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The School of Hard Knocks

It is my current hope to go to graduate school for English literature next year: a certain school in a certain place, both a goal and an insurmountable challenge. Having been out of college for a year already, and having graduated as a music major, I am rusty.

Trying to compensate, I googled “books every english major has read” but have had a difficult time finding a list that suggests what every (generalized) English major should have read by the time of (undergraduate) graduation. As a person who attended a high school whose meager syllabus prescribed the study of one novel, one play and four poems a year, and who could only scrape enough college literature credits for a minor, I feel woefully behind. Most American kids got a head start in AP English (seriously – who are those freaks who read Ulysses in high school?). American high schools may have their weaknesses, but a strong and ambitious push to read literature consistently is not one of them.

There are gaps, and I fear that when it comes to the important authors I have read, I’ve read the wrong works. I’ve read Jane Austen, some Bronte, one George Eliot, Homer and Virgil (translations), one Dickens, one Dostoyevsky, one Tolstoy. I haven’t read Madam Bovary yet, or Heart of Darkness or Brave New World or Animal Farm. I’ve read Joyce but no Beckett, and Willa Cather but no Twain. King Lear and Othello and Hamlet, but not Macbeth or Richard III or Henry V.

The lists are being drawn and I’m planning a time table that will stretch through to this January. No more leisurely reading - it’s time to homeschool myself. I’ve decided to call this plan “The School of Hard Knocks”. When I told Kristin, she looked at me flatly and shook her head. “Christy, that’s not what the school of hard knocks is.” Regardless – let it stand.

I'm pretty sure this plan may fail, like my plan to read all the Booker winners last year, and my plan to learn French in the car, or my plan to knit an afghan two years ago, or become a violinist. Oh well. No harm in trying with the foreknowledge that one might fail. At the very least, I will have read some of the Great Books. That's not so bad.

This is what I have so far:

Divine Comedy - Dante
Canterbury Tales - Chaucer
Paradise Lost - Milton
Faerie Queen - Spenser
Gawain & the Green Knight

Mill on the Floss - Eliot
Brothers Karamazov - Dostoyevsky
Swann’s Way - Proust
Madame Bovary - Flaubert
Heart of Darkness - Conrad
Brave New World - Huxley
Great Expectations - Dickens
Animal Farm - Orwell
(Tom Jones? Tristram Shandy? Clarissa? Evelina?)

Richard III
Winter’s Tale
Henry V
Waiting for Godot - Beckett
Lysistrata –Aristophanes
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – Albee
Rosenkrantz and Guilderstern are Dead – Stoppard

Utopia – More
The Prince – Machiavelli
Leviathan - Hobbes

Any suggestions?


Elizabeth said…
Good luck, Christy! I don't know if this will help, but I graduated from Whitman with an English degree, and I enjoy going back every year to see what reading they have assigned for the written exams (each student has to take an exam in three "periods"). The website is

Take care!
laura said…
Waiting for Godot is nice and short.

Don't read of Heart of Darkness. Just don't. It only gives credence to the idea that Conrad actually manages to communicate anything of value in it's 200+ pages. And if anyone tries to tell you that Conrad tries an interesting way of framing the story, tell them thanks but no thanks and read Frankenstein instead.
Ian Woolcott said…
You had the minor, so you’ve probably taken the survey courses, yes? The two volume Norton anthologies and all that? If not, pick them up used. Then a few recommends, realizing of course that these represent my personal bias:

…Drop the Spenser in favor of Malory.

…Drop Hobbes in favor of generous selections from Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, especially the parts on “love melancholy” and “religious melancholy.” There’s a complete NYRB edition available.

…Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici at least.

…More Conrad – add Nostromo.

…More Orwell, pick up the Everyman Library edition of his essays.

Moby Dick, if you haven’t already, and if you have then read it again and be sure to add “Bartleby Scrivener” and a selection of his poems (the Penguin volume is good).

…Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Pudd’nhead Wilson.

…Whitman, the original edition of Leaves of Grass rather than the “deathbed edition”; Dickinson; Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau… That’s a lot of Americans, I know, and you’re looking at a non-American institution, as I gather, but I’m going to stand up for my native literature here, especially Melville and Hawthorne and Whitman and Twain.

…Plenty of Hazlitt and Lamb and DeQuincey.

…Don’t overlook Irish playwrights: Brian Friel’s Translations, Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, and J.M. Synge’s Playboy of the Western World.

…Another Irish novel: Flann O’Brien’s At Swim Two Birds; and all the poems collected in the Yeats volume The Tower.

…TH White’s Once and Future King, all of it.

The Magic Mountain by Mann, in the Lowe-Porter translation.


…Some Nabokov, if you haven’t.

A House for Mr Biswas by Naipaul.

…Waugh’s Sword of Honor trilogy.

…JG Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur.

Kidnapped and Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson.

…Also, for good or ill you’ll need lots of theory, so pick up the old Hazard Adams compilation volumes Critical Theory Since Plato and Critical Theory Since 1965.

...And contra one of your other readers, do read Heart of Darkness, but read Frankenstein too.
Ian Woolcott said…
Forgot: Samuel Johnson. Boswell's vita, but also a nice selection from the essays (the Rambler, etc; Yale U Press has a nice edition, as I recall) and the Lives of the Poets, his bits on Shakespeare and etc. and his intro to the Dictionary.
Christy Edwall said…
Laura - you make me laugh. At least I didn't say how much I love the Metamorphosis; I know how you feel about that book. Thanks, Elizabeth and Ian, for your suggestions - keep them coming!
Ian Woolcott said…
Okay, sorry, one more. To your Shakespeare list, you REALLY must add King Henry IV, parts I and II. This is absolutely essential Shakespeare. Prince Hal, Harry Percy, Falstaff and all that. Add Julius Caesar too.
Greg said…
How about focusing on a time and place so that you're not just getting a wildly variegated assortment pack of Great Books, but getting a sense of history, culture, philosophy, and politics? I suppose it rather sounds like a college course, but there are reasons for teaching--and learning--that way. And why not throw in some history and philosophy along with the lit?
Anonymous said…
Given that I have very little exposure to liberal arts education outside of Japanese/Persian studies, I lack any meaningful authority on the topic. However, in a tried and true academic tradition my one suggestion is to crib from another school's academic list of reading materials.

To wit, St. John's College has on-line their reading course-work:

It may provide a good start; I know I have been using it as a guide for my own self-study in literature.

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