Compulsive reader

Pejman posts a list of 101 great books that College Board recommends for high school students and others. He’s boldfaced the books on the list that he’s read, as have a number of other bloggers.

I’ve read 90. I’m missing some of the new or rediscovered black female writers (Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston) and I never did get into Thomas Mann or Proust. One writer and book are new to me: Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, about a Native American veteran of World War II.

Achebe, Chinua – Things Fall Apart
Agee, James – A Death in the Family
Austen, Jane – Pride and Prejudice
Baldwin, James – Go Tell It on the Mountain
Beckett, Samuel – Waiting for Godot
Bellow, Saul – The Adventures of Augie March
Bronte, Charlotte – Jane Eyre
Bronte, Emily – Wuthering Heights
Camus, Albert – The Stranger
Cather, Willa – Death Comes for the Archbishop
Chaucer, Geoffrey – The Canterbury Tales
Chekhov, Anton – The Cherry Orchard
Chopin, Kate – The Awakening
Conrad, Joseph – Heart of Darkness
Cooper, James Fenimore – The Last of the Mohicans
Crane, Stephen – The Red Badge of Courage
Dante – Inferno
Cervantes, Miguel – Don Quixote
Defoe, Daniel – Robinson Crusoe
Dickens, Charles – A Tale of Two Cities
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor – Crime and Punishment
Douglass, Frederick – Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Dreiser, Theodore – An American Tragedy
Dumas, Alexandre – The Three Musketeers
Eliot, George – The Mill on the Floss
Ellison, Ralph – Invisible Man

Emerson, Ralph Waldo – Selected Essays
Faulkner, William – As I Lay Dying
Faulkner, William – The Sound and the Fury
Fielding, Henry – Tom Jones
Fitzgerald, F. Scott – The Great Gatsby
Flaubert, Gustave – Madame Bovary
Ford, Ford Madox – The Good Soldier
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang – Faust
Golding, William – Lord of the Flies
Hardy, Thomas – Tess of the d’Urbervilles
Hawthorne, Nathaniel – The Scarlet Letter
Heller, Joseph – Catch 22
Hemingway, Ernest – A Farewell to Arms
Homer – The Iliad
Homer – The Odyssey
Hugo, Victor – The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Hurston, Zora Neale – Their Eyes Were Watching God
Huxley, Aldous – Brave New World
Ibsen, Henrik – A Doll’s House
James, Henry – The Portrait of a Lady
James, Henry – The Turn of the Screw
Joyce, James – A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Kafka, Franz – The Metamorphosis
Kingston, Maxine Hong – The Woman Warrior
Lee, Harper – To Kill a Mockingbird
Lewis, Sinclair – Babbitt
London, Jack – The Call of the Wild

Mann, Thomas – The Magic Mountain
Marquez, Gabriel Garcia – One Hundred Years of Solitude
Melville, Herman – Bartleby the Scrivener
Melville, Herman – Moby Dick
Miller, Arthur – The Crucible

Morrison, Toni – Beloved
O’Connor, Flannery – A Good Man is Hard to Find
O’Neill, Eugene – Long Day’s Journey into Night
Orwell, George – Animal Farm
Pasternak, Boris – Doctor Zhivago
Plath, Sylvia – The Bell Jar
Poe, Edgar Allan – Selected Tales

Proust, Marcel – Swann’s Way
Pynchon, Thomas – The Crying of Lot 49
Remarque, Erich Maria – All Quiet on the Western Front
Rostand, Edmond – Cyrano de Bergerac

Roth, Henry – Call It Sleep
Salinger, J.D. – The Catcher in the Rye
Shakespeare, William – Hamlet
Shakespeare, William – Macbeth
Shakespeare, William – A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Shakespeare, William – Romeo and Juliet
Shaw, George Bernard – Pygmalion
Shelley, Mary – Frankenstein

Silko, Leslie Marmon – Ceremony
Solzhenitsyn, Alexander – One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Sophocles – Antigone
Sophocles – Oedipus Rex
Steinbeck, John – The Grapes of Wrath
Stevenson, Robert Louis – Treasure Island
Stowe, Harriet Beecher – Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Swift, Jonathan – Gulliver’s Travels
Thackeray, William – Vanity Fair
Thoreau, Henry David – Walden
Tolstoy, Leo – War and Peace
Turgenev, Ivan – Fathers and Sons
Twain, Mark – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Voltaire – Candide
Vonnegut, Kurt Jr. – Slaughterhouse-Five

Walker, Alice – The Color Purple
Wharton, Edith – The House of Mirth
Welty, Eudora – Collected Stories
Whitman, Walt – Leaves of Grass
Wilde, Oscar – The Picture of Dorian Gray
Williams, Tennessee – The Glass Menagerie
Woolf, Virginia – To the Lighthouse
Wright, Richard – Native Son

Most of these I read in seventh grade through college, though I do go on reading jags as an adult. In my 20s, I decided to read all the Shakespeare plays. I almost made it through, but gave up in the middle of Titus Andronicus and never made it to Troilus and Cressida or Merry Wives of Windsor. Then I read every book by Dickens, including the bad ones. OK, I speedread Barnaby Rudge. In my 40s, I realized that I hadn’t read much Faulkner other than short stories, so I read four of his novels before hitting my limit. I also had a Dostoevsky jag a few years ago after finally making it through The Brothers Karamazov and an Edith Wharton jag.

