In 1955, a mere two months into eighth grade, a 15-year-old teenager dropped out of a Leningrad school. He had already repeated seventh grade; the thought of another boring year was unbearable. He wandered into work at a factory, but only lasted six months. For the next seven years, he drifted in and out of menial jobs at a lighthouse, a crystallography lab, and a morgue. For a time, he worked as a manual laborer on geological expeditions and as a stoker at a public bathhouse. Still, it wasn’t a wholly inauspicious start—by the end of his life, he had taught at Yale, Columbia, Cambridge, Michigan, and Mount Holyoke. He had also been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.
Despite spurning his own formal education, Russian poet and Soviet dissident Joseph Brodsky immediately rose to the highest academic echelon when he arrived in America in 1972. By all accounts, the autodidact held his classes to a high standard, frequently dismissing any student arguments about literary greatness unless they centered on Milosz, Lowell, or Auden.
Monica Partridge, a former student in his class, told Open Culture, “I took a poetry class with [Joseph Brodsky] at Mount Holyoke College my freshman year… It was all 19th [century] Russian poetry, and he would give us four pages of poems to memorize overnight. We would have to come in the next [morning] and transcribe the poems we had memorized. Very Russian.”
No less impressive was the list of books that Brodsky distributed to Partridge’s class.
“Shortly after the class began, he passed out a handwritten list of books that he said every person should have read in order to have a basic conversation,” Partridge writes on the Brodsky Reading Group blog. “At the time I was thinking, ‘Conversation about what?’ I knew I’d never be able to have a conversation with him, because I never thought I’d ever get through the list. Now that I’ve had a little living, I understand what he was talking about. Intelligent conversation is good. In fact, maybe we all need a little more.”
In addition to the poet’s 1988 University of Michigan commencement address that we posted last week, we bring you Joseph Brodsky’s requisite reading list, annotated with the poet’s handwritten notes.
Note: You can click each image to read them in a larger format.
Get reading, friends.
Ilia Blinderman is a Montreal-based culture and science write. Follow him at @iliablinderman.