Help make me literate like an engineer
March 20, 2013 3:40 PM   Subscribe

So people like to name-drop authors and works that those who went to university and/or have a curiosity about the world should know as part of the basic vocabulary of being an educated Westerner. For example, "Kant" or "Dickensian", or "Gertrude Stein". I would like to learn this stuff, please.

So if you would, dear reader, please point me to resources (books, websites, literary works) that I can use to make myself know more stuff. Literary stuff.

If anyone else has educated themselves in this way, I would love to hear how you did it.

(Note: by "like an engineer", I mean in the most efficient way possible. So if there is something that I could read to gain 2.3% of the basic literary knowledgebase, I would rather read it before something that would get me only 0.9% of the basic literary knowledgebase. I assume education is like a video game and this will work without issue.)
posted by grahamsletter to Education (34 answers total) 91 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: While it's not without flaws, you can always start with Cultural Literacy.
posted by Ideefixe at 3:52 PM on March 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The 60 books set edited by Adler Mortimer is reputed to be the best collection of important ideas in western history: "Great books of the Western World".

posted by curiousZ at 3:53 PM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I mean, do you just want to know the names and the basic what-they-refer-to? Or do you want to know how they all work together? If the latter, I think you might get a lot out of Jacques Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence.

That won't be a shorthand exactly, but you'll be able to use Gertrude Stein correctly in a sentence at a level beyond "lady author from the 1920s."
posted by like_a_friend at 3:55 PM on March 20, 2013

Best answer: Just get a Norton anthology for each of American, British, an World lit (I'm talking the one-volume editions) and browse them at whim.

Pay close attention to the head notes for each author and the section essays that introduce major eras. Read among theae sources for, say, 12 hours a week and in a year's time, you'll basically have a B.A in literature.
posted by Philemon at 4:01 PM on March 20, 2013 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I'm fond of The Rough Guide To Classic Novels and 50 Literature Ideas-- they have a luscious travel-brochure or seed-catalogue style that catches the ideal of the books they cover.

If that whets your appetite, David Denby's Great Books is one of my favourite books about books.
posted by Erasmouse at 4:02 PM on March 20, 2013

Best answer: Sounds to me like what you're looking for is a crash course in the Western canon. Thing is, this is something that many college students spend a few dozen credits covering over two or three years. Those of us who aren't full-time students can't afford to do that, at least not in that compressed a timeframe.

Fortunately, you can get most of what you're looking for without reading everything. Is Aristotle important? Yes, absolutely. Is everything Aristotle wrote important? Certainly not equally so. The Organon is pretty fundamental, but you can probably get away with skipping Progression of Animals, etc.

So the question is how much time you're looking to spend on this project. If it's a few hours a week for a year or two, you'll probably have time to hit many of the highlights off the St. John's curriculum. If it's a few hours a month this summer, you should probably stick to a textbook. Something like this. That's actually a reader compiled by the history faculty at Hillsdale College, and you can take a companion course online for free.
posted by valkyryn at 4:06 PM on March 20, 2013

Best answer: If you decide to go one of those "Great Books" routes, skip most of the classical (Greek/Roman) stuff. It just doesn't come up that often and you can figure it out from references in other stuff - maybe by looking it up in something like Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia.
posted by mskyle at 4:07 PM on March 20, 2013

Best answer: Don't think the OP is looking for an answer on the order of "read 60 books" -- but if you want to fill in your gaps and have the time for one, I recommend An Incomplete Education.

To address your specifics, Kant was a 19th or maybe 18th century philosopher; Schopenhauer is a little more relevant IMO. "Dickensian" of course means like Charles Dickens, who's remarkably easy to read, for one of those old dead white guys -- when it gets cold again, try his "Christmas Carol" -- you know, Scrooge & etc. And if "Gertrude Stein" draws a blank you owe it to yourself to see Midnight In Paris.
posted by Rash at 4:09 PM on March 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I went on a tear a few years ago and tried to tackle everything on Adler and Van Doren's book list. Part of the fun was locating the various works in libraries or used-book stores. In any case, you can find the list here.

