In Esquire magazine, in September of 1994, Harold Bloom, compiler of the Western Canon, came up with "278 Books You Should Have Read By Now".


I suspect, having browsed through this, that Bloom did Vidal and Vonnegut and then realized that he was remarkably underquota. Does he actually expect us to believe that those five Jay Wright novels are better than Slaughterhouse-Five, Ulysses, Bleak House, or Steinbeck's East Of Eden? In my humble opinion, he got to W, recognized that he was far, far away from his magic number of 278, and, not wanting to go back, tossed in as many authors whose last names begin with that letter as he could.

I am working on pipe-linking the authors' names; I've completed through K....

This list is taken from http://www.io.com/~beckerdo/books/sqrlst.txt

The list by Harold Bloom that starts off this node is perhaps the most pretentious and self-absorbed list of its kind that I've ever seen. While most of the books in it are good, to call it a list of books you should have read by now and include six titles by John Ashbery smacks of a world of self-absorbed cultural irrelevance. These aren't 278 books you should have read by now, these are 278 books that a pretentious literary twat should have read by now.

Books you should have read by now should be engrossing, but at the same time have some degree of cultural relevance. Books you should have read by now shouldn't involve seven titles by the same tired author, but should include a huge amount of diversity, both topical and authorwise.

I could make a much better list... and in fact, I have.

278 Books You Should Have Read By Now
the 18thCandidate version

If you think a book should be on this list... That's wonderful and all. I'm sure you've got a wonderfully written book there, one of great prose and of wide interest. The problem is... this is my list, not yours.

If you think a book shouldn't be on this list... Too bad. The point of this list is to cross-cut as much of English letters as can be done in a list of this size. Some are fiction, some are non-fiction; some are genre-based, some are not; some are highbrow, some are decidedly lowbrow; some are expected, some are quite surprising. Read them all if you want to be a well rounded human being.

If you'd like to read some of these, but don't know where to start... Pick one completely at random. If that scares you, read some of the linked writeups for the books. If you still can't make up your mind, ask me by listing some of your favorites and I'll see what I can come up with.

And now, the list... (with some commentary below)

