Joseph Brodsky’s reading list “to have a basic conversation” – plus the shorter one he gave to me


Reading lots in Ann Arbor, 1972

We had the W.H. Auden reading list here, so now – ta DUM! – we present the Joseph Brodsky list, thanks to Monica Partridge, a Los Angeles writer and a former Brodsky student from Mt. Holyoke, where the Nobel poet taught for years.  With her blog, called The Brodsky Reading Group, she seems to have formed something of a cultus around the list, and with her acolytes she is attempting to work through the whole slog of books. More power to her. I’d heard rumors of such a list before, but never saw the actual artifact.  I include the list below, having spent some time correcting the references and the spellings (always a dangerous thing to do, someone is sure to find a mistake in my rendering). The list he gave her class was handwritten – perhaps he just scribbled it out, errors and all.

weilAt any rate, eventually the list was typed out, errors still intact.  Open Culture has already printed the list here, so you can see for yourself.  On the site, author Jennifer K. Dick‘s contributed her own memories in the comment section:

When I was a student of Joseph Brodsky’s at MHC between 1989 and 1993 for course on Russian Lit and Lyric Poetry, we were distributed a similar list. However, it was not given as a basis for “conversation” at that time, but rather he said that anyone who had not already completed the reading of that list by 18 would certainly never be able to become a great poet, because the list was a basis for that. This, of course, meant that all of us who might have been aspiring authors were already doomed. So, like everything else with him, you had to take it with a grain of salt. He asked us to write poems based on works by Auden and Frost on occasion. He also made us memorize many poems, as Partridge mentions, including many by Auden, Frost, A.E. Housman and most memorably (no pun intended) all of Lycidas by Milton. In his Russian Lit courses, he provided the texts in Russian and retranslated them as he went through and gave close readings of the poems, focusing on work by Tsvetaeva, Mandelstam, Pasternak, Lermontov, Dershavin, and Akhmatova. One key thing we were told to read were Gumilyev‘s essays, the one on translation is a particular gem.

either_orThough a half-tyrant autodidact prof, he was an invaluable teacher opening up our minds and exposing us to a vast array of authors not traditionally taught in English Lit departments. Yes, I read Milosz too thanks to him – and met him twice before he passed away, and I read Zbigniew Herbert which, during class, brought me almost to tears. But I was also asked by Brodsky to write a paper on a little known poet of the time, Wislawa Szymborska, and her “The Sea-Cucumber” because, as Brodsky said, this was an author worth paying attention to. I suppose he may well have been right (that is meant as humor) given her subsequent Nobel Prize. I feel lucky to have had someone like Brodsky push me to read read read, and this list, a lifetime of reading in the version of it that I have, is certainly a great conversation piece if not the start of some great adventure. It is, as some are, only inviting people to add to it, as he did, until he left this earth.

(It’s worth noting that he couldn’t have read the reading list before he was eighteen anyway, because most of these books weren’t available in the old U.S.S.R., and he became a poet anyway – so take heart.)

shestovI speak with some authority about his reading lists.  Long before the Nobel, he scribbled down a personalized reading list for me, which I kept in my wallet ever afterward.  I’ve pretty much committed to memory, though may be something I’ve forgotten.

And now, for the first time ever in my whole life: I share it with all of you, in no particular order:

Simone Weil, The Need for Roots

Lev Shestov, Athens and Jerusalem

Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

Andrey Platonov, The Foundation Pit

santayanaGeorge Santayana, Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies 

E.M. CioranThe Temptation to Exist

Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or

Why don’t I produce a photo of this list, as I did with Auden?  Here’s why:  the wallet was stolen from my home in Islington.  It was all the robbers could grab from my flat in the middle of the night because they woke me up and I called out downstairs and scared them off. Probably no more than 12 quid in my wallet. But ohhhh… it’s the reading list I’d rather have back.

