In June of 2013, a report from Harvard University addressed existential challenges facing the Arts & Humanities Division. One challenge focused upon a particularly sobering statistic—the percentage of Humanities majors had been cut nearly in half over the last fifty years. Diane Sorensen, Dean of the Arts & Humanities Division, called the trend “an anti-intellectual moment, and what matters to me is that we, the people in arts and humanities, find creative and affirmative ways of engaging the moment.”
Davids Brooks of The New York Times affirmed the moment by declaring a loss of mission, while other commentators pointed to the mounting student debt problem. Others have argued that this sense of doom is nothing new for the Humanities.
Rather than wringing my hands, I decided to imagine what a rigorous course schedule in the Humanities would look like. What would be the ultimate “well-read” course list? It’s something that I’d always thought about, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to actually make it concrete. So I did.
Since I was an English major, I’ve focused the majority of my attention on literature of the western world. I took my framework from Harold Bloom’s book The Western Canon, which separates the history of literature into four ages: Theocratic, Aristocratic, Democratic, and Chaotic. I also owe a huge debt to his book The Best Poems of the English Language. Harold Bloom is a divisive figure for many people, but he helped to restore my joy for reading when I had become a gloomy and cynical non-reader following my undergraduate degree.
I created 40 courses because the standard undergraduate degree is about 120 credits. At 3 credits each, 40 courses meets that total. Whether it would actually take someone four years or five years or a whole lifetime to read this course list, I don’t know.
(picture: Reclining Woman Reading by Pablo Picasso)
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The list touches on my primary complaint with “humanities” in the current university mindset: it’s become all about literature. Too many students graduate without an iota of understanding about business, law or the history of politics and civillization, but by all means let’s focus the conversation on Goethe.
You’re right that this list focuses on literature, because that’s where my primary interest is. There are other lists like the “Harvard Classics” and “Great Books of the Western World” that expand more into history, science, economics, politics, etc.
I’m actually going to disagree, I chose to study Literature precisely *because* of how broad a subject it is. I have learned about Philosophy, Drama, Theology, Psychology, and certainly about History.
How could you read Chaucer or A Modest Proposal without some basic knowledge of the politics of the time? Who could get through Howl without learning about the Beat culture in America? The higher the level of Literature course the more likely it is that in preparation for the reading of Jane Eyre a student will read an article on the declining birth rate in Victorian Britain. The fall of birth rates in developed and developing countries is a well documented Economic concept.
If the university graduates you have come across did not attain the survey of business, law, history or politics that they should have it is not because they degree has failed them but because they failed to learn from it all that they could.
This sounds like a weak rehashing of Britannica’s “Great Books of the Western World” or Eliot’s “Harvard Classics”. How does this expand or differ from existing Western Canon sets, which use public domain texts?
The major difference from the “Harvard Classics” is that I’ve ordered things more or less chronologically (with some alternative organization in spots, like the thematic/geographic organization of the US novelists in the Chaotic Age). Also the choice of texts is very different.
The major difference between this website and the “Great Books of the Western World” is the choice of texts. I’ve included far more modern texts, more poetry, plays, short stories, and novels, and far fewer works of science and history. Some of the texts — like Gibbon — I didn’t include for space reasons and because I wanted my list to be rigorous, but also welcoming and practical. It could probably still use some tweaks as far as that’s concerned. I left a lot out simply because of space. But that’s OK. If you decide you like the Roman period, then reading Gibbon would be a nice choice. A kind of graduate school focus of intensity.
In general, you will see fewer titles like Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy and The Expanding Universe on my list and more titles like Wuthering Heights and Walden, two titles that are not in the Great Books of the Western World series. Also that series has no religious texts, whereas in mine you read Eastern religious texts, the Qu’ran, and the Bible.
You read more ENTIRE texts with my list too. And they’re not bound like encyclopedias.
For the lengthier texts, click on the ~ to find the public domain version. Where I could (or wanted to), I linked to an online version of the poems and short stories.
Daunting. I’m embarrassed to say this curriculum contains works I not only haven’t read — there are a lot of those — but some that I simply have not heard of. My only criticism is that you’ve omitted my favorite Shakespeare, The Tempest, but you can’t have people reading the entire Library of Congress, I suppose. Congratulations on this masterful plan.
I know. You could have people read all of Shakespeare, but for this I tried to be as practical as I could. A “Problem Plays” course would be a nice addition, but really “Works” or “All” seems the most fitting. Thanks for your comment.
SCHMIDTY makes a great point. I have read and studied much of what is listed in this project, but it wasn’t until I delved into business school, that I started to feel more complete. In business school, one studies economics, statistics, business law, accounting, and etc., this give one a good idea of how the real world creates wealth because without wealth one may not have the resources to pursue the Humanities.
Wealth to the point of stability is definitely important, but once you don’t have to worry about food, housing and health care, it’s not really that essential, particularly when you can get most of these books at your local public library (in the U.S.). In the end, what’s most important is time and inclination.
I am perplexed as to if these links to Amazon are the “best”, or rather maybe the universally acknowledged preferred translations of all of the works whose original language is not English, or if the author of the list just haggardly put together some links so that there would be an aesthetic representation of the works; this then leading to some of the lesser translations rather than the so called “best”. If this is the case I could look up the preferred translations on my own, but if they were already picked out by the author that would be absolutely blissful.
