are going to get you the most bang for your buck. Novels might follow after that.
posted by OmieWise at 8:19 AM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

FWIW, check out the selections included in the Harvard Classics, "originally known as Dr. Eliot's Five Foot Shelf, ... a 51-volume anthology of classic works from world literature, compiled and edited by Harvard University president Charles W. Eliot and first published in 1909," says Wikipedia.
posted by MonkeyToes at 8:22 AM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

There's also the Library of America
posted by empath at 8:27 AM on December 6, 2011

Here's the reading list for St. John's College, which is a book-based curriculum.
posted by warble at 8:30 AM on December 6, 2011 [5 favorites]

Susan Wise Bauer's "the well educated mind" is a structured reading list including commentary along the lines of what you have asked for.

I would strongly recommend it for your purposes!
posted by jannw at 8:34 AM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

For philosophy, it's worth going straight to the primary sources such as Classics of Western Philosophy which starts with Plato and Aristotle and moves through to more recent stuff.
posted by musicismath at 8:46 AM on December 6, 2011

Bloom's Western Canon is great, but the text (not the lists) begins with Dante --- it omits all non-Western and ancient writers.

My choice would be Plato's Euthyphro, Meno, Crito, Phaedo, Apology --- AKA "The Last Days of Socrates". And Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus.
posted by goethean at 8:56 AM on December 6, 2011

On second thought, I don't recommend delving into all that philosophy in the middle of trying to read the classic works of fiction (novels, plays). You could easily spend a year on just novels and then another year just on Shakespeare. Even spending a solid year doing a self-directed crash course in the classics of philosophy would be an amazing feat. But then, I'm not the speed reader you are, so of course your pacing is up to you.
posted by John Cohen at 9:01 AM on December 6, 2011

I really like this list of the "thousand greatest works" of literature--I've been working my way through it for the past three years. It's pretty well organized, and has a nice segment of plays, short stories, and poetry as well as novels, so you can work out a schedule of shorter works in between the monster Russian literature :). (And yeah, a thousand is a lot--I have a masters in literature, and I've barely hit 300 of them.)

For a shorter list: I spent rather more time compiling the various "100 greatest works!" lists a few years back than I ought to have. The top top 100, as determined by six different lists:

