Friday, September 3, 2010

Circling the Western Canon


Build a foundation in Western classics through reading focused in order of importance on literature, philosophy, and history.


Read the Western Canon in a series of widening passes over the material, beginning with Shakespeare. Each pass will delve deeper into the canon, building on the readings from previous passes, and including re-readings where desireable.

The reading plan will remain secondary to inspiration and enthusiasm. When interests wane, the structure is there to maintain focused movement.

The Reading Phases

  • Phase 1, the reading of Shakespeare, is a perpetual, ongoing project and will always run concurrently with the remaining phases. Phase 1 should include the gradual inclusion of critical writings on Shakespeare’s works.
  • Phase 2 and beyond represent discrete stages in an organized reading list, with each Phase adding additional works and authors.

The Practice of Reading

A number of works should be read concurrently:

  1. Selection from Phase 1
  2. First reading of a work following the reading phases
  3. Rereading of a work, with inclusion of critical materials and personal research
  4. [optional] Reading for discussion groups

Organized reading is restricted to 4 or 5 days per week, permitting leisure reading on days off.

Phase 1—Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human

Read through all of Shakespeare’s plays. Revisit the major plays and survey the available criticism. See Bloom’s Shakespeare Through The Ages series.

Phase 2—The Western Canon

Read the selected works from the remaining 25 authors discussed in Bloom’s book.

  • Dante
    • The Divine Comedy
      • Preferred Edition: trans. Robert & Jean Hollander
      • URL:
  • Chaucer
    • The Canterbury Tales
      • Preferred Edition: Chaucer’s English, not a modernization/translation
      • Translation Edition: Geoffrey Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales, David Wright (Translator, Introduction, Notes)
  • Cervantes
    • Don Quixote
      • Preferred Edition: Don Quixote, trans Edith Grossman
      • URL: Amazon
  • Montaigne
    • Essays
      • Preferred Edition: Michel de Montaigne - The Complete Essays (Penguin Classics), trans. M.A. Screech
      • URL: Amazon
  • Molière
    • The Misanthrope
      • Preferred Edition: trans. Richard Wilbur
      • URL: Amazon (includes Tartuffe)
    • Tartuffe
      • Preferred Edition: trans. Richard Wilbur
      • URL: Amazon (includes The Misanthrope)
    • Don Juan
      • Preferred Edition: trans. Richard Wilbur
      • URL: Amazon
  • Milton
    • Paradise Lost
  • Samuel Johnson - Preferred Edition: Public Domain
  • Goethe
    • Faust, Part Two
      • Preferred Edition: trans, David Luke
      • URL: Amazon
  • Wordsworth
    • Prelude
    • “The Old Cumberland Beggar”
    • “The Ruined Cottage”
    • “Michael”
  • Jane Austen
    • Persuasion
  • Walt Whitman
    • Leaves of Grass
  • Emily Dickinson
    • Poems
  • Dickens
    • Bleak House
  • George Eliot
    • Middlemarch
  • Tolstoy
    • War and Peace
      • Preferred Edition: trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
      • URL: Amazon
    • Hadji Murad
      • Preferred Edition: The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
      • URL: Amazon
  • Ibsen
    • Hedda Gabler
      • Preferred Edition: Four Major Plays: (Doll’s House; Ghosts; Hedda Gabler; and The Master Builder) (Oxford World’s Classics), trans. James McFarlane and Jens Arup
      • URL: Amazon
    • Peer Gynt
      • Preferred Edition: Peer Gynt: A Dramatic Poem (Oxford World’s Classics), trans. Christopher Fry and Johann Fillinger
      • URL: Amazon
  • Freud
    • Works to be determined
      • Preferred Edition: To be determined
  • Proust
    • Rememberance of Things Past
      • Preferred Edition: The 6 Vols from Penguin/Viking, alternately the Modern Library “Proust 6-Pack”
  • Joyce
    • Ulysses
    • Finnegans Wake
  • Woolf
    • Orlando
  • Kafka
    • Amerika
      • Edition: trans. Hofmann
    • The Complete Stories
      • Edition: Metamorphosis and Other Stories: (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition), trans. Hofmann
    • The Blue Octavo Notebook
      • Edition: trans. Max Brod
    • The Trial
    • The Diaries
    • The Castle
    • Parables, Fragments, Aphorisms
      • Edition: The Zürau Aphorisms of Franz Kafka, trans. Hofmann and Brock
  • Borges
    • Fictions
      • Preferred Edition: Collected Fictions, trans. Andrew Hurley
      • URL: Amazon
  • Neruda
    • Canto general
      • Canto General, 50th Anniversary Edition
        • or The Essential Neruda: Selected Poems w/ 7 of the 12 Cantos
      • URL: Amazon
  • Pessoa
    • The Keeper of Sheep
      • Preferred Edition: The Keeper of Sheep, trans. Edwin Honig
        • or A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe: Selected Poems, trans. Richard Zenith w/ selections of The Keeper of Sheep
      • URL: Amazon
  • Beckett

Phase 3—The Widening Gyre

Read the most important works in the entire Western Canon. Proceed chronologically unless another organizational scheme presents itself.


  • Complete list of works, with a list of specific books to acquire.
    • Adler’s list may be a good boiler plate.
    • Bloom’s appendices to TWC will suggest others, particularly as Adler’s list approaches the 19th–20th centuries.
  • Fit the list to a schedule requiring aprox 5 hours reading per week.
  • Set study and writing goals

Phase 4—Filling in the Cracks

Focused reading to supplement existing knowledge/experience of the Western Canon, of philosophy, and of history.


  • List to remain open and flexible
  • Maintain a list of books of interest.
  • Re-evaluate gaps in reading prior to beginning this phase.
  • Set goals for longer writing projects

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