For the last few years, I’ve occasionally passed time by thinking of the shortest way to become literate in the Western literary tradition. In other words, what is the smallest number of books one can read, and which books, to say one is familiar with the general outline of Western literature?
I’ll begin by seting out some criteria. First, every era of Western civilisation should, of course, be represented, from the Classical world to modernity.
Second, priority is given to works that are frequently referred to in other works. The corollary to this is that the works given are not necessarily the greatest works of Western literature, but those that form the most obvious threads connecting different eras.
These should, of course, be read in chronological order, and relatively soon one after another, to make those connecting threads more obvious.
So, here we go, my shortcut to literacy:
The Odyssey, by Homer – Starting with the earliest, and arguably greatest, epic poet. I recommend the Odyssey over the Iliad primarily because it is referred to more often in subsequent works, at least the ones on this list, but everyone ought to read both at some point, and preferably earlier than later, if they’re going to take literature seriously.
Metamorphoses, by Ovid – A familiarity with Greco-Roman mythology is a must, and though many anthologies would work Ovid’s long poem is the most famous. This is a case of my second criteria, because Virgil’s Aeneid typically seems to be regarded more highly than Ovid. Given time, of course, the Aeneid should be the second Roman work one reads.
The Bible – Roughly speaking, Western civilisation was Christian from (very approximately) just after the time of Constantine up until the Twentieth Century, so even non-religious writers refer to Scripture constantly. The King James version is the most important in English by far, so I’d highly recommend that. Since this is a shortcut, one needn’t read the whole thing, but I’m uncertain which books specifically to suggest. Perhaps Genesis, Exodus, 1 and 2 Samuel, Isaiah, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Job, Matthew, John, Romans, Revelations?
The Divine Comedy, by Dante – The best known work of the Middle Ages; if pressed for time, the Inferno should suffice. Dante’s a fine example of the thread I referred to above, as he draws from both Christian and pagan sources, and has references to all three of the above works.
Selected Plays by William Shakespeare – An old professor of mine once said, only half-jokingly, that half of English literature consists of references to Shakespeare, and the other half of references to the Bible. The only question is, which plays does one read? It’s safe to start with his most famous, so perhaps Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, Richard III, and The Merchant of Venice? Okay, I’ll admit those are just my five favourite of his plays, but a collection of the tragedies or histories should work.
The Waste Land, by T.S. Eliot – Eliot, Hilda Doolittle, and Ezra Pound are all great and all make use of the Western literary tradition, but Eliot seems best suited for our purposes. The Waste Land is the obvious choice, but also read some of his other poems. As a final bonus if you really want the sum of Western civilisation (with some of the Eastern thrown in), read Pound’s The Cantos.
That’s it; I’m confident that someone who’s read the above works can say he has a solid foundation to continue in whatever direction interests him in Western literature. If we were to expand this, I would recommend the Iliad and Aeneid, a collection of the Arthurian Romances (probably Malory), and perhaps John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Beyond that, I’m not sure, but reading Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading and following his suggestions would be a good idea.