Archive for November 26th, 2013

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

Tuesday, November 26th, 2013

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