  1. King James Bible
  2. Quran
  3. Abbey, Edward - Desert Solitaire
  4. Abbott, Edwin - Flatland
  5. Achebe, Chinua - Things Fall Apart
  6. Adams, Douglas - The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
  7. Adams, Henry - The Education of Henry Adams
  8. Adams, Richard - Watership Down
  9. Aesop - Aesop's Fables
  10. Agee, James - Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
  11. Alcott, Louisa May - Little Women
  12. Aligheri, Dante - The Divine Comedy
  13. Amis, Kingsley - Lucky Jim
  14. Anderson, Sherwood - Winesburg, Ohio
  15. Asimov, Isaac - Gold
  16. Atwood, Margaret - The Handmaid's Tale
  17. Austen, Jane - Emma
  18. Baldwin, James - Giovanni's Room
  19. Barth, John - Lost in the Funhouse
  20. Baum, L. Frank - The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
  21. Beckett, Samuel - Waiting for Godot
  22. Bellow, Saul - Herzog
  23. Berger, Thomas - Little Big Man
  24. Bester, Alfred - The Stars My Destination
  25. Bissinger, H.G. - Friday Night Lights
  26. Borges, Jorge Luis - Ficciones
  27. Boyle, T. Coraghessan - The Tortilla Curtain
  28. Bradbury, Ray - Fahrenheit 451
  29. Bradley, Marion Zimmer - The Mists of Avalon
  30. Bronte, Charlotte - Jane Eyre
  31. Bronte, Emily - Wuthering Heights
  32. Brown, Dee - Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
  33. Buck, Pearl S. - The Good Earth
  34. Bukowski, Charles - Post Office
  35. Burgess, Anthony - A Clockwork Orange
  36. Burroughs, William S. - Naked Lunch
  37. Calvino, Italo - If on a Winter's Night a Traveler
  38. Camus, Albert - The Stranger
  39. Capote, Truman - In Cold Blood
  40. Card, Orson Scott - Ender's Game
  41. Carroll, Jim - The Basketball Diaries
  42. Carroll, Lewis - Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
  43. Carroll, Peter - Liber Null
  44. Carson, Rachel - Silent Spring
  45. Cather, Willa - My Antonia
  46. Cervantes, Miguel de - Don Quixote
  47. Chabon, Michael - The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
  48. Chandler, Raymond - The Long Goodbye
  49. Cheever, John - The Stories of John Cheever
  50. Chopin, Kate - The Awakening
  51. Clarke, Arthur C. - Childhood's End
  52. Confucius - The Analects
  53. Conrad, Joseph - Heart of Darkness
  54. Pat Conroy - The Prince of Tides
  55. Cooper, James Fenimore - The Last of the Mohicans
  56. Coupland, Douglas - Microserfs
  57. Cunningham, Michael - The Hours
  58. Dahl, Roald - Danny the Champion of the World
  59. Danielewski, Mark - House of Leaves
  60. Davies, Robertson - The Deptford Trilogy
  61. Dawkins, Richard - The Blind Watchmaker
  62. Delany, Samuel - Dhalgren
  63. De Beauvoir, Simone - The Second Sex
  64. DeLillo, Dom - Underworld
  65. Dick, Philip K. - The Man in the High Castle
  66. Dickens, Charles - David Copperfield
  67. Dickey, James - Deliverance
  68. Dickinson, Emily - The Complete Poems
  69. Dinesen, Isak - Out of Africa
  70. Doctorow, E.L. - World's Fair
  71. Dostoyevsky, Fyodor - The Brothers Karamazov
  72. Dreiser, Theodore - An American Tragedy
  73. DuBois, W.E.B. - The Souls of Black Folk
  74. Dumas, Alexandre - The Count of Monte Cristo
  75. du Maurier, Daphne - Rebecca
  76. Eco, Umberto - Foucault's Pendulum
  77. Eggers, Dave - A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
  78. Eliot, George - Silas Marner
  79. Eliot, T.S. - The Waste Land
  80. Ellis, Bret Easton - American Psycho
  81. Ellison, Harlan - The Essential Ellison
  82. Ellison, Ralph - Invisible Man
  83. Ellroy, James - L.A. Confidential
  84. Euclid - The Elements
  85. Eugenides, Jeffrey - The Virgin Suicides
  86. Faulkner, William - The Sound and the Fury
  87. Fielding, Henry - Tom Jones
  88. Fitzgerald, F. Scott - The Great Gatsby
  89. Flaubert, Gustave - Madame Bovary
  90. Fo, Dario - Accidental Death of an Anarchist
  91. Ford, Richard - The Sportswriter
  92. Forster, E.M. - A Room With A View
  93. Fowles, John - The Magus
  94. Gaarder, Jostein - Sophie's World
  95. Gabaldon, Diana - Outlander
  96. Gaiman, Neil - American Gods
  97. Garcia Marquez, Gabriel - One Hundred Years of Solitude
  98. Gibran, Kahlil - The Prophet
  99. Gibson, William - Count Zero
  100. Ginsberg, Allen - Howl
  101. Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von - Faust
  102. Golding, William - Lord of the Flies
  103. Grahame, Kenneth - The Wind in the Willows
  104. Grass, Günter - The Tin Drum
  105. Greene, Graham - The Power and the Glory
  106. Grimm, Wilhelm and Jacob - The Complete Grimm's Fairy Tales
  107. Haggard, H. Rider - She
  108. Haley, Alex - Roots
  109. Hardy, Thomas - Tess of the d'Urbervilles
  110. Hamilton, Edith - Mythology
  111. Hammett, Dashiell - The Maltese Falcon
  112. Hansberry, Lorraine - A Raisin in the Sun
  113. Harris, Mark - Bang the Drum Slowly
  114. Hawking, Stephen - A Brief History of Time
  115. Hawthorne, Nathaniel - The Scarlet Letter
  116. Heinlein, Robert - The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
  117. Heller, Joseph - Catch 22
  118. Hemingway, Ernest - A Farewell To Arms
  119. Henry, O. - 41 Stories
  120. Herbert, Frank - Dune
  121. Hesse, Herman - Siddharta
  122. Hofstadter, Douglas - Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid
  123. Homer - The Odyssey
  124. Hornby, Nick - High Fidelity
  125. Hughes, Langston - The Collected Poems
  126. Hugo, Victor - Les Miserables
  127. Hurston, Zora Neale - Their Eyes Were Watching God
  128. Huxley, Aldous - Brave New World
  129. Ibsen, Henrik - The Wild Duck
  130. Irving, John - A Prayer For Owen Meany
  131. Jackson, Shirley - The Lottery and Other Stories
  132. James, William - The Varieties of Religious Experience
  133. Jin, Ha - War Trash
  134. Jones, Edward P. - The Known World
  135. Jones, James - From Here to Eternity
  136. Joyce, James - Ulysses
  137. Kafka, Franz - The Metamorphosis
  138. Keats, John - The Complete Poems
  139. Kerouac, Jack - On the Road
  140. Kesey, Ken - One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest
  141. Keyes, Daniel - Flowers for Algernon
  142. King, Stephen - It