Anonymous Thousand and One Nights
William Faulkner "Light in August "
Roald Dahl "The BFG "
Henry James "The Ambassadors "
Ernest Hemingway "The Old Man and the Sea "
William Faulkner "Absalom, Absalom! "
Willa Cather Death Comes for the Archbishop
James Joyce "Finnegan's Wake "
V.S. Naipaul "A Bend in the River "
Toni Morrison "Song of Solomon "
Thomas Mann The Magic Mountain
Sinclair Lewis "Main Street "
Leo Tolstoy "Anna Karenina "
Joseph Conrad "Lord Jim "
John Steinbeck "Of Mice and Men "
John Fowles "The Magus "
James Joyce "Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man "
Homer "Odyssey "
Henry James "The Wings of the Dove "
Gabriel García Marquez "Love in the Time of Cholera "
F. Scott Fitzgerald "Tender is the Night "
Evelyn Waugh "Scoop "
Ernest Hemingway "A Farewell to Arms "
Anonymous Bible
William Styron "Sophie's Choice "
William Makepeace Thackeray "Vanity Fair "
Walt Whitman "Leaves of Grass "
Virgil Aeneid
Tom Wolfe Bonfire of the Vanities
Theodore Dreiser "An American Tragedy "
Stendhal "The Red and the Black "
Sophocles "Oedipus Trilogy "
Samuel Becket "Trilogy: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable "
Rudyard Kipling "Kim "
Robert Penn Warren "All the King's Men "
Robert Graves I, Claudius
Richard Wright "Native Son "
Norman Mailer The Naked and the Dead
Nathanial Hawthorne "The Scarlet Letter "
Muriel Spark "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie "
Michel de Montaigne "Essays "
Margaret Mitchell "Gone with the Wind "
Louis-Ferdinand Celine "Journey to the End of the Night "
Leo Tolstoy "War and Peace "
Lawrence Durrell "The Alexandria Quartet "
Kingsley Amis "Lucky Jim "
Jorge Luis Borges "Collected Fictions "
John Fowles "The French Lieutenant's Woman "
John dos Passos "USA (trilogy) "
John Bunyan Pilgrim's Progress
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe Faust
Jean Rhys "Wide Sargasso Sea "
Jane Austen "Pride and Prejudice "
James Baldwin "Go Tell it on the Mountain "
Homer "Illiad "
Henry Miller Tropic of Cancer
Henry Fielding Tom Jones
Henry James "Portrait of a Lady "
Giovanni Boccaccio "Decameron "
George Elliot "Middlemarch "
Geoffry Chaucer Canterbury Tales
Francois Rabelais "Gargantua and Pantagruel "
Ford Maddox Ford "The Good Soldier "
Euripides "Dramas "
Emily Bronte Wuthering Heights
Edith Wharton The Age of Innocence
Edgar Allan Poe "Complete Tales "
E.B. White "Charlotte's Web "
Douglas Adams "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy "
Dashiell Hammett "The Maltese Falcon "
Dante Alighieri The Divine Comedy
Daniel Defoe Robinson Crusoe
Daphne du Maurier "Rebecca "
D.H. Lawrence "Lady Chatterley's Lover "
Charles Dickens David Copperfield
Alice Walker The Color Purple
A.A. Milne Winnie-the-Pooh
D.H. Lawrence "The Rainbow "
Joseph Conrad "Nostromo "
D.H. Lawrence "Women in Love "
William Faulkner "As I Lay Dying "
Virginia Woolf Mrs. Dalloway
George Orwell "Animal Farm "
Fyodor M Dostoyevsky The Brothers Karamazov
E.M. Forster "Howards End "
Toni Morrison "Beloved "
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra Don Quixote
Mark Twain "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn "
Marcel Proust "Remembrance of Things Past "
Laurence Sterne "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy "
Kurt Vonnegut "Slaughterhouse Five "
Kenneth Grahame The Wind in the Willows
Joseph Conrad Heart of Darkness
John Steinbeck "The Grapes of Wrath "
Jonathan Swift "Gulliver's Travels "
Jack London "Call of the Wild "
J.R.R. Tolkien "The Lord of the Rings "
Herman Melville "Moby Dick "
Harper Lee "To Kill a Mockingbird "
Gustave Flaubert "Madame Bovary "
Gunter Grass The Tin Drum
Franz Kafka "The Trial "
Evelyn Waugh "Brideshead Revisited "
Ernest Hemingway "The Sun Also Rises "
E.M. Forster "A Room with a View "
Chinua Achebe Things Fall Apart
Anthony Burgess A Clockwork Orange
E.M. Forster "A Passage to India "
Salman Rushdie "Midnight's Children "
D.H. Lawrence Sons and Lovers
William Golding "Lord of the Flies "
William Faulkner "The Sound and the Fury "
Ralph Ellison "Invisible Man "
Joseph Heller "Catch-22 "
Jack Kerouac On the Road
J.D. Salinger "Catcher in the Rye "
Gabriel García Marquez "One Hundred Years of Solitude "
F. Scott Fitzgerald "Great Gatsby "
Aldous Huxley Brave New World
Vladamir Nabokov Lolita
Virginia Woolf To the Lighthouse
1984 Geroge Orwell
James Joyce Ulysses

