I picked up Book by Book by Michael Dirda at the library, because when one doesn’t feel like reading a whole book itself the next best thing is to read a book about books. It’s a collection of various book lists, book reviews, essays on life and reading, and quotations.
Early on in the book he creates a list of "patterning works"–books that the rest of literature is based on, responds to, even reacts to. Not meant to be a comprehensive list of great works, but rather the most basic accumulation of the literature a person would need to understand what all the rest of the books are talking about.
Here is his list:
The Bible (KJV wording has been most influential)
Bulfinch’s Mythology (or other good collection of Greek, Roman, and Norse Myths)
Homer, The Iliad and The Odyssey
Plutarch, Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans
The Arabian Nights
Thomas Malory, Le Morte D’Arthur (tales of King Arthur and his knights)
Shakespeare’s major plays, especially Hamlet, Henry IV, Part One, King Lear, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Tempest
Cervantes, Don Quixote
Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe
Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels
The fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen
Any substantial collection of the world’s major folktales
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
It struck me that this would make an excellent basic literary reading plan for K-12, and not just because I already own almost everything on it or was going to buy it for myself anyway at the first opportunity. (Bullfinch is hard to find second-hand.) My own less learned career as a reader leads me to concur that these are works that keep cropping up, one way or another. I’ve read or at least dabbled in nearly all of them, and they are all intrinsically worth the time they take, as well.
Furthermore, this is a manageable list. There’s something for every age and it could be easily covered over twelve years, leaving lots of free time for reading according to individual taste and family obsessions. It’s also a list of works that I can envision giving to my children to read, at the appropriate time (and, for some, only with guidance or editing).
In considering the tension between adult mandates and child initiative, I often ponder exactly what my role is. The most essential goal, for me, is to cultivate passion–in the area of literature, the goal is that my children will love reading. After that, the point of focused study in youth is to provide the tools–the essential ideas, experiences, and connections–that will never cease to serve them in new discoveries.
In that context, these are nearly all books I would be willing to require reading because of their own value. (And the ones I’m more doubtful about are the ones I’m least likely to need to require.) There are many other worthwhile books, but one cannot possibly fit every worthwhile book into the first years of life (or perhaps into all the years of life). The point of this list is to read the books that will allow you to understand the rest of the books you will ever read.
But perhaps there are a few more out there. Any other thoughts?