Here’s the list – with a few surprises for you on the breakover page, because this is getting loooonnnnggg…

Joseph Brodsky’s Reading List

1.   Bhagavad Gita
2.   Mahabharata
3.   Gilgamesh
4.   The Old Testament
5.   Homer: Iliad, Odyssey
6.   Herodotus: Histories
7.   Sophocles: Plays
8.   Aeschylus: Plays
9.   Euripides: Plays (Hippolytus, The Bachantes, Electra, The Phoenician Women)
10. Thucydides: The Peloponnesian War
11. Plato: Dialogues
12. Aristotle: Poetics, Physics, Ethics, De Anima
13. Alexandrian Poetry: The Greek Anthology
14. Lucretius: On the Nature of Things
15. Plutarch: Lives [presumably Parallel Lives]
16. Virgil: Aeneid, Bucolics, Georgics
17. Tacitus: Annals



Here’s the surprise: his poetry selections



It’s after midnight, and I’m too tired to transcribe these…

18. Ovid: Metamorphoses, Heroides, Amores
19. The New Testament
20. Suetonius: The Twelve Caesars
21. Marcus Aurelius: Meditations
22. Catullus: Poems
23. Horace: Poems
24. Epictetus: Discourses
25. Aristophanes: Plays
26. Claudius Aelianus: Historical Miscellany, On the Nature of Animals
27. Apollonius Rhodius: Argonautica
28. Michael Psellus: Fourteen Byzantine Rulers
29. Edward Gibbon: The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire
30. Plotinus: The Enneads
31. Eusebius: Ecclesiastical History
32. Boethius: Consolations of Philosophy
33. Pliny the Younger: Letters
34. Byzantine verse romances
35. Heraclitus: Fragments
36. St. Augustine: Confessions
37. Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theologica
38. St. Francis of Assisi: The Little Flowers
39. Niccolò Machiavelli: The Prince
40. Dante Alighieri: Divine Comedy (Tr. By John Ciardi)
41. Franco Sacchetti: Novelle
42. Icelandic sagas
43. William Shakespeare (Anthony and Cleopatra, Hamlet, Macbeth, Henry V)
44. François Rabelais
45. Francis Bacon
46. Martin Luther: Selected Works
47. John Calvin:  Institutio Christianae religionis
48. Michel de Montaigne: Essays
49. Miguel de Cervantes: Don Quixote
50. René Descartes: Discourses
51. Song of Roland
52. Beowulf
53. Benvenuto Cellini
54. Henry Adams: Education of Henry Adams




The flat in Islington – it’s the blue door. Wallet stolen!

55. Thomas Hobbes: The Leviathan
56. Blaise Pascal: Pensées
57. John Milton: Paradise Lost
58. John Donne
59. Andrew Marvell
60. George Herbert
61. Richard Crashaw
62. Baruch Spinoza: Treatises
63. Stendhal: Charterhouse of Parma, Red and Black, The Life of Henry Brulard 
64. Jonathan Swift: Gulliver’s Travels
65. Laurence Sterne: Tristram Shandy
66. Choderlos de Laclos: Les Liaisons Dangereuses
67.  Baron de Montesquieu: Persian Letters
68. John Locke: Second Treatise on Government
69. Adam Smith: The Wealth of Nations
70. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: Discourse on Metaphysics
71. David Hume: Everything
72. The Federalist Papers
73. Immanuel Kant: Critique of Pure Reason
74. Søren Kierkegaard: Fear and Trembling, Either/Or, Philosophical Fragments
75. Fyodor Dostoevsky: Notes From the Underground, The Possessed
76. Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy in America
77. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: Faust, Italian Journey
78. Astolphe-Louis-Léonor, Marquis de Custine: Empire of the Czar: A Journey Through Eternal Russia
79. Eric Auerbach: Mimesis
80. William H. Prescott: Conquest of Mexico
81. Octavio Paz: Labyrinths of Solitude
82. Sir Karl Popper: The Logic of Scientific Discovery, The Open Society and Its Enemies
83. Elias Canetti: Crowds and Power


3 Responses to “Joseph Brodsky’s reading list “to have a basic conversation” – plus the shorter one he gave to me”

  1. Anna W Says:

    I remember him liking Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation.”

  2. Books to read “in able to have a basic conversation” | neuroecology Says:

    […] is a list of books that Joseph Brodsky thinks you should read before you can have a basic conversation with him. As an example, here is a personalized reading […]

  3. Sourabh Gupta Says:

    One person he missed out was Jiddu Krishnamurti.

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