Influential Literature Around the World
January 4, 2013 9:44 PM   Subscribe

Would you please inform me as to which literary works and/or authors have been most influentual upon and/or read by students before leaving secondary school, by country and/or region?

I've created a speculative partial list I'd greatly appreciate help in expanding and correcting. Viz.:

USA: The Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, 1984, The Great Gatsby, &c.; Ireland: Joyce(?) (is there a short story or section of his work that is commonly used as an introduction?); England: 1984(?) (who is more likely to read 1984, a Brit or an American?); Scotland: Stevenson(?); France: The Stranger(?); Germany: Goethe(?), Kafka(?); Algeria: The Stranger(?); Italy: Dante(?); Russia: War and Peace, Gogol(?); China: Confucius(?) (Confucian saying must permeate Chinese society, but which of his texts is the first that is studied as such?); the Arab world: Arabian Nights(?) (I've read that AN is not particularly well-regarded, but is it studied at all?); Japan: Murakami(?); the Persian-speaking world: Rubáiyàt of Omar Khayyám(?); Bangladesh: Nazrul(?); the Czech Republic: Hus(?); Latin America: Don Quixote(?), Borges(?), Márquez(?); Brazil: Coelho(?).
posted by slowlikemolasses to Writing & Language (23 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Joyce's "Dubliners" and "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" are used as introductions to his work. They are easier to understand than either "Ulysses" or "Finnegan's Wake".
posted by dfriedman at 9:50 PM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Japanese high-schoolers have generally read at least some of The Tale of Genji. It's the Japanese equivalent of Chaucer's Canterbury Takes, which are read by both English and American high school students still. Contemporary American students generally do not attempt to follow the Middle English text like their mid-20th century predecessors did, however.
posted by infinitewindow at 9:58 PM on January 4, 2013

Machado de Assis would probably be somewhere in the Brazilian curriculum.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 9:59 PM on January 4, 2013

Russian language and culture today are as steeped in Pushkin as English is in Shakespeare, perhaps even more so.
posted by infinitewindow at 10:00 PM on January 4, 2013

Yeah, really have to second infinitewindow on Pushkin. A Russian curriculum without him is astonishingly incomplete.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 10:06 PM on January 4, 2013

At my secondary school (that is, high school) in England, students studied a Shakespeare play every year, and at least a couple of Dickens' books overall. They're really were the main two, Shakespeare and Dickens. I don't recall anybody ever reading Chaucer, Middle English or not. Also, in my school at least, 1984 was not read, but Animal Farm was in some years.

If you want actual titles, the Shakespeare plays I remember were: Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer's Night Dream, Julius Caesar, and Macbeth. For Dickens, I only remember Hard Times, but there must have been others.

However, I must caution you that nobody I knew actually read any of these works through. They were simply studied in bits, and not as whole works.
posted by Jehan at 10:45 PM on January 4, 2013

At my secondary school (that is, high school) in England, students studied a Shakespeare play every year

Same for my experience of high school in the USA. We had Romeo and Juliet, then Julius Caesar, then Macbeth (with a break one year to focus on American Literature). Hamlet, The Tempest, and A Midsummer Night's Dream are also popular.

We did read the full works of the Shakespeare stuff, or at least were responsible for having read it. That said, I was a literature-focused student at a nerdy magnet school. We also read Chaucer in Middle English and Paradise Lost as well, the latter of which I think is a little uncommon for American high school students. So I don't know if Reading The Whole Thing is really more common in the US.

We had The Dubliners, too, and Animal Farm.

For American literature, The Scarlet Letter is my strongest memory of Canon we were required to plow through. Also To Kill A Mockingbird, though I have fonder memories of it.

I also had multiple different units on Greek tragedy throughout high school (especially the Oedipus cycle), but that might not be typical.
posted by Sara C. at 10:58 PM on January 4, 2013

At my high school in New Zealand we did Shakespeare (A midsummer night's dream, Macbeth, Othello and Hamlet), Emily Bronte (Wuthering Heights) and a bunch of NZ authors, the most famous being probably Witi Ihimaera and Keri Hulme. We also did a lot of short stories and poetry, but none of them by especially famous authors, as far as I can remember. It was mostly NZ literature and a variety of our English teachers' personal favourites.
posted by lollusc at 12:29 AM on January 5, 2013

Oh and we did To Kill a Mockingbird as well.
posted by lollusc at 12:30 AM on January 5, 2013

Argh and actually now I think of it it was Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre we did; Emily Bronte was first year university. I'll shut up now.
posted by lollusc at 12:32 AM on January 5, 2013

Denmark: Probably Ludvig Holberg, Adam Oehlenschläger, Hans Christian Andersen, JP Jacobsen, Karen Blixen and Tove Ditlevsen ..
posted by kariebookish at 12:59 AM on January 5, 2013

In the UK, we did a Shakespeare play in Year 9/14 years old (Twelfth Night for me), then one for GCSE/15-16 years old (we did Macbeth, others did Romeo and Juliet). Throughout the years we read bits of other Shakespeare but not in as much in depth. For GCSE we also had a set text, out of a choice between To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, Lord of the Flies, Pride and Prejudice; we also read Animal Farm, and a bit of Great Expectations. I didn't do A-level (17-18 years) English or Literature, but from my friends who did you read other Austen, Frankenstein, Jane Eyre etc. Take a look at which York Notes are published for GCSE, or AS/A2 (i.e. A-level) and you'd know which ones are commonly studied.