The top top 100 authors:
Alice Walker
William Styron
William Makepeace Thackeray
Walt Whitman
Thomas Hardy
Samuel Becket
Rudyard Kipling
Roddy Doyle
Robert Penn Warren
Robert Graves
Richard Wright
Primo Levi
Philip Roth
Nathanial Hawthorne
Muriel Spark
Milan Kundera
Michel de Montaigne
Margaret Mitchell
Louis-Ferdinand Celine
Lawrence Durrell
Kingsley Amis
Kazuo Ishiguro
Ayn Rand
Jorge Luis Borges
John Irving
John dos Passos
John Bunyan
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Jean Rhys
James Baldwin
Henry Miller
Henry Fielding
A.A. Milne
Henrik Ibsen
Giovanni Boccaccio
Anton P. Chekhov
Geoffry Chaucer
Francois Rabelais
Flannery O'Connor
Erskine Caldwell
Emily Bronte
Edgar Allan Poe
Albert Camus
E.B. White
Douglas Adams
Dashiell Hammett
Dante Alighieri
Daniel Defoe
Daphne du Maurier
William Shakespeare
V.S. Naipaul
Tom Wolfe
Thomas Mann
Theodore Dreiser
Sinclair Lewis
Saul Bellow
Norman Mailer
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
Mark Twain
Laurence Sterne
Kenneth Grahame
Jonathan Swift
Jane Austen
Jack London
Honore de Balzac
Herman Melville
Harper Lee
Graham Greene
Gunter Grass
George Elliot
Ford Maddox Ford
Chinua Achebe
Charles Dickens
Anthony Burgess
William Golding
Willa Cather
Ralph Ellison
Marcel Proust
Kurt Vonnegut
Joseph Heller
John Fowles
Jack Kerouac
J.R.R. Tolkien
Gustave Flaubert
Edith Wharton
Aldous Huxley
Roald Dahl
Leo Tolstoy
John Steinbeck
J.D. Salinger
Franz Kafka
Vladamir Nabokov
Toni Morrison
Salman Rushdie
Gabriel García Marquez
Fyodor M Dostoyevsky
Evelyn Waugh
Henry James
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Virginia Woolf
Joseph Conrad
George Orwell
Ernest Hemingway
William Faulkner
E.M. Forster
D.H. Lawrence
James Joyce

Here are some spreadsheets with the various lists: 100 books, 100 authors, compiled lists, 1000 book list. I have information about where e-books are available for many of the lists on the spreadsheets, although it's a couple years out of date.
posted by kittenmarlowe at 9:10 AM on December 6, 2011 [9 favorites]

I'm not sure how useful this will be, since you're in NYC, but the Kobo e-reader (which is probably only available in Canada) comes pre-loaded with 100 classic titles. This would be a convenient way to achieve your goal since you wouldn't have to buy a ton of books or go on waiting lists at the library.
posted by asnider at 9:15 AM on December 6, 2011

I LOVE YOU FOR ASKING THIS QUESTION. It was a wonderful reason for me to trawl through my collected reading lists again (most of which are linked above) and try to write you a prescription. I couldn't get it down to 26 (I just couldn't, I'm sorry!), but I did get it down to 34. Some of these are shorter, too, so perhaps not unreasonable. All other things being equal, I tried to pick books that were...

(1) influential
(2) widened the range of literary traditions & cultural milieus that were represented
(3) fun to read, as I reckon it

Obviously, this is a subjective list. I'm a little heavy on the Western canon (so shoot me), and I'm rather light on philosophy (so shoot me). I also added categories for drama & poetry, which are both essential for any study of the classics. And finally, I take it as a given that you have already read the big world religious texts, especially the King James Bible.

Without further ado, the list. Take 34 and call me in the morning.

- Beowulf (tr. Heany)
- The Odyssey (Homer)
- Metamorphoses (Ovid)
- Paradise Lost (Milton)
- The Inferno (Dante)
- Poetry (Basho)
- Leaves of Grass (Whitman)
- Howl (Ginsberg)

- The Tale of Genji (Murasaki)
- Don Quixote (Cervantes)
- Candide (Voltaire)
- Moby Dick (Melville)
- Middlemarch (Eliot)
- Crime and Punishment (Dostoyevski)
- Anna Karenina (Tolstoy)
- Mrs. Dalloway (Woolf)
- Invisible Man (Ellison)
- Lolita (Nabokov)
- Ficciones (Borges)
- Midnight's Children (Rushdie)

- Oedipus Rex (Aeschylus)
- Hamlet (Shakespeare)
- Faust (Goethe)
- The Cherry Orchard (Chekhov)
- Waiting for Godot (Beckett)
- Angels in America (Kushner)

- Physics (Aristotle)
- Symposium (Plato)
- The Prince (Machiavelli)
- Democracy in America (de Tocqueville)
- The Origin of Species (Darwin)
- The Interpretation of Dreams (Freud)
- Capital (Marx)
- Relativity: The Special and General Theory (Einstein)
posted by ourobouros at 9:45 AM on December 6, 2011 [4 favorites]

Ooh, read Dumas! I always feel like I'm pulling one over an people when I mention his books or read them in public, because they look at me and think "readin' classics? Must be an Intellectual." And I think, "oh man this is such joyous pulp I love it!" "The Count of Monte Cristo" is obviously a big one, and fun, but for my money (as it were), the D'Artagnan Romances are really where it's at. In some part because there's just more of it, so there was more to enjoy.