I was in Junior Great Books in fifth through ninth grade, and had a wonderful Great Books class in 12th grade. In college, I majored in English and Creative Writing. And I like to read.

About Joanne


  1. Rita C. says:

    Their Eyes Were Watching God is a gorgeous, gorgeous book. It’s about 200 pp, but is a little slower a read than the page count indicates because the dialogue is all written in dialect. Give it a shot. I love Proust.

  2. I hated Proust. When I did (finally) catch on, I realized how little my efforts were rewarded. Proust is the wondrous epitome of the effete European writer, and his life story would make a really good farcical film (with all sorts of pale English actors putting on their worst Continental accents). His writings are best left to those sadists who enjoy the scribbled-down literary onanism of that silly man.

    Television may have ruined my attention span, but it gave me great crap-detection skills.

  3. Kate Chopin’s a minor writer, at best.
    With Silko, I don’t think you’re missing too much. Louise Erdich is technically a “Native American” writer, but she’s not exactly living life on the reservation.

    Sylvia Plath? Unlikely.

    And why, oh why is Kurt Vonnegut on any list?

    I can think of another dozen writers who are better choices.

  4. Rita C. says:

    jon, I had no idea I was a sadist :).

  5. Walter Wallis says:

    No Kipling and no Heinlein. That explains a lot.

  6. Mad Scientist says:

    I am saddened, but not surprised, that Ayn Rand (one or all of: The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged, or We the Living) is not on the list. Very powerful ideas, and ones that the “elite” find very disturbing.

  7. I wonder how many references students miss if they haven’t read the Bible? Chaucer, Dante, Melville, Shakespeare, Milton…What!? No Milton?

  8. Titus Andronicus is one of the few plays of Shakespeare I read all the way through.

    I liked it.

  9. I agree, how could there be no Kipling while they include Joseph Heller? Heller? And why include Dumas with almost no other French writer of note, I mean, how is Stendhal left off the list? I enjoyed the list, or at least the concept, nonetheless.

  10. Mad Scientist says:

    I may be mistaken, but weren’t Victor Hugo, Marcel Proust, and Voltaire all French and notable?

  11. I’d like to know more about Junior Great Books since I teach 7th grade.

    I have the CIA training manual that was printed up for the Contras. Gosh, they even have a copy of it in the San Jose Public Library. But that’s neither junior or great.

  12. So which are the bad Dickens? I’ve read them all, too. I didn’t think Barnaby Rudge that awful, but then I’m Catholic and had never heard of the Gordon Riots, so it was informative to me.

    My favorite now is =Our Mutual Friend= and the only one I reaaaallly hate is Oliver Twist.

  13. I’ve added a link to Junior Great Books. I was in the program in the early ’60s, when the kids’ version was being piloted. It was a voluntary after-school book club meeting once a week; only students who loved to read chose to participate. We read from collections of classics selected by the Great Books Foundation, which was started by Mortimer Adler at the University of Chicago (I think). The leaders had training and were good at letting us carry the discussion. We read a lot of authors who were considered too difficult or too exotic for the regular curriculum.

    Junior Great Books has become less elitist. A wider range of students participate, sometimes led by the classroom teacher, and the books aren’t as high-brow.

    Somewhere in the Great Books archives, there’s an audiotape of a bunch of fifth graders circa 1962 discussing the Declaration of Independence. We did a special meeting for the researchers. I’m the kid who does most of the talking. Surprise.

  14. Superdestroyer says:

    You can tell that this is a list designed to discourage boys from reading. Any list with Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Jane Austen, Golding, and Fitzgerald is obviously a list designed for and about women. In addition, why not Arrowsmith by Sinclair instead of Babbitt.

  15. It’s true, girls are much more likely to enjoy action-adventure than boys are to enjoy chick books. Wonder why that is.

    Are we just that much more versatile?

  16. Sigivald says:

    Mad Scientist: Rand, however, isn’t a very good writer.

    And on Frenchmen, what about Emile Zola?

    Jo-Ja: You’re not really missing anything not having read Morrison, in my experience.

  17. Bill Leonard says:

    One wonders at the political agendae of those who compile such lists of “Great Books” these days, and whether any of them have actually read all the tomes they recommend.