  143. Kingsolver, Barbara - The Poisonwood Bible
  144. Kinsella, W.P. - Shoeless Joe
  145. Kipling, Rudyard - Kim
  146. Knowles, John - A Separate Peace
  147. Koestler, Arthur - Darkness at Noon
  148. Kohn, Alfie - No Contest
  149. Kristol, Irving - Neoconservatism
  150. Kundera, Milan - The Unbearable Lightness of Being
  151. Lahiri, Jhumpa - Interpreter of Maladies
  152. Larson, Erik - The Devil in the White City
  153. Larson, Gary - The Complete Far Side
  154. Lawrence, D.H. - Sons and Lovers
  155. Lee, Harper - To Kill A Mockingbird
  156. LeGuin, Ursula K. - The Left Hand of Darkness
  157. Lem, Stanislaw - Memoirs Found in a Bathtub
  158. Leonard, Elmore - Swag
  159. Leopold, Aldo - A Sand County Almanac
  160. Levy, Steven - Hackers
  161. Lewis, C.S. - Mere Christianity
  162. Lewis, Meriwether and Clark, William - The Journals of Lewis and Clark
  163. Lewis, Michael - Moneyball
  164. Lewis, Sinclair - It Can't Happen Here
  165. London, Jack - The Call of the Wild
  166. Lowry, Lois - The Giver
  167. Mailer, Norman - The Executioner's Song
  168. Marlowe, Christopher - Doctor Faustus
  169. Martin, George R.R. - A Game of Thrones
  170. Marx, Karl - The Communist Manifesto
  171. Masters, Edgar Lee - Spoon River Anthology
  172. McCarthy, Cormac - The Border Trilogy
  173. McCourt, Frank - Angela's Ashes
  174. McMurtry, Larry - Lonesome Dove
  175. Mellick, Carlton III - Razor Wire Pubic Hair
  176. Miller, Arthur - Death of a Salesman
  177. Miller, Henry - Tropic of Cancer
  178. Miller Jr., Walter M. - A Canticle for Leibowitz
  179. Milne, A.A. - Winnie the Pooh
  180. Milton, John - Paradise Lost
  181. Moore, Alan - The Watchmen
  182. More, Thomas - Utopia
  183. Morris, Edmund - Dutch
  184. Morrison, Toni - Beloved
  185. Murakami, Haruki - The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
  186. Nabokov, Vladimir - Lolita
  187. Nietzsche, Friedrich - The Portable Nietzsche
  188. Oates, Joyce Carol - We Were The Mulvaneys
  189. O'Nan, Stewart - A Prayer for the Dying
  190. Orczy, Baroness Emmuska - The Scarlet Pimpernel
  191. Orwell, George - 1984
  192. Palahniuk, Chuck - Fight Club
  193. Perez, Richard - The Loser's Club
  194. Pirsig, Robert - Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
  195. Plath, Sylvia - The Bell Jar
  196. Plato - The Republic
  197. Poe, Edgar Allan - Collected Tales and Poems
  198. Pound, Ezra - Selected Poems
  199. Pullman, Philip - Northern Lights
  200. Pynchon, Thomas - The Crying of Lot 49
  201. Quinn, Daniel - Ishmael
  202. Rand, Ayn - The Fountainhead
  203. Remarque, Erich Maria - All Quiet on the Western Front
  204. Reynolds, Sheri - The Rapture of Canaan
  205. Rhys, Jean - Wide Sargasso Sea
  206. Robbins, Tom - Still Life With Woodpecker
  207. Roberts, J.M. - The New History of the World
  208. Robinson, Kim Stanley - The Years of Rice and Salt
  209. Robinson, Marilynne - Housekeeping
  210. Roth, Philip - Portnoy's Complaint
  211. Rowling, J.K. - Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
  212. Rushdie, Salman - The Satanic Verses
  213. Russo, Richard - Empire Falls
  214. Sachar, Louis - Holes
  215. Salinger, J.D. - The Catcher in the Rye
  216. Schlosser, Eric - Fast Food Nation
  217. Scott, Walter - Ivanhoe
  218. Sedaris, David - Me Talk Pretty One Day
  219. Shakespeare, William - Hamlet
  220. Shakur, Tupac - The Rose That Grew From Concrete
  221. Shaw, Bernard - Pygmalion
  222. Shelley, Mary - Frankenstein
  223. Shirer, William - The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich
  224. Shute, Nevil - On the Beach
  225. Simmons, Dan - Hyperion
  226. Sinclair, Upton - The Jungle
  227. Spark, Muriel - The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
  228. Spiegelman, Art - Maus
  229. Steinbeck, John - The Grapes of Wrath
  230. Stephenson, Neal - Quicksilver
  231. Stevenson, Robert Louis - Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
  232. Stoker, Bram - Dracula
  233. Stowe, Harriet Beecher - Uncle Tom's Cabin
  234. Styron, William - Sophie's Choice
  235. Sundman, John F.X. - Acts of the Apostles
  236. Svevo, Italo - Confessions of Zeno
  237. Swift, Jonathan - Gulliver's Travels
  238. Takami, Koushun - Battle Royale
  239. Tan, Amy - The Joy Luck Club
  240. Tartt, Donna - The Secret History
  241. Thomas, Dylan - The Collected Poems
  242. Thompson, Craig - Blankets
  243. Thompson, Hunter S. - Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72
  244. Thoreau, Henry David - Walden
  245. Tocqueville, Alexis de - Democracy in America
  246. Tolkien, J.R.R. - The Lord of the Rings
  247. Tolstoy, Leo - Anna Karenina
  248. Toole, John Kennedy - A Confederacy of Dunces
  249. Trumbo, Dalton - Johnny Got His Gun
  250. Twain, Mark - The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
  251. Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher - A Midwife's Tale
  252. Updike, John - Rabbit, Run
  253. Vergil - The Aeneid
  254. Vinge, Vernor - A Deepness in the Sky
  255. Voltaire - Candide
  256. Vonnegut, Kurt - Slaughterhouse Five
  257. Walker, Alice - The Color Purple
  258. Wallace, David Foster - Infinite Jest
  259. Warren, Robert Penn - All The King's Men
  260. Watterson, Bill - The Complete Calvin and Hobbes
  261. Waugh, Evelyn - Brideshead Revisited
  262. Webb, Mary - Precious Bane
  263. Wells, H.G. - The War of the Worlds
  264. Welsh, Irvine - Trainspotting
  265. Wharton, Edith - The Age of Innocence
  266. White, E.B. - Charlotte's Web
  267. White, T.H. - The Once and Future King
  268. Whitman, Walt - Leaves of Grass
  269. Wilde, Oscar - The Picture of Dorian Gray
  270. Wilder, Thornton - The Bridge of San Luis Rey
  271. Williams, Tennessee - A Streetcar Named Desire
  272. Wolff, Tobias - This Boy's Life
  273. Wolfe, Tom - The Right Stuff
  274. Woolf, Virginia - To the Lighthouse
  275. Wordsworth, William - The Major Works
  276. Wright, Richard - Native Son
  277. Yeats, William Butler - The Collected Works, Volume I
  278. Zinn, Howard - A People's History of the United States

