November 3, 2006

Western Literature: Prologue

We were in our little room in Edinburgh, in August, and Beth was trying to take a nap but was having trouble falling asleep. I said, “I’ll read you the great books, that’ll help you fall asleep.” I went to Google, typed in “great books,” clicked on one of the top hits, and found myself at this weird, proud little site. “Okay, here we go,” I said, and launched into the first thing on the chronological list, The Code of Hammurabi. Now, the Code of Hammurabi is an odd choice for a list of “great books,” and I didn’t even make it through the opening invocation before Beth made me stop – it wasn’t helping anyone fall asleep – but still, I started thinking, “Why haven’t I ever actually read this before? I’ve heard about it for years, and all I had to do was go online and I could read it. Just like everything else on that list. I only have one life to either read these things or not read them. And look, I’m not doing anything else right now. We’re just sitting here. I really should be reading the great books.”

The peculiar list at that site, however, wouldn’t do. After not very much searching, I found myself at this satisfying page, which compiles several prominent lists of “The Great Books” or the like, and has indexed them to allow comparison. Obviously, I had to pick one of these lists. In the end, much though I hate Harold Bloom, I ended up choosing his “Western Canon” list, as copied out on this page. For one thing, it had more recent works and more ancient works than most of the other lists. For another thing, it simply had more works. Somehow, since actually completing any of these reading lists is of course absolutely impossible, this seemed to at least promise greater variety. Bloom also prefaces his list with: “Since the literary canon is at issue here, I include only those religious, philosophical, historical, and scientific writings that are themselves of great aesthetic interest,” which seemed reassuring.

The idea of starting from, say, Hammurabi’s Code and then reading forward through time was part of what had excited me, but after a moment’s thought I realized that this would kill the project – by measuring my progress, making me resent my infinite task rather than savor it. Plus it would just mean that for the forseeable future, I’d be reading ancient works only. No thanks. Still, the idea of starting at the beginning appealed to me. So the first work would be, according to Bloom’s list (and several others): Gilgamesh.

I copied the list from that webpage into a spreadsheet. The spreadsheet is 2535 rows long. There are not nearly this many works on the list – each author’s name appears on its own row prior to his/her works, and there are several headings and subheadings too. Not that it matters. The plan is this: after finishing each work, I go to and generate a random integer from 1 to 2535. If I land on a heading, I roll again. If I land on any work by an author with several works listed, I read the first unread work by that author – this it to prevent my reading minor or supplementary works prior to the more important ones, which generally seem to be listed first. Same goes if I land on the author’s name itself. Obviously, if I land on a work I’ve already read, I roll again. Though we’ll have to see what happens if I land on something I only read in high school and don’t really remember or feel that I understood. Probably I’ll just read it.

Bloom’s list forms an extended appendix to his book The Western Canon, and there is slightly more detail given there than on the web page where I found it. For one thing, he frequently names editions and translations. As I do not own and have no desire to buy Bloom’s book, I have been conferring with the Amazon “search inside this book” feature to get what I need in this respect.

So those are the rules. At this point, a couple busy months later, I’ve rolled three times. The process has been great. I’m not sure this is going to make me a well-read person, but it’s certainly intellectually rewarding. If the purpose of reading is to widen your range of experience, truly random great works are a pretty good way of ensuring that you choose independent of any prior inclination or bias. If the purpose of reading is entertainment, I’ve also been thoroughly entertained. So that’s win/win so far.

What I’m going to do when I hit things like “Complete Works,” which appears for several authors, is not so clear. We’ll cross that when we come to it.

This is all as prologue to my talking about the works I’ve read thus far. First up: Gilgamesh! Which I finished more than a month ago. But you’ll still have to gimme a day or two to throw something together. Or more maybe.


  1. This project is a super sized black hole.
    Harvard Book Store staff’s 100 favorite books is an attainable project. There are many other such lists that one doesn’t have to spend a lifetime reading only to realize that one has just scratched the surface.

    Posted by Anonymous on |
  2. Like I said, completing any such list is absolutely impossible. A list short enough to be completed is too restricted a list to count as “the great books.” There are more great books to be read than any one person can read. So I intentionally picked the longest, super-sized-est list I could find, because finishing is not the point. Nor is there any particular level of well-readness I intend to attain. This isn’t a finite project with a goal. It just seems like a good thing to be doing.

    Posted by broomlet on |
  3. Don’t know if you’ll see this comment, [Broom] – sometimes this doesn’t work for me.

    I was just thinking that I should start reading some more enriching books. I may also tackle the Western Canon. I guess I’m relying on your analysis of that website that this is the best (=most comprehensive) list. As a hist and lit major, however, I can’t read randomly out of context, so I think I will choose a country and time and read a grouping at a time (and maybe smaller chunks than his multi-century approach). Anyways, just letting you know. I’ll comment on books when we overlap.

    Posted by Maddie on |
  4. If you’re not interested in the random shuffle, Harold’s Infinite Playlist approach, you may well prefer some other more personable list. Bloom’s canon may be the most extensive on that website (seven years ago anyway) but it’s also very much a reflection of his personal cultural outlook, especially the 20th-century section. His post-1950 selection is particularly sparse and biased.

    And if you’re going to actually stay in one place and explore, maybe you don’t need a huge master list at all. But I do wonder if you’re over-thinking the problem of orientation to context. Reading one work from a certain place and time requires no less of a sense of “context” than reading five in a row. Or are you saying you’re going to read histories first and only then start the literature? You crazy “hist and lit” people! You do realize there are also such departments as “hist” and “lit,” right?

    When I get to my next random selection I’ll let you know what it is in case you want to try to join my book club of insanity. Our reading from this list is very, very unlikely to overlap otherwise.

    Posted by broomlet on |
  5. I guess I like to bunch things together so I can get a sense of what I will semi-arbitrarily dub that author’s style and what seems to be common to the other books of the era. This approach may crash and burn rather quickly, however, since out of a desire to be cheap and read on my Kindle, I am going to start by confining myself to English language works from before 1923 until my commitment is proven to be worth $20 a shot. This also serves to avoid Bloom’s major weakness. Since I already had Moll Flanders downloaded (don’t ask!), I decided to make a go of his recommendations from 1740-1800 (ok, Defoe is before then, but he’s really a precursor, not an Augustan!). You see I am already in trouble, rationalizing my approach. But anyways, there may only be so much of this I can take before I read 20th century Russian just as a purge.

    Have you read anyone between James Boswell and Fanny Burney yet? Maybe we’ve already overlapped!

    Posted by Maddie on |
  6. I totally forgot about our Robinson Crusoe book club! Anyways, I’ve figured out the search function on your website and see that you have read Tristram Shandy and at least part of RC – however much we got done with that book club. I will keep your proposal in mind as I gradually go mad from the prose stylings of the 18th century.

    Posted by Maddie on |

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