    In fairness, several of these were published after I was long out of high school (the drivel by Walker and Morrison, for instance).

    However, one wonders. For instance, why A Farewell to Arms, but not The Old Man and the Sea, by Hemingway. Similarly, My Antonia generally is considered Cather’s best work, though she usually is relegated to the second or third rank of American writers. And Ford Madox Ford? Most of the lit profs I had would be laughing out loud.

    The amazing thing is, so many of the same unreadable books are on the list now as were required when I was in high school. Maybe it’s just me, but I never have been able to wde through Walden (Thoreau being an impossibly bad writer), nor The Brothers Karamazov. Crime and Punishment was punishing to read. And Tom Jones likely would be impossible to wade through in an unabridged version.

  18. Mad Scientist says:

    At least Dostoyevsky has the excuse that C&P was translated from Russian (unless you actually read it in Russian) and was originally published as a serial story in the newspaper (as were most of his works).

    What was Thoreau’s excuse? Supposedly English was his native tongue. As I recall, the book was a Luddite’s screed, similar to the Unibomber Manifesto (although not as rambling). One wonders why that literary gem was not included.

    A Farewell to Arms made the list because it is decidedly anti-war; The Old Man and the Sea has no political agenda. Draw your own conclusions.

    I remember reading Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago when I was in high school. One only needs to read that tome to understand the horror of communism (which is why it is not on the list).

  19. Rita C. says:

    You can tell this list was designed to discouraged girls from reading: Hemingway, Remarque, Conrad is obviously a list designed for boys rather than girls.

  20. Rita C. says:

    I think it would be surprising if somebody compiled a list that everyone agreed with. For example, I happen to LOVE Proust, Dostoevsky, Tolstoi, and Thoreau. I’ve read them all, some multiple times. I’m sure there are books you love that I can’t stand (anything Southern Gothic, for example). I can recognize that Faulkner and O’Connor are brilliant, even if I don’t like them one bit, however. BTW, I think Dr. Zhivago does as good a job describing life under communism as Gulag Archipelago. And Ivan Denisovich isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of communism, for that matter. I’m not sure political agenda is what drives this list.

  21. Bill Leonard says:

    If not politics, Rita. then what? International fame? For instance: Pasternak was revered for his stands against the Soviet government in the Khruschev era. Dr. Zhivago may be a great book, and in deed even a great read, in Russian. So maybe it’s in the translation, but when I read Zhivago, I found it disjointed, and had the feeling that the translators, or maybe the publishers, omitted entire sections.

    Solzhenitsyn is another matter entirely. The man is something of a human rights poster boy for his years in the gulags and I don not denigrate that experience. But his work, by western stylistic standards, is simply unreadable. His nonfiction work at least has the ring of veracity. His fiction often reads like some of the impossible stuff from the Victorian era.

    And speaking of Russians: where’s Mikhail Sholokov? And Quient Flows the Don and The Don Flows Home to the Sea both are infinitely better-constructed books than anything by either Pasternak or Solzhenitsyn.

  22. Rita C. says:

    Since this is the college board list, I suspect they’re trying to determine the most important books in terms of preparation for further study, not necessarily the most artistically accomplished. Personally, I can’t stand To Kill a Mockingbird, but I wouldn’t argue that it isn’t an important book, and I teach it like it is an important book.

    As for your other arguments, I think you’re judging based on your own personal taste, which is fine, but intelligent people do differ here. All of these top 100 lists are fairly arbitrary, although it is interesting to compare them and see what shows up consistently and which books are the oddballs.

  23. “His fiction often reads like some of the impossible stuff from the Victorian era.”

    Are you kidding? The First Circle?

  24. “Hemingway, Remarque, Conrad is obviously a list designed for boys rather than girls.”

    The girls I know who read, myself included, don’t mind these. But boys are very put off by Jane Eyre and such.

  25. Rita C. says:

    Why is that, Laura?

  26. It’s a puzzlement.

  27. Well, I have to say there are a couple of possibilities that occur to me.

    One is that chick books tend to be a lot about feelings and maybe girls are more interested in that than boys. Not too strong on this one.

    The other is that it’s usually more acceptable for girls to cross the gender line than boys. Girls can wear skirts or pants. Boys can wear pants, but a boy in a skirt definitely raises eyebrows. I see more female doctors than male nurses. Girls are named “Taylor” and so forth but you don’t see boys named “Sue” very often. Maybe there’s this whole masculine mystique that has to be upheld.

  28. Mad Scientist says:

    Sigivald, granted Rand is not the best writer stylistically, but I chalk that up to her not being a native English speaker. The style is somewhat stlited, and the characters are somewhat too 1-D. But the ideas she conveys are quite good.

    Besides, in Atlas Shrugged the main character of the work is a strong woman and an engineer to boot! Talk about a role model for young girls.

