How to preface this? Itís not exactly an easily introduced subject when you think about it. There is no one period or area to talk about, no specific subject. To be well read, one must read so large a variety of things that there really isnít a unifying aspect to draw on. Sure, everything on this reading list is on paper. Everything is available to buy on Amazon. But not everything is a work of literature. Not everything is from England.
How do you sum up, how do you introduce, Beowulf, Shakespeare, Plato, Stephen King, The Bible, and 1001 Movies You Must Watch Before You Die? What connects them?
Only this. Somewhere, someone came up with them. Someone took the time to put pen to paper, or finger to keyboard, or even just to stand in front of a group of people and say it aloud. But, however they did it, someone took the time. Someone not that different from me. Then someone else, a lot of someone elses in fact, picked it up and read it. Someone took the time. Someone not that different from you.
And now, a year or a decade or four millennia later, these works are. They stand out. They mean something to our collective consciousness. We know their names: Beowulf, Shakespeare, Plato, Stephen King, The Bible, and yes 1001 Movies You Must Watch Before You Die. Maybe not the book itself, but I guarantee you know at least most of the movies.
A Little Bit about Structure
This reading list, that is what this is: a reading list, is divided up into a number of different categories: Classic Literature, Philosophy, Detective Fiction, etc. Some, but not all, categories will begin with one or two introductory works, guides or even just books listing key works in that field, followed by a number of ďmust readsĒ for that particular category. If a category doesnít interest you, feel free to skip it. You can still pass as well read without a few of the categories, but I would recommend reading the guides if the category you skip has any. It will help with idle conversations, you can contribute more by reading The Republic, but it helps if you at least know what the Republic is and have a basic understanding of it. But donít ever try to pass off a basic understanding for having really read it. Youíll look like an idiot if you get caught, and you will get caught eventually.
P.S. some of the books on this list are at the very least controversial. I donít believe in banning books, but if I did some of the books on this list would make my list of books to ban. That said, you may be asking why they made the list. Simple, having a basic knowledge of them makes it easier for you to come out against them. Knowing what you bad talk is more impressive, and makes you more well read, than bad talking something youíve only heard of but really know nothing about.
Before We Get Started: How to Read
Is that condescending? Iím sorry if it is but that fact of the matter is you might not know how to read. Yes, Iím aware you wouldnít (couldnít actually) be reading this if you didnít know how to read. Thatís not what Iím talking about. I mean how to read. Not the ability (letters, sounds, words, their meanings), I mean the practice. How to read and think about it. How to read and contemplate it. How to critique, discuss. How to read as an intellectual.
The best way to do that is to read. A lot. Read the same thing several times and contemplate its meaning. All that is well and good, but it doesnít really answer the question. Just how does one read? The problem is that there are numerous answers. Everyone from Plato and Aristotle to Freud and Marx have a theory of criticism. So, to start thinking about how to read, start by reading them. But thatís an awful lot of reading so letís cut it down a bit. How? Anthology. Specifically, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (Second Edition).
Still confused? Sorry, I know itís a hard read. Try these too: How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines and How to Read Novels Like a Professor: A Jaunty Exploration of the World's Favorite Literary Form.
Category 1: Other Reading Lists To Make You Well Read Without Me
Thatís right, step right up. Come one, come all.
There are ways of becoming well read without reading anything I name. Read a lot of other stuff. Sound fun? Here are some things to help you out.
1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, in case the title isnít clear enough, this book lists 1001 other books that you must read, preferably before you die. (As at least some of them probably wonít be available in the afterlife).
Not looking for a list but for the books themselves? Then you should definitely pick up The Harvard Classics Five Foot Shelf of Knowledge and The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. These will cover most of the high points from, well, more or less the beginning of time through 1917.
For either one of the above mentioned, there are literally hundreds of others just like them. I wonít get into it. None of them, including the two I named, is all inclusive. Read them and you will miss something important. Just so you know: that, of course, includes my list. There is no perfect, all inclusive reading list. Just thought I should mention that out of fairness.
Looking at Philosophy: The Unbearable Heaviness of Philosophy Made Lighter is definitely my favorite introduction to philosophy. Other good ones include Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction and The Oxford Companion to Philosophy New Edition. The Very Short Introduction is, as it name suggests, short, concise, to the point, not long-winded. The Oxford Companion is much longer. You might also check out Great Thinkers of the Western World: The Major Ideas and Classic Works of More Than 100 Outstanding Western Philosophers, Physical and Social Scientists, Psychologists, Religious Writers and Theologians, which also has a companion piece on Eastern thinkers.
Western Philosophy begins with the Greeks. You might want to find a collection of Pre-Socratic fragments. Amazon has a couple dozen, I donít have a favorite but you might try one of them or just go to a used book store and find a cheapy, what every looks good to you (to be honest, Looking At Philosophy may be all you need here).