I'm pretty enthusiastic about Dumas. I had no idea when I started to read "The Three Musketeers" that it was going to turn out to be so awesome.

That would be part of the "light reading" portion of The Classics, obviously. "Lolita" also makes me happier than most things in the world. And if you happen to feel like looking into poetry, which I myself virtually never do, T. S. Eliot is your guy.

Oh, and Russian stuff! "We" by Yevgeny Zamyatin is the thing which both "Brave New World" and "1984" ripped off. (Those are good too, of course, but "We" is better. And while we're on dystopias, Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale" is a good one to have read too.) And "The Master and Margarita" by Mikhail Bulgakov is another one I enjoyed too much to put down once I started.

I seem to be recommending the tasty snacks among Classics rather than the nutritious, fiber-laden, ponderous stuff here. But that's less difficult to find anyway.

"Crime and Punishment" (Dostoyevsky, or however you spell it in English); Anna Karenina (Tolstoy). A little less fluffy. Can you tell that a large portion of my course of study in college was Russian?
posted by Because at 9:52 AM on December 6, 2011

I suppose here is my personal recommendations:

Stuff I love:
Steinbeck: Of Mice and Men, East of Eden, and Winter of our Discontent. Picking just one I'd go East of Eden, though it's pretty thick; if you haven't read him before Of Mice and Men would be a good, short bet.

Jorge Luis Borges: Ficciones. The Aleph is pretty good too.

Victor Hugo: Les Miserables. Love it so much! It is over a thousand pages, though, so maybe not your first pick.

Willa Cather: later works. (there is lots of disagreement about this). Death Comes for the Archbishop is the traditional choice (and is beautiful), but I'm pretty fond of The Professor's House as well. My Antonia features in most of the lists, but I'm not really a fan.

Fyodor M Dostoyevsky: Crime and Punishment is the traditional choice, and is wonderful, though long, Brothers is also traditional, even longer, and (in my opinion) not as good. If you want a shorter Dostoyevsky to get your feet wet, Notes from the Underground is my favorite.

Marquez: One Hundred Years of Solitude. Amazing.

Marilynne Robinson: my favorite is Gilead, but if you like something resembling a plot in your reading, you'll want to go Housekeeping.

Ishiguro: the usual reccommendation is The Remains of the Day, but I love love love An Artist of the Floating World

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra: Don Quixote. Really quite fun! Just make sure you get a decent translation.

Pedro Calderon de la Barca: Life is a Dream. Spanish contemporary of Shakespeare, and centuries ahead of his time. Love love love.

Shakespeare: lots to choose from. Personally, I would go Twelfth Night in combination with Life is a Dream, above. They make an interesting contrast to each other.

Kit Marlowe! Tamburlaine, though Faustus is pretty traditional too.

Camus: The Stranger is the traditional choice. Personally, I love his little-known play Caligula and his non-fiction. Move on to absurdist drama from here: Becket's Waiting for Godot, Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (if you've read Hamlet, otherwise maybe Arcadia, though Rosencrantz is much better). Ionesco's The Rhinoceros. You can also read mod favorte Barthelme here!

James Joyce: Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. Short stories are good too ("Araby"), though they're not representative of his longer works. Definately Portrait before you try to dive into Ulysses.

Virginia Woolf: the one book that's been on every list I've ever looked at is To the Lighthouse. Mrs. Dalloway is also pretty popular, and you can pair it with another classic, Michael Cunningham's The Hours. I liked The Hours more than Woolf, but I'm pretty sure I'm alone in that.

T.S. Eliot: start with something easier, like "Prufrock," and then maybe try for The Wasteland.

Ezra Pound: The ABCs of Reading. Yeah, he wrote poetry too, but he shines as a critic, I think.

Other fun Modern/Modernist poets: Larkin, Yeats, HD, Edna St. Vincent Millay (love!), Patrick Kavanagh. WC Williams is important, though I don't particularly care for him.

Earlier poets: Coleridge is my favorite. The Brownings are fun. Marvell (the classic here is "To His Coy Mistress") and Donne. Tennyson I have a love/hate relationship with, but "Ulysses" is great. Mathew Arnold is great. You probably ought to at least try to read some Alexander Pope, though I don't know that I would say I like him. In the same vein, Whitman and Dickenson.