    Dagny, where were you when I was young?

  29. Also, for my daughter’s birthday I ordered the A&E production of Pride and Prejudice on DVD. We watched all 5 hours of it together. Between us, we about have the book memorized. My husband didn’t expect to watch it but he got sucked into the story too, and was quite indignant at Wickham’s successful designs on poor flighty Lydia, and pretty severe on her dad’s hands-off parenting. : )

  30. Mad Scientist says:

    Oh yeah, and Zola was not on the list. I only counted those who made the list.

    FWIW, my wife would agree Zola belongs there. After all, her dissertation was about one of his books. Something to do with “modern” department stores. Bonhuer des Dames, or something like it. I do not know; I was never very good at French.

  31. I disliked Cather’s Death Comes to the Archbishop. My Antonia is her best, and O Pioneers, which has a strong female role model, is good too. The Gulag Archipelago is awfully long and very depressing. I recommend The First Circle and Ivan Denisovich, which is short. Cancer Ward is good too. I finally read Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier. I didn’t like it at all. I wanted to prescribe Prozac to all the main characters. Henry James’ characters all need to get jobs.

  32. What – No Upton Sinclare ? “The Jungle” ??? great reading during lunch while I was in High School 🙂

  33. Beowulf on the list – but no ‘Mabinogion’ ?
    The Anglo Saxons have been trying to eradicate Celtic culture for over a millenium – but we are still here !
    Beowulf deserves its place in literary history, but is pre-dated by the oldest book in an indo-european language, the story of the Britons who are now left in Wales (another anglo-saxon word), Cornwall and Brittany.

    Hey, that’s my rant for the day !

  34. Mark Odell says:

    Mad Scientist wrote: I am saddened, but not surprised, that Ayn Rand (one or all of: The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged, or We the Living) is not on the list. Very powerful ideas, and ones that the “elite” find very disturbing.

    Now if we could just somehow persuade the Randites to use their claimed superior reasoning ability to dispense once and for all with the last vestiges of their cult-like behavior, we’d be in business.

    Superdestroyer wrote: In addition, why not Arrowsmith by Sinclair instead of Babbitt.

    Could it be that Arrowsmith wasn’t deemed to be an effective-enough piece of anti-capitalist propaganda?

    Harvey wrote: What – No Upton Sinclare ? “The Jungle” ??? great reading during lunch while I was in High School 🙂

    Perhaps it was rejected as being far too obvious a piece of anti-capitalist, pro-central-state-planning propaganda.

  35. Vanessa says:

    What, “Quicksand” by Nella Larsen isn’t listed? I read that in college and absolutely loved it.

  36. Babbit is a wonderful book. Sinclar Lewis starts by mocking his character and ends up falling in love with him. Arrowsmith is not in the same league.

    I remember when all my high school friends read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair and became vegetarians (temporarily). Since I like eating meat, I didn’t read it. I did read Sinclair’s Lanny Budd series. There are 14 books in all, I think. The first is the best; the books decline steadily in quality after that.

  37. Rita C. says:

    I had a socialist summer a couple of years ago: I read Sinclair’s _Flivver King_ back-to-back with _The Grapes of Wrath_. Lots of fun.

  38. Mad Scientist says:

    Mark, you really must learn that some people actually read some books because they have some good ideas (something you seem to disregard) and excellent stories.

    I guess you missed the point that Alan Greenspan (an admitted Objectivist and part of the “cult-like following”) has used those principles to steer the largest economy in the world successfully for almost 20 years.

    You are correct, Rand’s ideas are evil and must be stopped.

  39. Mad Scientist says:

    And BTW Mark, I notice how you never seem to have a smart answer when confronted with the realities of the world, as in the long replies I bothered to write to address your concerns about how real management works.

    You just slither back into your hole, waiting to pounce once again.

  40. I have read 11 on this list. I just returned To Kill a Mockingbird to the library today. Once again I didn’t finish it. I tried to read it many times as a young adult and it never held my interest. This time I thought I’d try again and made it about half way through. After holding it two weeks longer than I was suppose to I returned it today and paid a hefty fine. Ijust can’t get into that book.

    My favorites are the books by Charlotte Bronte and The Crucible.

  41. S. Lewis says:

    What’s with “The Red Badge of Courage”? And “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”? C’mon, if you overlook the tremendous social impact they had by disguising a thinly veiled political rant in a novel form during an extremely taut and turbulent epoch in American history, you will see that they are, in fact, two of the most rancidly poor excuses for literature that ever lurched its way to the “classics”.

    If a proper understanding of racism and slavery is desired, skip the sensational “thrillers” and read something worthwhile, like Douglas’ “Autobiography”, or Washington’s “Up from Slavery”.



    Joanne Jacobs has a list of the 100 books high-school grads should have read. Between the two of us, we have about 100 covered….