The Western Canon Reading List

One of Gustave Doré's brilliant illustration for The Divine Comedy. This one is called "Crystalline Heaven." (Via Wikiart.)
One of Gustave Doré’s brilliant illustrations for The Divine Comedy. This one is called “Crystalline Heaven.” (Via Wikiart.)

If you follow Brenton Dickieson’s blog A Pilgrim in Narnia (which you certainly should), you’ve probably heard about his project in which he aims to read through the Western canon. Looking for a list of canonical books to work from, Brenton turned to Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. From it, he compiled a list of all of the works that Bloom presents throughout the book as examples of what the canon is, how it works, and why it is important. You can read more about how this list was compiled here.

But wait, what is the Western canon? Which books are in it? I doubt if anyone knows for sure. For as long as anyone can remember, there’s been much disagreement between academics, authors, and readers as to which books should be part of the canon and which should not. Some wonder if we should even have a canon at all. But whatever we as individuals think of the canon, one thing’s for sure: the impact these books have had on the culture and on history is immeasurable. These are the books that the whole world has been talking about for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years . . . and we all just walked in in the middle of the conversation.

For those reasons, I’ve decided to give the list a shot myself, although unlike Brenton, I don’t plan to set a date by which I expect to finish. Brenton is giving himself nine years to read the whole list through—I’d like to finish in five or six years, but at the moment, twenty seems like a more realistic number. 😉

Here’s the complete list:

Foundational Work (Theocratic Age)

  • Homer
    • The Iliad (Greek, 8th BCE)
    • The Odyssey (Greek, 8th BCE)
  • Virgil, The Aeneid (Latin, 29-19 BCE)
  • The Bible

Late Medieval and Renaissance (Aristocratic Age)

  • Dante Alighieri, Comedia/The Divine Comedy (Italian, 1308-1320)
  • Chaucer, Canterbury Tales (English, 1475)
  • Shakespeare
    • Love’s Labour’s Lost (English, 1597)
    • Hamlet (English, 1603)
    • Othello (English, 1604)
    • King Lear (English, 1606)
    • Macbeth (English, 1611)
  • Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote (Spanish, 1605)
  • Molière, The Misanthrope (French, 1666)
  • John Milton, Paradise Lost (English, 1667)
  • James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson (English, 1791)
  • Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust (German, 1772-1790)

19th Century+

  • William Wordsworth
    • “The Ruined Cottage” (English, 1800)
    • “Tintern Abbey” (English, 1798)
  • Jane Austen, Persuasion (English, 1818)
  • Walt Whitman
    • Leaves of Grass (English, 1855)
    • “Song of Myself” (English, 1855)
  • Emily Dickinson, The Poems of Emily Dickinson (English, 1800s)
  • Charles Dickens, Bleak House (English, 1852-1853)
  • George Eliot, Middlemarch (English, 1874)
  • Henrik Ibsen, Peer Gynt (Norwegian, 1876)
  • Leo Tolstoy, Hadji Murad (Russian, 1896-1904)
  • Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time (a.k.a. Remembrance of Things Past) (1913)
  • James Joyce, Ulysses (English, 1922)
  • Virginia Woolf
    • Orlando (English, 1928)
    • A Room of One’s Own (English, 1929)
  • Franz Kafka, The Blue Octavo Notebooks (German, 1917-1919)
  • Jorge Luis Borges, The Garden of Forking Paths (Spanish, 1941)
  • Pablo Neruda, Canto General (Spanish, 1938-1950)
  • Samuel Beckett
    • Endgame (English, 1957)
    • Murphy (English, 1938)
    • Waiting for Godot (English, 1953)

I’ve read three of these works already (Hamlet, Macbeth, and “Tintern Abbey”) and I’m halfway through with another (The Aeneid). So, I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

In the meantime, have you read any of these books? Are you planning to tackle this list too? Let me know in the comments.

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5 thoughts on “The Western Canon Reading List

  1. What is discouraging is (1) how long the list already is, (2) the fact that it is only literature, and we really need to read history and philosophy as well, and (3) there are major omissions (e.g. all of the Greek plays are missing – Sophocles, Aeschylus, et al.). But, you have to start somewhere with a list that is feasible.

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    1. This list seemed like a good place to start, plus I plan to supplement it with some of the other classics that I’ve been meaning to read for ages (Beowulf, for example, which appears on Bloom’s more comprehensive list at the end of The Western Canon but isn’t mentioned in the book itself). And you’re right, it would be a good idea to read more history and philosophy in order to put these works in their proper context.

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  2. Let’s see…I’ve read Hamlet, Macbeth, Persuasion, Bleak House, and some poetry by Wordsworth and Dickinson (“Tintern Abbey” might have been one of them), plus a significant amount of the Bible. And I’ve read other books by Tolstoy, though not the one listed here. Tried to get through Don Quixote once but failed.

    I try to read a few new-to-me classics each year, but so far I haven’t been working from a list, just picking the ones that sound most interesting to me.

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  3. Hahaha! When I clicked on this post, I was like, “Ooooh, the Western Canon! I bet there’s lots of Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour and Larry McMurtry — but maybe there will be lots of new authors I don’t know yet!” Ahem. Shows where my headspace is lately.

    Anyway, as for the list you actually posted, I’m happy to find I’ve read 14 things off it, and selections from 3 more. As representatives of the western canon, not a comprehensive list, I find this one pretty good.

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