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16 July 2014

What will my daughter need to read?

I find list-making, especially as it applies to reading lists, to be simultaneously soothing and infuriating. I am happy that English departments at places like Oxford University often eschew a list and instead encourage applicants to read widely and much. That advice in hand, it is still true that the dons and tutors expect their incoming English students to have read Jane Ausen, a good amount of Shakespeare, and the Brontes. The canon remains, though it is in need of constant revision and update. I wonder: when my daughter gets ready for college in 11 short years, what will she be required to have read, and what will she have read to make her ready?

I'd like to provide two lists here of a dozen literature books I want her to have read, probably in her last few summers before going off to school. The first will be rather obvious, but it will exclude such items as “Hamlet,” for I would hope that between her excellent school , our private book collection, and parenting, she will have the basics down. “Pride and Predjuice,” Shakespeare, and some Chaucer are givens. Not all works are originally written in English, but most are.

The second list is mostly literature in translation, some of it is well-known, and I believe all of it is criminally under-read by both students and adults.

And so:

The obvious list:

  1. Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne
  2. The Inferno by Dante
  3. Selected writings of John Ruskin
  4. Dubliners by James Joyce
  5. Don Quixote by Cervantes
  6. Candide by Voltaire
  7. Swann's Way by Proust
  8. The Bacchai by Euripides

And now the more ecclectic and, in my opinion, interesting list:

  1. The Maias by Eça de Queirós
  2. A Heart So White by Javier Marías
  3. The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa
  4. A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr
  5. A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor
  6. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
  7. Songbook by Umberto Saba
  8. Canti by Leopardi
  9. Dom Casmurro by Machado de Assis
  10. Labyrinths by Borges
  11. Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz
  12. Stories of Anton Checkov

Lists aside, it is a pleasure every day to see her delve into books, to swim in the pages of some great story, or to be able to read aloud to her or to watch as my wife reads to her. Reading can be an act of love, one of the most pure.


  1. Those are pretty great lists, and kudos to you if your daughter reads even a handful of those titles. I'm trying to recall the works/authors that made the biggest impression on me before I went off to college. A few of them are already on your lists or purposely kept off it: Dubliners, Labyrinths (that was like a bomb going off in my 16 year old head), The Count of Monte Cristo, Don Quixote, Hamlet. Others: To the Lighthouse, David Copperfield, Spenser's The Faerie Queen (a huge success thanks to a courageous high school teacher), Plato's Symposium, Aristophanes, a collection of Russian absurdist literature that put me over the moon, Pär Lagerkvist, Edward Albee's The Zoo Story, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Stranger, Flannery O'Connor's stories, Franny and Zooey, John Christopher's Tripods trilogy, Notes from Underground, Richard Wright's The Man Who Lived Underground (which I could not get out of my head), Gogol's stories, The Secret Sharer, e. e. cummings...

    How weird to be a kid.

    1. Those are great titles, and i had the same reaction to Borges, but a few years later than you. I do hope she reads at least a few of these, though for now just having her read her silly picture books to me or having us read stories together of talking pigs and crazy squirrels make up the best reading moments I've had in a very long time. It is weird to be a kid, but how amazing too!

  2. Boy, I had read just two of those before college, Cervantes and Dante. Maybe "just" is wrong, maybe that's a lot. Depends on the college, I guess. I didn't go to St, John's. IN college, I was assigned Dubliners and Candide at some point.

    I love that you put Ruskin on the "obvious" list. Few would do so. But you are right.

    1. remember reading Ruskin in my 20s and then thinking I had somehow just missed it on all of my college reading lists. this must have been on some reading list of mine, and I must have been to busy chasing the young women in my classes (with little success) to have read such wonderful stuff. It felt much like the fabled "going to school in your underwear dream," the classic manifestation of the fear of being unprepared. Surely, I must have missed it or just skipped over it. I went back and looked through syllabi. Nothing. Not that it would have done any good to the 20 year old version of me.

  3. Thanks for the lists. If your daughter doesn't benefit from them, I will. Sorry to say, I've read only half on the obvious list, and only about 3 from the eclectic. But I accept that one cannot read, or have read, everything, and remain thankful for the influential works I did read. Hawthorne was big for me, as was James, Dickens, Twain, all the other obvious ones for an American young person. Immensely enjoying D.H. Lawrence at present. Alas, too many books, too little time.

    1. The reader's lament, indeed, and a true one. Lawrence is immense, and like youth, wasted on the young. You need to be smacked around a bit by life before you can appreciate what he is bringing to the table. Cheers sir

  4. Fantastic lists, both of them. I also appreciate the "obvious" one.