Some Notes: This list was challenging to create. The goal was to create a culturally relevant and yet still challenging list of literary works that can speak to a modern audience without boring them. At the same time, I wanted desperately to avoid repeating the same voices and the same types of works, both within this list and also with respect to the lists that you often see of this kind. To me, the Harold Bloom list was a particularly terrible example of such a list, as it was caught up in literary snobbery to the point that the list became largely inaccessible.

I simply began by listing every book that had left an indelible mark on my psyche. After that, I sent this list to a wide number of friends and acquaintances, asking them to add books to the list that made an impact, while also marking any books that I had listed that made them feel that way. Thankfully, I have friends who are very outspoken and quite enjoy making such lists. Eventually, the list became long enough that I eliminated any books that did not have multiple mentions, leaving me still with a rather large catalogue of works to look at.

At one point, this book had more than four hundred works on it, and paring it down to the 278 that you see above was often tricky, particularly when deciding between multiple works by the same author. A few in particular were difficult: Douglas Coupland is a great voice, but which of his works speak best today: Generation X? Microserfs? How about Girlfriend in a Coma? Try doing the same thing with Tom Wolfe or Sinclair Lewis.

Everyone I have shown this list to has reacted with some sort of outrage, either due to a selection listed here that they deem ridiculous or a particular written work that they felt really deserved inclusion. That's a wonderful thing; that means I did this list right. If several people agreed completely with the list, I'd say that this list was a complete failure. The point of literature is to challenge the reader, ideally without overwhelming the reader, and also establish a particular point of view.