In Japan we most definitely did not read Murakami (he's really just one author there and not particularly that revered - though I don't know about more recently; my schooling is only until 2008). In Japanese schools you get given nationally (or near-nationally) standardised textbooks that are already pre-assembled with short stories/extracts from longer texts/poems/articles/non-fiction/grammar exercises etc and supposed to last a year (or half a year); hence, we do not read whole books like we did in the UK (though we were regularly given to do book reviews, often from a pre-set reading list). From what I recall we did extracts from old Japanese texts (Tale of Genji, Akutagawa e.g. Rashomon, The Pillow Book, The Tale of the Heike), old Chinese texts in translation (Confucius etc), modern classics from the Meiji-ish era (some Soseki, e.g. Kokoro or Botchan, Mori Ogai e.g. The Dancing Girl) and some contemporary texts.
posted by pikeandshield at 1:53 AM on January 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

One pattern you will see, especially if you look at the CommonWealth countries is that there will tend to be a bias in the English language school's curriculum towards the UK system/literature.

For eg. I studied at a British School for expats in Malaysia which led to the then (1982) GCE O Levels, and for Literature, over the years, we did - The Hobbit, Midsummer Night's Dream, Merchant of Venice, Cider with Rosie, (and more I can't recall) and assorted Keats, Donne, Ted Hughes and Wilfred Owens but then again it depends on the teacher. At the American school, it was Catcher in the Rye that comes immediately to mind.

Now when I met with friends who had gone into the ICSE system in India, closely modelled on the same O level curriculum right down to Abbott for Physics, they'd done Julius Caesar. But the CBSE system which was followed in the state schools had an entirely different curriculum.

Yet the echoes of the original O Level English and English Literature curriculum have been there when I meet and speak with those who have been educated in countries as diverse as Singapore and Kenya.

So perhaps taking a look at the older O Level curriculums for English may help with a rough estimate of books/authors/playwrights/poets for a larger number of countries than simply England.

And I wonder if Mao's little Red Book might not be more popular than Confucious in a state run educational system such as Mainland China's ?
posted by infini at 1:57 AM on January 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh yeah, Lord of the Flies as well. How can I forget that little nightmare. And the Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham.
posted by infini at 1:59 AM on January 5, 2013

Pakistanis will have read one or more Shakespeare plays, and a fair bit of poetry (Keats, Wordsworth, Milton, to name a few). In Urdu, the classics are all poetry. So you can't graduate high school without having read Ghalib, Mir, Iqbal, Hafeez, Akbar Allahabadi, Nazeer Akbarabadai, to name a few. In prose, most will have read some from Nazeer Ahmed, at least, also Ghalib's letters and Patras Bokhari's essays.

I'd be surprised if the Arabian Nights are studied in the Arab world. The stories are told to and read by children in Pakistan in Urdu translation, and seen in numerous television adaptations (think Faerie Tale Theater).

Familiarity with Shakespeare is such that news articles in the leading English daily will sometimes begin with quotes from Macbeth. As far as prose goes, the state curriculum includes excerpts from many classic British writers. In high school, the standard novel for MANY years was Goodbye Mr Chips. I have no idea if the curriculum has changed since then.
posted by bardophile at 2:59 AM on January 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

The novels studied by students in Ireland have tended to be the internationally known ones like To Kill a Mockingbird and Lord of the Flies. The more specifically Irish part of the curriculum when I was at school was in a strong emphasis on short stories by authors including Frank O'Connor and Brendan Behan, and in the selection of poetry (Patrick Kavanagh and Louis McNeice as well as the obvious Yeats).

Along with Shakespeare plays there would usually be an Irish drama by someone like Brian Friel. (I studied a Bernard Shaw play myself in school but that was comparatively unusual).
posted by Azara at 4:53 AM on January 5, 2013

In addition to the works listed above by Sara C: Fahrenheit 451 and 1984. We read selections from Chaucer, but only had to memorize the opening lines of the Prologue in Middle English. I also remember reading Siddhartha (I actually just found the actual copy the other night), but if memory serves it was for an elective comparative lit class.