FWIW, I made it to "Shakespeare, Works" but have since dipped into several things later on the list.

Seconding Barzun's book as well. If you hang around in any right-leaning circles, you might like Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind as well.

If you'd like to knit together great ideas, thinkers and doers, I highly recommend Daniel Boorstin's The Creators (and then follow it with The Discoverers and The Seekers).

Good luck and have fun - some of the most enjoyable time I've ever spent was working through some of these books during a time when I was doing a lot of heavy commuting on trains and buses.
posted by jquinby at 4:18 PM on March 20, 2013

Best answer: Oh, and before you start, take a look at How To Read A Book by Adler.
posted by jquinby at 4:19 PM on March 20, 2013

Best answer: Lots of good ideas here. (I especially like Philemon's)

All that said, you asked about efficiency. I think a case can be made that if you read Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and the Bible you'd be able to catch a pretty decent percentage, maybe a majority, of literary references. Sure it'd be an incomplete knowledge, but if you were forced to cut it down to only four works those are the four I'd pick.

(EVERYONE quotes Hamlet)
posted by Wretch729 at 4:21 PM on March 20, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks, these are all great answers (at least they appear to be-- I haven't read any of the recommended books yet...)

As for how much time I'm willing to spend on this, it's a couple hours a day from now until August when I start a full-time job, and I'll have to cut back to maybe a few hours per week.

Well, I'm off to my library's web site to request a hold on one of the Norton anthologies.

Thanks, all!
posted by grahamsletter at 4:26 PM on March 20, 2013

"Dickensian" of course means like Charles Dickens

...but that doesn't explain a damned thing.

relating to or similar to something described in the books of the 19th-century English writer Charles Dickens, especially living or working conditions that are below an acceptable standard:
The bathrooms in this hotel are positively Dickensian - no hot water and grime everywhere.

Why not just go through Wikipedia? That's a great bet for snappy summaries. Here's the page for Western canon. There's even a simplified Wikipedia if you want to further abbreviate.
posted by kmennie at 4:47 PM on March 20, 2013

(Note: by "like an engineer", I mean in the most efficient way possible. So if there is something that I could read to gain 2.3% of the basic literary knowledgebase, I would rather read it before something that would get me only 0.9% of the basic literary knowledgebase. I assume education is like a video game and this will work without issue.)

So if you would, dear reader, please point me to resources (books, websites, literary works) that I can use to make myself know more stuff. Literary stuff They've got handy vocab lists and plot summaries. Wikipedia for the rest. Don't bother checking anything out of the library. That's by far the most "efficient way" to learn the things about literature that can be quantified by precise percentages.

You are going to get absolutely nothing else out of this endeavor by going into it like it's a video game and every book you can snap closed and toss on the "finished" heap is another video game point.

Start by figuring out what the ancient Greeks saw as the purpose of an education in literature. Here's a start: virtue. The point of learning literature was not what you would know as a result. The point was how you would be as a result. The purpose was to develop your character.

Taking something that cannot be quantified and slapping an arbitrary number on it is not what an engineer does. That's like a cargo-culted fetishistic idea of an engineer. But if that is, in fact, what you are after, then yes, my honest answer is that your best bet is just Cliffs Notes and skip all the extra words.
posted by cairdeas at 5:03 PM on March 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

The point of my answer is that if you find yourself in these situations with people who "like to name-drop authors and works," you might have memorized all the authors and what is significant about them and the plots of everything they ever wrote, but if you go into this "like a video game," odds are that you still won't be able to have a conversation of any substance about it.
posted by cairdeas at 5:14 PM on March 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Hmm, I wasn't being entirely serious when I said that I wanted to learn things like a video game, or in quantifiable percentages. I guess its true that hyperbole doesn't translate well over text. Lesson learned.

So I'm not looking to be a name-drop robot who understands nothing-- in fact, I'd like to actually understand the substance behind the works and how they're connected. I'm just trying to be realistic in regard to how much time I actually have to devote to this.
posted by grahamsletter at 5:25 PM on March 20, 2013

Best answer: Came in to suggest An Incomplete Education (Rash beat me to it).