As for the idea that this list will grow out of date, I agree, for the most part. It will need a bit of maintenance every year or two, as the culture shifts and moves and grows. This is particularly true of the more modern pieces on the list, which describe aspects of the modern life that are constantly in flux. Fast Food Nation is a profound work, but how relevant will it be in twenty years? It's hard to say.

Nevertheless, it would be safe to say that tackling the books on this list would be a good way to make yourself a well-rounded reader, exposed to many different ideas, philosophies, and styles.

Now get to your local library and get cracking.

One important piece of context needs to be mentioned on Harold Bloom's list. It was not Bloom writing a list of the greatest works of all time. The list was a much narrower list of works: the works of American Literature from the 20th century that Bloom thought would still be read in the future. It was his list of future classics. This, then, explains the fact that all the authors on the list are 20th Century American writers--- otherwise it is close to inconceivable that even the worst literary snob would include three novels by Denis Johnson on a list that excluded James Joyce, Voltaire or Mark Twain.

But we are still left with a problem. An even bigger problem, in fact. Because the original subtitle was indeed part of the article: these are books that you should have read by now. Whether that was Bloom's contention, or just a provocative title tacked on by an editor at Esquire, this list seems to suggest that whoever is reading the list already has read every book on it, and if they haven't, there must be something wrong with them. The current reader of this piece, having read over the list, is probably thinking that the claim that these books should have been read already is somewhere between pretentious and ludicrous. But I will describe just how ludicrous it is.

How long does it take to read a book? I have actually read at least one of the books on the list (The Great Gatsby) inside of 24 hours, but that was a brief book. It is true that the actual speed of reading can be done quite quickly, and that reading a 500 page book in a day is not out of the question. However, properly reading and understanding a book usually is not done at a breakneck speed. Just like eating a good meal, you want to chew and digest it slowly. The rate at which these books could be read varies greatly, The Catcher in the Rye being a book that probably could be read in a day or two, while Gravity's Rainbow might take a much longer time. I would say that reading two of these books a week is not an impossible goal. At that rate, it would take a little over two years to have read all these books. Since these are books that involve a high reading level and mature concepts, reading them would probably begin (theoretically) around 16 to 18. Thus, it could be realistic to think that someone entering into college, or half way through it, could have read these books already.

Of course, these books, are, as mentioned, only taken from a particular niche of literature. The person who takes the task upon themselves of reading two of these books a week for three years would also have to forgo reading earlier American literature. And other English language literature. And foreign language in translation. And any sort of scientific, historical, philosophical, religious or technical literature. And, for that matter, any light reading. So our theoretical prodigy has given up on reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, or War and Peace, or Wonderful Life, or Jurassic Park, and many other important books, so they can plow through Bloom's work of essential 20th century American literature. Either that or they would intersperse this reading amongst their other reading. But that brings our time line up from a rather optimistic two and a half year by a factor of several times. If we take a generous estimate that 20th century American literature would be one quarter of someone's diet, we are now up to ten years before these books "should" have been read. So again, our literary prodigy might be able to make this list by their late 20s, if we include several generous estimates in our calculations.

Of course, most people, even intelligent people, have other things to do with their lives, such as studying non-literary subjects in college, having a job or a family, or having hobbies or activities other than reading. So if ten years is the time frame it would take a dedicated literary enthusiast to get through these books, it might take several times that for someone who has other things to do. So our ten years might stretch out to twenty or thirty years for the average educated person. We are getting further and further away from "should have read by now". Under some bizarre set of literary obsession, this list of books might be something that has been read already, but even amongst people studying American literature in graduate school, there is probably one person in a hundred that has read every book on this list, or even a majority of them.

If this long deconstruction of the actual plausibility of this particular list seems unnecessary, I do it because I am making a larger point about the "canon". I would say the same thing about books such as "1001 Books To Read Before You Die". I consider, for both conceptual and logistical reasons, the canon of literature to be a starting place, instead of an exhaustive body of work. Conceptually, culture is quite large and there is no way to throw a net over it. Even if we have a "snobbish" view that there is a high culture of literature and philosophy that excludes science and popular works, the idea that you can cover every aspect of culture takes away from many of the intricacies of various disciplines within that culture. And from a logistical standpoint...well, I have already explained that. The purpose of a canon is to have a small body of work that the average educated person can have read, so that they have a common yardstick to compare their other fields of endeavor and interest to. And, for obvious reasons, having read several hundred books of modern American literature and poetry is not needed to do that.

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