As far as best translations are concerned, that’s probably best left to the reader. I emphasize the Frame translation of Montaigne’s Essays and the King James version of The Bible, but otherwise I don’t specify a particular translation.
I often link to personal preferences, but not always. For example, I like the Fagles translations of Homer, the Pevear/Volokhonsky translations of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, and the Grossman translation of Don Quixote, but if someone read a different version, I wouldn’t scoff and roll my eyes or pound the table and curse or stare dramatically into space just to prove my point.
My advice would be that when reading a translated work, if you want to find a style that you prefer (and I often do), then you should read the beginning of different versions and pick the one that makes you most excited to keep reading.
I’m definitely planning on looking for the books on this list! I think they are a great representation of some of what is lacking in high school as well as college. I’m proud to say that I have some of the books on this list!
This site is a welcome break from some of the nonsense on the internet (esp celebrities gossip sites!)
I meant “celebrity gossip” 🙂
Is there any chance you could keep a running list of works that have “fallen off” your list since you first posted it? I’ve been having a great time working my way through these, and I’d be really interested in including the ones that you at some point thought worthy of inclusion. Thanks!
Tkollmer, that’s a good idea! I’ve tried to be mindful of the practicality of the list. In other words, much of what I’ve eliminated I’ve taken away because of (potential) issues of time. But I like the idea of including a list of texts that I’ve removed. I’ll have to try to remember what’s gone… If you remember something that I don’t, please let me know!
I downloaded the list a while back, and here are ones I’ve noticed. I’m sure I’m missing some, and I didn’t go through all of the poems and essays, but I hope this is helpful. Thanks for putting this great list together!
Sayings of Our Desert Fathers; Hesiod: Theogony, Work and Days; Theognis: Elegies; Euripides: Hyppolytus; Aristophanes: The Birds; Seneca the Younger: Phaedra; Apuleius: The Golden Ass; The Nag Hammadi Scriptures; Moses Maimonides: The Guide of the Perplexed; Eschenbach: Parzival; Hobbes: Leviathan; Pascal: Pensees; Rousseau: Confessions; Hume: An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding; Thomas Paine: Common Sense, Kierkegaard: The Concept of Irony, The Concept of Anxiety; Marx and Engels: The Communist Manifesto; Stendhal: The Red and the Black; Stevenson: Jekyll and Hyde; Henry James: The Turn of the Screw; Ibsen: Peer Gynt; Dostoevsky: The Idiot, The Brothers Karamazov; Tolstoy: The Cossacks, War and Peace; Lawrence: Sons and Lovers; Hemingway: A Farewell to Arms; West: Miss Lonely Hearts; Wright: Native Son, Salinger: The Catcher in the Rye; Bellow: The Adventures of Augie March; Pynchon: Gravity’s Rainbow; Foster: Aspects of the Novel; Elliot: On Poetry and Poets; Williams: The Glass Menagerie; Beckett: Endgame, Krapp’s Last Tape
Great. I forgot about some of these. Thanks!
Do you still maintain this website? Is anyone else reading this list? My sister and I have been doing this for close to five years (must have started soon after you put it up). We have made it through course 5, and we have been really enjoying it. Give us some structure to our reading and it is fun to do with someone so you can talk about the books. At this pace we will be like 90 when we finish, but oh well (jobs, kids, life ect.).
Anyway, just wanted to say thanks for putting this list together
Hi Chris. Thanks for the comment, and I’m glad you and your sister have enjoyed the list. I’d like to maintain the site more, but I’m too busy for it right now. Ideally, I’d like to update the site so that it’s easier to use, include a forum/discussion space where readers can share their thoughts, and I’d love to create a podcast that goes through each course. Ideally. For now, I’m glad people still find it useful.
Hi Alex. I’ve also been slowly making my way through the courses and really enjoying them. I was wondering if you had any recommendations on guides/lists of what selections from Plutarch are worth reading. Thank you!
@treykollmer it probably doesn’t matter which selections from Plutarch you choose as much as you immerse yourself in his way of thought, writing style, etc. He’s more of an essayist with a great authorial voice, and he’s a major influence on Montaigne and writers of the Constitution, texts that come in later courses (and, just personally, these are some of my favorites).
I’d recommend looking at Alcibiades and Coriolanus (and their comparison), Aristides and Marcus Cato (and their comparison), Pompey and Agesilaus (and their comparison), Alexander, Caesar, Demosthenes and Cicero (and their comparison), and Demetrius and Antony (and their comparison).
Thanks so much for the response! I’ll definitely read those. And it sounds like I should sample a bunch more!
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How come Al-ghazali is not included.
I am looking at this list in 2021, trying to put together a class of “peers” for discussions, as I work through this list slowly. It will keep me motivated and be more interesting than doing it alone. If anyone responds to this, I will be notified by email. To the author – thank you for putting this together!
I commented here five years ago, as I was finishing course five with my sister. Ten years on and we are finishing course 10 (about to jump into Paradise Lost). So, I will be 67 when we finish all 40 :).
Anyway, thanks for putting this together and I hope it stays up since we still use the course lists.
Glad you’re still using it! I plan to keep it up.