It's not reading, but you might garner some interesting facts by joining a trivia team, or even watching Jeopardy.
posted by a halcyon day at 5:29 PM on March 20, 2013

Best answer: Good lord, just go pick a book that strikes you as 'literary' and sit down and read the damned thing. The ones that are famous are famous for being GOOD! That's what's great about the classics, you (mostly) can't miss.

All that's to say the best way to understand literature is to actually like it. It sounds like you're resigning yourself to eat your vegetables or something. 'Classic' authors had red blood just like you do, they didn't like boring, dry writing. Even when writing capital-L lit-riture authors want to really impress the shit out of you, and very often they do. Give them a chance, and then you won't care about percentages and you can laugh at the name-droppers because you actually have a real connection to the art beyond making yourself look cool.
posted by TheRedArmy at 5:36 PM on March 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: There's a book, "The Cultured Man," by Ashley Montague, published in 1958, that would give you the best running start I can think of. Check it out. I read it decades ago and never forgot it, and clearly remember how it gave my conversational confidence a big boost. Good luck.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 6:17 PM on March 20, 2013

I agree with cairdeas.

Perhaps the most important thing that has happened to me, was meeting a certain professor at university. He, I imagine, will forever remain the most culturally literate and aesthetically developed person I will ever meet, despite being employed in the most bland and analytic of professions. I think much of this has to do with age. The way people were educated and valued education in the past seems different today. I can't find the life of me any peers who are seriously concerned about being cultured in the same way.

My best, and perhaps only, recommendation is to find such people. Through university I was able to find many professors, old ones, none of the young professors say below the age of 50, who were properly cultured. Not just literature, but art, music, opera, foreign languages, and so on. I guarantee you, if you just talk with such people every so often, things will begin to rub off on you. They'll mention a piece, and you'll read/listen/look at it. At first, it won't do much for you. You'll maybe retain what the piece was about, but it'll be a muted reaction. "Well, that was a cool read," or, "This painting looks nice." But eventually, if you work at it, and continue talking... your aesthetic taste-buds will start to grow. Pieces will begin evoking emotions, and you'll begin to be able to appreciate the objective merits that ma(k/d)e such a piece so grand.

In my opinion, there is much more involved in this endeavor then simply becoming culturally literate or being able to name drop. Any efficient method is going to be counter productive. This is something you'll need to spend the rest of your life at. Because it's important to your own self-development. Because more than ever, these values need to be preserved.
posted by SollosQ at 6:30 PM on March 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

I haven't read it but I feel nonetheless comfortable in suggesting that you might also be interested in Bayard's How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read.
posted by crazy with stars at 6:31 PM on March 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Seconding TheRedArmy. Mainly read 'classics' that interest you, because being interested is by far the most efficient way to absorb what you're reading and also the most efficient way to arrive at stuff to say about what you've read. I have a feeling that trawling through cultural literacy A-Z will leave you with a lot of, "Hm, OK," feelings and not enough "Whoa, I want to share this thought with someone," which (charitably speaking) may be what your name-dropping friends are really up to.

As a secondary objective, read what your friends make relevant to you by virtue of name-dropping it on you. I mean, your friends are mentioning Kant, and you just want to be familiar with what they're talking about. It doesn't sound like you aim to name drop Fichte right back at them, and you have no reason yet to care about German Idealism in general (or quite possibly ever, if you can trust me on that one).