The first truly great philosopher was Socrates, who wrote nothing. Woohoo, no reading. Sorry, but no. Both Plato and Xenophon wrote down his teachings after his death. Platoís Socrates, found in Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, is a must and Xenophonís -- found in Xenophon: Memorabilia. Oeconomicus. Symposium. Apologia. (Loeb Classical Library No. 168) -- is recommended for contrast if nothing else.
Platoís own writings are also important in their divinations from Socrates, his teacher. You should at least check out The Republic (The Republic, or Plato: The Republic, Books 1-5 (Loeb Classical Library No. 237) and Plato: The Republic, Books 6-10 (Loeb Classical Library, No. 276) (Vol 6, Bks.VI-X) (Greek and English Edition) for example) and The Symposium (The Symposium (Penguin Classics) or Plato: Lysis. Symposium. Gorgias. (Loeb Classical Library No. 166) perhaps), though if you have the time I recommend you read more. And be sure to compare Plato's Symposium to Xenophon's.
Platoís student Aristotle was even more important than his master. Aristotle, like Plato before him, abandoned his teacherís ideas and went his own way. Some scholarsÖmost scholarsÖok, almost all scholars think Aristotle surpassed Plato as the greatest philosopher ever. Grab a good anthology of his works like The Philosophy of Aristotle (Signet Classics) or The Basic Works of Aristotle (Modern Library Classics) or even try to find the complete works available from the Loeb Classical Library (I wonít list them all here, there are just too many, but they are definitely the way to go). Also, you might grab Aristotle: A Very Short Introduction.
There were a lot more important philosophers, and Looking At Philosophy will cover most of them, but Iím going to go against my better judgment and skip ahead. You can read about the other Greek Philosophers and the Romans in it (Looking at Philosophy) and if any interest you find some of their works on your own (once you get to be well read, it gets easy to figure out what else to read).
The next two great philosophers were St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, both during the Middle Ages, go ahead and read about them in Looking At Philosophy, before you move on, but Iím going to skip them too because Iím going to hit them in the section on Religion.
In the centuries following Aquinas, philosophy began to spit out scientists, Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes and others. In fact, Descartes only published philosophy so that he could sneak his science in under the churchís nose. Youíll read about these guys and their ilk in the section on Science so again move on.
The next philosopher you actually have to read is Immanuel Kant, and thereís a lot you should read. First off, read about John Locke and David Hume in whichever introduction you bought. Itís best to be at least passing on the two of them before you go into Kant. (If you are interested in them you can pick up a couple of their books here. For Locke, Iíd go with An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. For Hume, A Treatise on Human Nature and Four Dissertations.) Youíll be asked to read works by both Locke and Hume in the sections on Politics and Religion.
For Kant himself, start with the essay ďAnswering the Question: What is Enlightenment?Ē if you can find it. Then read the Three Critiques, 3-volume Set: Vol. 1: Critique of Pure Reason; Vol. 2: Critique of Practical Reason; Vol. 3: Critique of Judgment (Hackett Classics). Feel free to find a cheaper edition (or three individual editions). You might also want to just go ahead and grab Basic Writings of Kant (Modern Library Classics), and get it over with. For help understanding Kant, you could turn to The Cambridge Companion to Kant (Cambridge Companions to Philosophy) or Kant: A Very Short Introduction.
Thatís about all the philosophy you canít get away with skipping, but thereís more you should read if you have the time. Iím not going to give you a big list here but you can get a feel for who you want to read more of from one of the general books I list up top. I will recommend picking up the The Essential Kierkegaard and Basic Writings of Nietzsche (Modern Library Classics), or something like them. They are two of the most important Post-Kantians.
And the thing about Philosophy is Iím going to add some more later on in other categories. Aristotle will show up a lot, and youíll be seeing some of the others I mentioned and some I didnít mention yet. That is after all why I started with philosophy. Itís a little bit of everything.
Politics and Government
Would it be insulting if I started with The Complete Idiot's Guide to U.S. Government and Politics (Idiot's Guides)? Probably, so I wonít. Instead, Iíll start with Politics: A Very Short Introduction.
Aristotleís Politics (see told you heíd be back), is a good starting point, I would say start with Platoís Republic, but you already read that, didnít you? After Aristotle, jump ahead and check out Machiavelliís The Prince (Dover Thrift Editions), Moreís Utopia (Dover Thrift Editions),
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, and Lockeís Two Treatises of Government (Everyman). These four books, along with Politics and The Republic, cover a wide range of different views of government leading into the American Revolution. You might also want to check out the political writings of Kant.
As for American government, check out The Debate on the Constitution : Federalist and Antifederalist Speeches, Articles, and Letters During the Struggle over Ratification : Part One, September 1787-February 1788 (Library of America) and The Debate on the Constitution : Federalist and Antifederalist Speeches, Articles and Letters During the Struggle over Ratification, Part Two: January to August 1788 (Library of America). Both deal extensively with the formation of the American system of government using primary sources. You might also check out Tocqueville: Democracy in America (Library of America), not required reading but it comes highly recommended (Iíve never read it myself but itís been called the ďbest book everĒ about the United States and democracy in general).
