Quick and Dirty guide to the Literary Canon
November 15, 2007 3:29 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for a concise and readable overview/guide of what could be considered "classic literature" for a mature ESL student.

Ideally, after reading this guide, said student would be able to pick up on allusions to the more common mythologies/deities (Greek, Roman, Norse, etc.), as well as passing references to commonly studied works held in high academic regard. Think Dickens, Tolstoy, Orwell, and the like. A quick overview of the 'big' names in the Bible would be helpful, too.

Essentially I'm hoping for a quick and dirty guide to all/many of the pieces of literature that someone would've studied in the Elementary to High School English curriculum. The guide doesn't need to be very detailed - a plot synopsis and two lines about each of the main characters would do.

Not that this guide would be a substitute to actually reading the works, but it would at least provide a starting point for furthering a literary education for someone who works full-time and is feeling the effects of not being 'in' on all the jokes.
posted by Phire to Education (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The Intellectual Devotional?

Caveat: I haven't read (or even seen) this book; just came across it while skimming msnbc.com.
posted by Carol Anne at 3:36 PM on November 15, 2007

There are a gazillion English 1A Lit Readers out there, each with a plethora of classics and any number of them will cover enough of the canon for an ESL student.
posted by rhizome at 4:06 PM on November 15, 2007

There are a surprising number of Wikipedia articles which essentially cover the information you're talking about. For instance, Much Ado About Nothing, The Mikado, Little Women, The Old Man and The Sea.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 4:30 PM on November 15, 2007

Not concise in-and-of-itself, but the definitions/descriptions of individual writers sure are: Bartleby's New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy.

The language tends to be pretty easy, too, so that's a bonus. Also, there's a whole section on explaining idioms etc.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 4:45 PM on November 15, 2007

If the goal is to be 'in' on all the jokes, watching movie adaptations might be a better bet than studying a bunch of pocket synopses. Example: the plot and character synopsis for Hamlet doesn't even let you recognize where "to be or not to be" comes from when you hear it (if you go with something like the wikipedia page for Hamlet, you'd be ok, but IMO that goes beyond a simple synopsis).
posted by juv3nal at 5:18 PM on November 15, 2007

I would be suspicious of any list that has a lot of really "classic" (pre-1900) literature on it; most U.S. students just don't read that many classics. You're probably lucky to get Hamlet, a short Dickens novel (A Tale of Two Cities is popular), and a smattering of Mark Twain. (Although I suppose many Americans are aware of the plots of, and capable of making and understanding references to, many works they haven't actually ever read.)

Here's an Amazon list that might be a good starting point. About the only thing I think is missing off that list is Animal Farm, which is popular Junior High / Highschool reading.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:37 PM on November 15, 2007

Try Squashed Writers for free. Students can always read the whole thing if they like it.
posted by Brian B. at 8:43 PM on November 15, 2007

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