But reading things that grab you by the collar and make you want to talk about them makes total sense, as does just wanting to share a vocabulary with your friends to better understand their comments and their reasons for liking something that hadn't appealed to you.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 6:45 PM on March 20, 2013

Listen to "Says You", and google/wikipedia the references you don't know.
posted by 445supermag at 7:00 PM on March 20, 2013

All you really need is this book. Or maybe you don't even need it.
posted by mr vino at 7:19 PM on March 20, 2013

As a companion to those good literary works, I recommend something like the Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought. It can help improve your vocabulary when you want to start name-dropping yourself. So you won't just be talking about Kafka's books (e.g.), but will also be able to talk about something being Kafkaesque with confidence.
posted by looli at 7:50 PM on March 20, 2013

Best answer: I suggest The Lifetime Reading Plan (1960) by Clifton Fadiman and the The New Lifetime Reading Plan: The Classical Guide to World Literature, Revised and Expanded (published 1999). Fadiman dedicated 'The Lifetime Reading Plan' to Mortimer J Adler and his conversation around canonical Western literature. Whether you agree with Fadiman or not, his short introductions to classical literature deliver a lot of context and commentary in a tidy package.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 9:00 PM on March 20, 2013

Best answer: I can't agree enough with TheRedArmy. Read things that give you pleasure, read things that interest you and engage you and make you think and feel. Read Plato's Symposium, which is full of great ideas and important philosophical points but is also an excellent piece of writing (the Robin Waterfield translation is particularly good and has a great introduction), and read Anne Carson's translations of Sappho (as well as her own poetry), and read Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, which is one of the most beautiful and complex novels of the twentieth century. Read Pynchon, or read Dickens, or read Melville (if Moby Dick seems too long, his short stories are also remarkable). Definitely read Emily Dickinson and Shakespeare, or don't, if they don't seem interesting when you try reading them. Don't, whatever you do, read Cliff's Notes, because then what you are doing will feel like homework, and will not make you think or feel at all.

The thing about literature is that you simply can't know about all of it, or read all of it, or even read all of what's important, but what you can do is start to get a sense of the things that you like, and work from there. What do you read when you're reading solely for pleasure? And why do you like those books? There are probably more canonical works that do those things, and starting with books like those books will probably make this project both more pleasurable and more genuinely enriching.
posted by dizziest at 9:07 PM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The Red Army is dead on.

That said, I'm an English prof, and I agree that what you're looking for is an intro course to the classic literary canon. If you've got the time, you might want to take (or audit) a Beowulf-to-Virginia-Woolf survey course as a night class, as it's often easier to grasp the structure and purpose of things like epic and lyric and the realist novel when they're explained to you. The Norton Anthology is the usual text for those works, but it won't really explain the logical connections between them as well as a teacher will.

Good, thoughtful and readable introductions to almost everything (seriously) are to be found in this Oxford series:

Very Short Introductions
posted by jrochest at 11:49 PM on March 20, 2013

Best answer: The syllabi for the "Foundations of Western Culture" Literature courses on MIT's Open Courseware might be useful to you. They aren't just English literature (they include things like Dante, Machiavelli, Voltaire, Homer, etc.), and there are several different courses which approach the subject from different angles (one looks at the rise of humanism and the decline of theism, for example, or looking at works that are all, in their own way, iconoclastic, challenging the ideas that came before them).
posted by ocherdraco at 6:56 AM on March 21, 2013

Best answer: This could be good as well. One of my high school teachers got it for me as a graduation present back in the day and I remember really liking it.
posted by Aizkolari at 10:16 AM on March 21, 2013

Best answer: While you're at the library, check out the Dictionary of cultural literacy. Its made to do exactly what you're looking to do. It focuses on explaining a very broad base of things that an educated adult knows about. And it aims to actually teach why the terms and ideas are significant, not just what they are. Some folks say it has a western bias (although not that much of one, from what I can tell), but from your examples, it sounds like western cultural literacy is at least a big part of what you're looking for, so that won't necessarily be a strike against it for your purposes.
posted by mabelstreet at 10:29 AM on March 21, 2013

Best answer: At Columbia, we had to take two years of "core" classes where we basically read the Western cannon.

The syllabi and other resources are online. For example, here's the syllabus for the second year.
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:28 PM on March 21, 2013

Best answer: For the philosophy element of cultural literacy, there’s a Metafilter comment that is an exceptional summary of the progression of philosophic thought from Plato to postmodernism.
posted by Ptrin at 12:54 PM on March 21, 2013

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