Joseph Brodsky’s Reading List For Having an Intelligent Conversation

Josef_Brodsky_Michigan

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.

Brodsky List 1_web_without notes 

Brodsky List 2_web

Brodsky List 3_web

Brodsky List 4_web

Brodsky List 5_web

Get reading, friends.

Via Brodsky Reading Group, and with the deepest gratitude to Monica Partridge, who provided photographs of the original.

Related Content:

W.H. Auden’s 1941 Literature Syllabus Asks Students to Read 32 Great Works, Covering 6000 Pages

Neil deGrasse Tyson Lists 8 (Free) Books Every Intelligent Person Should Read

Ernest Hemingway’s List for a Young Writer

Carl Sagan’s Undergrad Reading List: 40 Essential Texts for a Well-Rounded Thinker

David Foster Wallace’s 1994 Syllabus: How to Teach Serious Literature with Lightweight Books

Ilia Blinderman is a Montreal-based culture and science write. Follow him at @iliablinderman.


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  1. Jay Mandeville says . . . | November 12, 2013 / 11:51 am

    Is it possible to have a native intelligence based at least partially on life experience, or is it all found in ponderous & stuffy volumes by the likes of Calvin, Luther or Adam Smith?

  2. wyclif says . . . | November 13, 2013 / 12:21 am

    Heads up, Open Culture. The link for W.H. Auden’s list in the “Related Content” section is broken.

  3. sgtoox says . . . | November 13, 2013 / 2:54 am

    Jay; I think it is more than possible, and that none of these elbow-padded intellectuals would disagree. But I think these deeper works are able to express, with an almost totality and immense succinctness and clarity, what would have been expressed by relaying life-experiences.

  4. blahblah77 says . . . | November 13, 2013 / 3:15 pm

    Not a single woman on this list except Elizabeth Bishop? Not a single work from east of the Indian Ocean, omitting thousands of years of history from Mencius, Confucius, Zuangzi, Lao Tzu, etc? nnShake my head at this dead white male

  5. Eglu0117 says . . . | November 14, 2013 / 6:30 am

    Are you for real???? Ingeborg Bachmann, Wislawa Szymborska, Marina Tsvetaeva, Anna Akhmatova, Marriane Moore. I guess someone ought read more!

  6. JackDaw91 says . . . | November 14, 2013 / 9:38 am

    And I’m pretty sure Elizabeth Bishop was a woman, too.

  7. Rob Gressis says . . . | November 14, 2013 / 3:38 pm

    Did he not list the New Testament? Maybe I missed it?

  8. hhgttg says . . . | November 15, 2013 / 12:09 pm

    Needs some Marx methinks

  9. powelstock says . . . | November 15, 2013 / 9:13 pm

    Classic blind spot for Soviet writers: Kafka.

  10. Joe Corrao says . . . | November 16, 2013 / 2:41 pm

    prententious

  11. Tim Bergen says . . . | November 17, 2013 / 11:00 am

    Typical auto-didactic, anxiously hoping to get it right. There is nothing unique or insightful about this list; he may as well have gone to school.

  12. Jennifer K Dick says . . . | November 19, 2013 / 2:17 am

    When I was a student of Josephe Brodsky’s at MHC between 1989 and 1993 for coures 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 nauthors were already doomed. So, like everything else with him, you had nto 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 may by Auden, Frost, AE Hausman 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 Gumilyov’s essays, the one on translation is a particular gem. Though 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.

  13. Jennifer K Dick says . . . | November 19, 2013 / 2:17 am

    In a later version, it included the entire bible.

  14. Elisabeth Kielland says . . . | November 20, 2013 / 1:00 am

    Good point. A bit strange that people all seem to think that in order to become intelligent, you HAVE to have this and that experience (which just HAPPENS to be exactly what that person themselves did).nnReading is great, but lists of “musts” are boring. I love all books that make me dream! :)

  15. Cynthia Haven says . . . | November 26, 2013 / 4:25 pm

    Joseph B. gave me a personalized reading list way back in his pre-Nobel days u2013 only seven books on it! I’ve blogged about the list (as well as Monica Partridge’s more exhaustive one) here: http://stanford.io/1hgdiT5

  16. commoncitizen says . . . | June 22, 2014 / 5:51 pm

    com’on guys! this list have less than 75 readings. that’s nothing.

  17. Jim says . . . | June 23, 2014 / 6:55 am

    No Thomas Aquinas?

  18. MizzCabbage says . . . | June 23, 2014 / 8:00 pm

    “Hume: Everything” I think that says it all.

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