Heart of Darkness in combination with Things Fall Apart. Heart is problematic, but it's still a really interesting book.

Speaking of African lit, you won't find a lot of it on any lists--almost always Achebe, occasionally Soyinka. If you want to move away from the Western lit and are interested in the African: Soyinka's plays ("The Road," "Dance of the Forests" leap out in my memory) are pretty wonderful, though difficult. His novel, The Interpreters, makes a few lists, but I wasn't a fan. Ngugi's Petals of Blood is amazing, as is Ben Okri's The Famished Road. Highlife for Caliban is fantastic poetry--try to find the uncensored older edition. Kwakye’s The Sun by Night is good, as is Maru by Bessie Head.

Austen: Pride and Prejudice.

Graves: I, Claudius

Warren: All the King's Men

Chaim Potok: My Name is Asher Lev

Joseph Heller: Catch-22

George Elliot: Middlemarch. It's really long, and starts pretty slow--honestly, it took me four tries to make it past the first hundred pages. And then it became one of my favorite books. Don't go for Mill on the Floss--one of the most frustrating novels I ever read. You may want to read this with Anna Karenina by Tolstoy.

Speaking of frustrating: Moby Dick. I have the biggest love/hate relationship with Herman Melville ever. He's hilarious, and brilliant, and every single one of his longer works makes me want to jump up and down on top of it when I finish. I love Moby Dick, but I'm never sure if I want to recommend it or not. If you do try it, you might try watching The Life Aquatic when you're done.

Classic Classics: the stuff everyone really ought to read. The Iliad and the Odyssey. Canterbury Tales (go ahead and read the translated version). FOr extra fun, read Canterbury in conjunction with The Decameron. The Oedipus trilogy. Thousand and One Nights. Tale of Genji. Gilgamesh. Sappho and Catullus' poetry. Beowulf (possibly with Grendel). Paradise Lost. The Inferno. Wuthering Heights, probably, and Hemingway (not really a fan of either, but they're important.) Grimm's fairy tales, and maybe Perrault's as well. Huckleberry Finn.

Surprisingly fun stuff: Vanity Fair by Thackery, Moll Flanders by Defoe. Anything by Dumas. The Scarlet Pimpernell. Jane Eyre. The Beggar's Opera by John Gay. The Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus (author listed varies, but it was a group effort between Swift, Pope, Gay, Artbuthnot, and a couple other people in the Scriblerus Club whose names I can't remember off the top of my head).

I'm sure I'll think of dozens more after I hit post, but oh well :)
posted by kittenmarlowe at 10:19 AM on December 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

As a companion or precursor, I'd suggest David Denby's Great Books. About a dozen years ago, the author (a famous New Yorker and New York Magazine film critic) re-enrolled in his alma mater, Columbia University, and took two of the classic Western Civilization core courses. I've reread it many times over the years -- it's an easy read, dipping in and out of what we're allegedly supposed to take from the readings, and what they meant to someone encountering them in middle age.

I'd like to encourage you to embrace the idea that great books can also be fun books. I'm a huge Jane Austen fan, and I'd recommend Emma, which is the most lighthearted of her books, and Persuasion, which is the most "grown up" in theme, and I believe takes maturity to fully appreciate. Yes, they're romances, but what is more reflective of humanity than the human heart? ;-)
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 10:30 AM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh: you don't have to decide between "classics" and "trashy sci-fi novels"--there's a decent overlap between the two.

Old school: Jules Verne, HG Wells, Frankenstein, Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde, Dracula (horror, technically).

More recent: Asimov, Heinlen, Clark, and Dick all get mentions in various "great books" lists. Le Guin is on almost all of them. Fantasy-wise, Delaney, Tolkien, Lewis. Atwood, of course. Octavia Butler. I'd say me-fi's own (sort of) Jeff Vandermeer might make the cut.
posted by kittenmarlowe at 10:55 AM on December 6, 2011

This site is a great list-of-lists that combines many other lists into one (see the bottom of the page for the links to this mega-list).
posted by Infinite Jest at 11:51 AM on December 6, 2011

You could easily spend a year on just novels and then another year just on Shakespeare.