Also seconding most of the Oedipus cycle (Oedipus Rex and Antigone). Some classes also read The Crucible, though I did not.
posted by jquinby at 7:54 AM on January 5, 2013

Another American's 2 cents ("advanced" classes, public non-magnet school, late 70's thru mid-80's), including what I remember from talking with friends who went to different schools; some of the below might have been covered in "junior high" or "middle school" (age 11-14):

The Lottery by Shirley Jackson.

Beowulf, in a sort of "how literature started" way.

Hemingway, very likely The Old Man and the Sea.

William Faulkner (we covered Light In August).

Herman Melville, most likely Moby Dick.

Mark Twain, probably Huckleberry Finn.

Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

Ray Bradbury seemed to be pretty commonly encountered at the time (Fahrenheit 451 and/or some of his short stories), I don't know if that's still the case.

The same with A Separate Peace by John Knowles.

Fitzgerald, definitely, although we didn't do Gatsby that I recall. Maybe an excerpt or one of his short stories.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, probably The Scarlet Letter.

Kafka, we did The Metamorphosis.

Animal Farm rather than 1984.

A little James Joyce, probably just an excerpt from Ulysses.

Dickens, likely contenders being A Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Great Expectations.

Walden by Thoreau, or at least excerpts from it.

Yes to Catcher and Lord of the Flies and To Kill A Mockingbird.

Poetry was Wordsworth, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, possibly some of Shakespeare's; advanced classes took a whack at Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot.

Shakespeare, of course - AFAICT, the history plays were largely ignored at the time, but during their school careers (from 11 to 18), American students were likely to cover at least two of these tragedies (Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet, Macbeth, King Lear, Othello, Julius Caesar) and two of these comedies (Much Ado About Nothing, The Tempest, Taming of the Shrew, Midsummer Night's Dream, As You Like It, Love's Labour's Lost.)
posted by soundguy99 at 8:28 AM on January 5, 2013

In the Persian-speaking world: Hafez's poetry is a big deal, and much loved. I'm not sure how widespread study of Khayyam is, I certainly didn't read much of him for my degree in Persian in the US. And the Shahnameh (Book of Kings) by Ferdowsi is very important in Iran, and important for much of the Persian-speaking world for having helped preserve the Persian language after the Islamic conquest of what is now Iran. It's way longer than, say, the Iliad or the Odyssey, so odds are most students have only read parts of it.

In my high school in California (advanced and AP courses), we read the standards most every US high school student reads: Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, Scarlet Letter, The Crucible, The Great Gatsby, Lord of the Flies, Of Mice and Men (or Grapes of Wrath, depending on your teacher). I managed to get through high school without reading Huckleberry Finn, but that's only because my teacher had read it so many times in college that he was thoroughly sick of it. We also read Tale of Two Cities, My Antonia, Death of a Salesman, Hard Times, Jane Eyre, 1984, Beowulf (Seamus Heaney's translation seems to be the standard), all of the Odyssey, most of the Iliad, parts of Canterbury Tales, and a couple of Greek tragedies (Antigone and Oedipus Rex).

And most students have probably read at least a few more region-specific books that were meant to tie in with their regional/local history. Like in California, by the time you graduate high school, you've probably been exposed to a couple of Latino authors, a book or two by Japanese-American immigrants (almost certainly about the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII), a novel or two about Native Americans in California (like Island of the Blue Dolphins).

And I will second soundguy99's listing of the Shakespeare plays American students are likely to have read. At my high school, we did Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet, Julius Caesar, and King Lear. And I was in an advanced class in sixth grade where we read Midsummer Night's Dream.

For poetry: Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, Shakespeare, EE Cummings, and whatever else was in your textbook to illustrate specific poetic forms/literary devices. Unless you have a passionate teacher, poetry education is pretty rote and boring in the US.
posted by yasaman at 10:31 AM on January 5, 2013

Just thought of an odd regional quirk:

Growing up in Louisiana (especially in the women's studies tinged 90's), everybody seemed to read The Awakening by Kate Chopin.
posted by Sara C. at 11:26 AM on January 5, 2013

I think French school children are required to have had contact with La Chanson de Roland, Rabelais, Rimbaud, La Fontaine, Molière, Victor Hugo, Balzac, Flaubert, and a bunch more.
posted by Ideefixe at 1:57 PM on January 5, 2013

I teach HS English in California.

Here are the books that have been taught at all six high schools in which I've worked:
Of Mice and Men
Grapes of Wrath
Their Eyes Were Watching God
Death of a Salesman
Romeo and Juliet
Othello or Julius Caesar
Great Gatsby
To Kill a Mockingbird
Oedipus Rex
The Odyssey
posted by guster4lovers at 10:01 PM on January 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

In the Philippines, there is a law that requires high school students to read Jose Rizal's Noli Me Tangere and the sequel El Filibusterismo in their junior and senior years.
posted by pimli at 12:37 AM on February 5, 2013

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