Post American Revolution, the most important thing to read is Marx, selections are found in The Marx-Engels Reader (Second Edition). Be you for Communism or against it, Marx shaped the world you live in. The Soviet Union, the Cold War, Red China, the Cuban Missile Crisis. Communism is a real and important part of the modern world. And Marx was one of the most important Post-Kantian thinkers in or out of philosophy.
One quick note: this section didnít deal with modern American politics, and for good reason. I canít. As little as two years from now, anything I put now would be unimportant, or at least less important, out dated and no longer essential. Instead, pay attention to the news, read current event and political magazines, watch C-SPAN. If itís an election year, watch the debates. If the presidentís on, listen to him. I am tempted to put in stuff by a couple of extremists, Rush Limbaugh and Michael Moore perhaps, but even that would be pushing it, but you should check them (or whoever them is when and where you are) out and make up your own mind.
Detective and Mystery Fiction
OK, youíve done a lot of hard reading by this point so before we go on, how about we have some fun. Nothing like a good mystery yearn to clear out the old cobwebs before diving back into the hard stuff.
Oh! but were to start? There are so many and I donít want to overwhelm you. Naturally, you have to start with Poe. He did, after all, affectively create the genre. This is another one of those places you have some choices. I would pick up either Penguinís The Portable Edgar Allan Poe (Penguin Classics) or go for a complete version like Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, (interestingly, I actually have both those volumes). The Penguin collection has a lot of good selections but there is a lot missing too.
Either way, if youíre feeling ambitious, try ďThe Murders in the Rue Morgue,Ē which I have always found a difficult text to approach (though I do like the Universal adaptation staring Bela Lugosi available in The Bela Lugosi Collection (Murders in the Rue Morgue / The Black Cat / The Raven / The Invisible Ray / Black Friday)). If youíre less ambitious, go for ďThe Purloined LetterĒ and perhaps ďWilliam WilsonĒ which isnít a strait up mystery/detective work but I donít feel unjustified in including it in this section. You might also read ďThe Tell-Tale HeartĒ which is a crime/psychological piece that you have almost assuredly already heard of.
I can think of a lot more I want, but Iím going to skip ahead to Doyle and Sherlock Holmes. If I were going for a novel, Iíd skip ahead and read Hound of the Baskervilles, but I think Iíd go with short stories. Some of my personal favorites are ďA Scandal in Bohemia,Ē ďThe Final Problem,Ē and ďThe Adventure of the Sussex Vampire.Ē There are a number of complete volumes of Holmes on Amazon (The Complete Sherlock Holmes (2 Volumes) for example) or you could pick up individual works instead.
Hitting the Golden Age, I would go straight to Agatha Christie, and in Christie go straight to Murder on the Orient Express: A Hercule Poirot Mystery (Hercule Poirot Mysteries) (it was many editions on Amazon right now). You might also like some of her other works as well. After Poirot, you might want to check out a Miss Marple or maybe one of Dame Agathaís other series.
Next, hit up the pulps and grab The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps. Itís a great collection of pulp short stories. For longer reads check out The Thin Man, Maltese Falcon, (both in Red Harvest / The Dain Curse / The Maltese Falcon / The Glass Key / The Thin Man) and The Big Sleep (in Raymond Chandler: Stories and Early Novels: Pulp Stories / The Big Sleep / Farewell, My Lovely / The High Window (Library of America)).
Iím not a big fan of either Perry Mason (the books, I liked the TV show when I was younger but havenít watched it in years) or Nero Wolfe, but I feel the obligation to mention them before I go on. If youíre big on Detective Fiction you should try them on for size.
Thatís a fairly good (albeit brief and non-inclusive) overview of the classics. For some more modern works check out Robert B. Parkerís Spenser books (my personnel favorites are Ceremony (Spenser) and Looking for Rachel Wallace (Spenser). You Might also like his Sonny Randall or Jessie Stone novels), some Elmore Leonard (Rum Punch/Jackie Browne, Out of Sight, or Get Shorty perhaps), and Devil in a Blue Dress (Easy Rawlins Mysteries) by Walter Mosley
Iím not going to kid you; I was harder on this genre than I was on philosophy. I skipped a lot of classics, important pieces, and great reads. But I feel confident that if you enjoyed these works youíll track down the others.
OK, so thatís long and obnoxious enough for Part 1. So weíll go ahead and wrap it up for now. Next time weíll start in on the sciences, I think. So dust of your Aristotle (What!? Him again?), and get ready for some Math and Physics, Evolution, Plant and Animal Life, and even some good old Human Anatomy. If thereís some room left Iíll even through in my favorite science. Science Fiction. See you then.