If I had an endless life in which to do all this reading, I'd do just the opposite: A year with Shakespeare (and a good lit crit guide), and follow THAT with a year for novels. Modern classics make so many Shakespeare references that it wouldn't make sense to do it in reverse.
posted by coolguymichael at 12:28 PM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

You asked for a mixture of Western and non-Western works, but almost everything here is part of the Western literary tradition (as it has been reimagined over the centuries), and rather heavily slanted toward English-language works, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries.

In addition to Murasaki's Tale of Genji, a few non-Western classics to consider are:

The Mahabharata, the great northern Indian epic that includes the Bhagavad Gita as one of its episodes. The Rig Veda is useful background though not easy going without a commentary.

The Journey to the West, a classic of Chinese literature, along with I Ching (the book of changes), Tao Te Ching, attributed to the Old Master (Laozi), and the Analects of Confucius (Kung Fuzi).

And of course the major scriptures of the world's religions: not only the Tanakh and Talmud, and the Christian New Testament, but of course the Qur'an and the hadiths; the Vedas and Upanishads; the Diamond Sutra; the Book of Mormon; etc. It's useful when approaching these, though, to keep in mind that for believers, the scriptures are part (often not the most important part) of a vibrant living tradition, and that the way the classics present the faith often has little to do with what people believe or how they act in the present.
posted by brianogilvie at 2:51 PM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

"QED", Feynman
"Elementary Differential Equations and Boundary Value Problems", Boyce & DePrima

These ideas are classic too.
posted by sninctown at 4:02 PM on December 6, 2011

Most of the lists so far are ridiculously English-centric. Can you read in another language? Get an anthology and pick something that looks interesting. For French-speaking me, Stendhal's The Charterhouse of Parma & Flaubert's Salambô were trashy-sci-fi-like page turners.

You might also want to look at history, maybe by picking up something recent & scholarly on the history of Christianity or Islam or agriculture, or horsemanship, which can really help you understand what is going on in old texts
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 5:26 PM on December 6, 2011

Students at St. John's College read "the great books."
posted by oceano at 5:29 PM on December 6, 2011

You should totes read Classics For Pleasure by the critic Michael Dirda. It's a great book outlining what you might be looking for in lovely vignettes.
posted by smoke at 5:51 PM on December 6, 2011

“Death of a Salesman” – Arthur Miller
“A Streetcar Named Desire” – Tennessee Williams

Government and Politics
Magna Carta (English, 1215, challenged monarchy)
“Areopagitica” – Milton (against censorship)
Mayflower Compact
Declaration of Independence
Federalist Papers
Gettysburg Address
“Letter From a Birmingham Jail” and “I Have a Dream” – Martin Luther King
“All the President's Men” (Watergate)

Religion & Philosophy
I Ching

“Brief History of Time” – Stephen Hawking
“Cosmos” – Carl Sagan
“Guns, Germs and Steel” – Jared Diamond
“On the Origin of Species” – Charles Darwin (evolution)
“Silent Spring” – Rachel Carson (environment)

Science & Detective Fiction
“A Journey to the Centre of the Earth” and “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” – Jules Verne
“The Murders in the Rue Morgue" – Poe
“The War of the Worlds” – H.G. Wells

Supreme Court cases
***** 1803 – Marbury v. Madison (“Established the Supreme Court's power to strike down acts of United States Congress that were in conflict with the Constitution.” – Wikipedia)
1819 – McCulloch v. Maryland (implied powers)
1857 – Dred Scott v. Sandford (noncitizenship of black people)
1896 – Plessy v. Ferguson (segregation)
1954 – Brown v. Board of Education (desegregation)
1962 – Baker v. Carr (reapportionment of political districts)
1963 – Gideon v. Wainwright, or “Gideon’s Trumpet,” which is about the case (providing defense counsel for indigent defendants)
1964 – Escobedo v. Illinois (Person in custody has right to speak to lawyer.)
1964 – New York Times v. Sullivan (“actual malice” standard for libel)
1969 – Brandenburg v. Ohio (inflammatory speech)
1971 - New York Times v. United States (about Pentagon Papers)
1973 – Roe v. Wade (abortion)
1974 – United States v. Nixon (executive privilege)

“The Feminine Mystique” – Betty Friedan
“Walden” – Thoreau
posted by maurreen at 1:09 AM on December 7, 2011

And Machiavelli's "The Prince".
posted by maurreen at 2:06 AM on December 7, 2011

Don't do it alone. Get a general survey of books and use it as a guide to reading and writing (keep a journal) throughout the year.

For instance, you want 26 works? You could pick up a copy of the very old-school The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, which focuses on 26 authors: Shakespeare, Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Montaigne, Molière, Milton, Samuel Johnson, Goethe, Wordsworth, Jane Austen, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Tolstoy, Henrik Ibsen, Freud, Proust, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda, Fernando Pessoa, and Samuel Beckett.

Be prepared to write all over it, cross things out, maybe tear pages out and wipe your ass with them. Use his book as something to respond to throughout the year. Actually respond to the book -- get the tools out and mark it up, but also start a parallel journal (paper or online or both) in which you do some basic schoolchild stuff like summarizing plots and listing symbols, basic conflicts, etc., so you'll be sure you really got the basics and will not forget them. Then add anything else you want to add; you're the teacher and the student, though the author of the survey will be at least a distant mentor or taunter. Photocopy things and put them up on the wall for contemplation or memorization.

If you tend to (or want to) look at everything through a certain lens such as feminism or LGBT, you could pick up an appropriately narrow survey and go at it that way, but with a pen, with wite-out, with a knife, with glue to stick in extra pages. Don't treat the book as a bible, but more as a notebook you can do with as you like. Then put the book on your shelf as a souvenir of the year and a quick way to refresh your mind about everything else you read over the year.

Something like that would keep you very busy for a year.
posted by pracowity at 2:11 AM on December 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Well, it's not like you don't have a bajillion other suggestions, but I'm going to add one slightly untraditional one:

The Maltese Falcon, by Dasheill Hammett

I add it because you asked for books that have been influential on later literature. The Falcoln's opening scene is the Ur text of modern detective literature --- you've probably seen it parodied more times than played straight, and Sam Spade is the father of a thousand movie and TV and literary heros. Plus it's a lot of fun.
posted by Diablevert at 4:54 AM on December 7, 2011

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole is only about 50 years old, but it's great. I listen to it every couple/few years on audio format.
posted by getawaysticks at 5:37 AM on December 7, 2011

To be real about this program of 26 works in 52 weeks, stay away from big, serious tomes that will wear you down and put you behind schedule. Unless you have lots of solitary reading time, you aren't going to do justice to 26 works the size and scope of Don Quixote. When you read Henry James, read Daisy Miller, not A Portrait of a Lady. When you read The Canterbury Tales, read "The Miller's Tale" and "The Wife of Bath's Tale" (which will make you snort and laugh), not the whole book. When you read Shakespeare, read Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, but mainly stick to the comedies.

If you want to read nonfiction for the purpose of improving your mind, I would read more recent things. Not The Origin of Species, for example, but The Selfish Gene, and pick up something like The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing to cleanse your palate between great works of fiction and poetry.

Devote at least one of these two-week blocks to a book of or about mathematics. You'll need to find one that suits your abilities.

Devote at least one of these two-week blocks to a book of or about poetry (besides Chaucer and Shakespeare). You could pick one poet and read the major works, or big chunks of them if the poet was prolific.
posted by pracowity at 11:02 AM on December 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

A few more comments, and then I swear I'll shut up.

1. Reading with a friend is a good way to get through the monster-Russian-novels, etc. Break it down into small segments and agree that you'll both/all finish reading three chapters each week or whatever you feel comfortable with. Doing it this way is the only reason I finished reading Brothers Karamazov, I think.
1a. This keeps you motivated through the duller sections.
1b. Having someone to discuss the works with can make the difference between loving (and understanding) a particular work and hating it. Even if you're not breaking it down the way I suggested, I highly recommend finding someone/somewhere to discuss what you're reading. There are plenty of groups on the internet dedicated to that kind of thing. Metafilter has their own book discussion group as well, though it seems to tend towards more contemporary stuff. (Heck, feel free to me-mail/e-mail me if you like. I'd be glad to talk about something I've already read or discuss working through something together that I haven't. I've been way behind working through my lists since I graduated. I warn you that I tend towards essaying, though, as you might have noticed.)

2. Riffing off what pracowity said, don't feel like you have to read all monster novels or complete collections or whatever. Especially with poetry and short stories, I'd reccommend getting an anthology or two. I mean, you really, really don't need to read the complete works of Tennyson* or all of the Canterbury Tales. You're going for breadth rather than depth at this point. A nice anthology does all the work of picking out the most essential poems or the most representative short stories. And you can use these shorter works as a nice break in between the two or three monster books you pick. Read a poem or two a night or one short story and then read your trashy sci-fi until you feel up to tackling something bigger.

3. With anthologies, there are three ways you can go.
3a.You can pick up small anthologies on specialized topics--Dover Thrift Editions are a good example of these. For three bucks fifty cents on amazon, you can read English Victorian Poetry: An Anthology which will give you a nice selection of five-ten of the most important poets during that period. These are cheap, keep things in context with the other works of the period, and will give you a very brief explanation (usually less than a page) of what the period was kind of about.
3b. You can pick up a short anthology covering a wide range, something like 101 Best Loved Poems. These do pretty much what they say--give you a hundred poems or so across the history of literature that are considered pretty important. These can give a nice overview, but tend to lack any context or explanatory notes.
3c. Go whole hog and pick up a hardcore anthology, such as a Norton Anthology or Critical Edition. These are very big, and tend to annotate heavily. Something like the Norton Anthology of World Literature will have a large collection of poetry, short stories, novellas, excerpts from larger works, holy books and important philosophical texts. Something like The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry will be like the first category, only on speed. A vastly wider selection and a vastly wider array of notes, explanations, and critical texts from the period. (I love the Modern Poetry anthology for its collection of essays by Pound, Eliot, et. al about what they were trying to accomplish). The down side to these is that they're not exactly super portable or read-in-bed-or-the-bathtub friendly. Also kind of pricey.

*No one needs to read the complete Tennyson. No one. I'm not sure my professors of Victorian Poetry had ever made their way through the entire In Memoriam.
posted by kittenmarlowe at 12:03 PM on December 7, 2011

Just in case you want another list, here's a list of books that have appeared on the AP Literature exam.
posted by hishtafel at 3:29 PM on December 7, 2011

Do you have a college in your area? If it's possible, I'd suggest auditing a literature survey to give you some direction. The classics I've read in a literature course have resonated with me far more than any I've read on my own. I can navigate through 20th century literature on my own for the most part but older stuff tends to make my eyes glaze over. The classics shouldn't be boring, but I've found that I make them boring due to my lack of knowing how to engage them properly without a guide.

If taking a class isn't an option, and you find yourself burning out on this project, I'd suggest trusting your instincts enough to put things down when they get boring and move on. There's too much fascinating stuff out there to waste your time slogging through all the classics due to a sense of obligation. This may not be an issue for you but it sure has been for me. Ironically, once I freed myself up to not "like" some of the classics and gave myself permission to not appreciate everything 100%, they've become interesting again.
posted by dosterm at 9:12 AM on December 8, 2011

The 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die book was my own gateway. The very first edition was pretty good about not being too Western-Centric, but later editions got even better at it. Plus, they also cut out some of the lamer entries from the 21st-century section (to be fair, the first edition came out in about 2003, so there wasn't much to work with anyway).

And seconding what dosterm said about giving yourself permission to give up on something, or simply to not like something. Sometimes that was all the incentive I needed to keep at something, knowing that I didn't HAVE to. Knowing I could put it down whenever I wanted helped keep me at some stuff longer ("eh, maybe it'll get better, let me read another page and then I'll stop"). I've actually only given up on two books outright (I'm looking at you, Princess of Cleves).

There are also a couple of really fun "1001 books" fan lists and tools and such that help you keep track if you really want to get nerdy about it. Plus, sometimes some of the "books" are really just essays or folktales, so you can cheat and read "A Modest Proposal" and then be all "cool, I've read a book on my list! And it only took 20 minutes!" (Then again, the entire "Remembrance of Things Past" work is also listed as a single book.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:58 AM on December 8, 2011

The blurst of times? You stupid monkey.
posted by amitai at 11:22 AM on December 10, 2011

I recommend reading Atlas Shrugged. Not because I agree with it. The opposite in fact. It is a foundational book for the way a lot of people think. I'm way too socialist/statist to ever agree with the perspective but I can understand it better after these books. The Fountainhead is more readable but I think less overt (though both books are ideology lectures thinly wrapped in plots).
posted by srboisvert at 4:36 AM on December 13, 2011

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