Donald Barthelme’s Syllabus Highlights 81 Books Essential for a Literary Education


We’ve had a lot of fun—and some debate—lately with reading lists from people like Carl Sagan, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and even Marilyn Monroe (via her library). And we’ve featured undergraduate syllabi from the teaching days of David Foster Wallace and W.H. Auden. Now for something more-or-less formal than those. This one comes via a 2003 piece by Kevin Moffett in McSweeney’s spin-off The Believer (10 years old this month—I know, right?). The list (first page above and full list below) has a somewhat illustrious heritage. Compiled by postmodernist writer Donald Barthelme for his students at the University of Houston, it then made its way to Barthelme’s student, Southern writer Padgett Powell. The list then came to Moffett when he was a student of Powell’s at the University of Florida.


Consisting of 81 books, mostly novels and short story collections (and the work of Samuel Beckett—“entire”), and mostly twentieth-century modernist fiction, the list came to Powell with Barthelme’s instruction to attack the books, “in no particular order, just read them.”

This Moffett did, and his story of how he sought the books—in the used bookshops, warehouse sales, and libraries of north Florida—lends to his experience the air of a suburban knight’s quest tale, with Moffett as underdog hero. The list spans a range of difficulty, from the academic obscurantism of Roland Barthes to the general accessibility of Updike (Barthelme modestly exempts himself). But the text that turns Moffett from diffident to avid reader, Flannery O’Connor’s “A Late Encounter With the Enemy,” also turns his “resolution into a vow.” It’s almost as though his engagement with Barthelme’s list initiates him into a mystical order of language.


The list itself, as you can see from the scans, shows the wear of several pairs of hands—hands holding late-night coffees in college-town cafes and felt-tip pens with which to make tiny checkmarks of accomplishment. We do not know from Moffett’s piece whose hands did the coffee-spilling, checkmarking, and annotating, whether Powell’s, Moffett’s, or some student or private reader unmentioned. Some of the books left unchecked are those with which I have had readerly epiphanies: Borges’ Other Inquisitions, Barthes’ Mythologies, Beckett (“entire”), Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. And what strikes me, as with all such lists, are the number of books I haven’t read but have wished to, meant to, promised that I would. Perhaps it’s not too late to turn a resolution to a vow and hit the stacks.

Here is the complete list:

Related Content:

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

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

Carl Sagan’s Undergrad Reading List: From Plato and Shakespeare, to Huxley and Gide

Josh Jones is a writer, editor, and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness

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Comments (14)
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  • I guess Barthelme would classify me as illiterate. I am reading Susan Sontag’s diary. And I have read most of Flannery O’Connor’s writings.

    What happened to Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Trevor, Falkner, Conrad, and the magnificent English and Irish poets apart from Shakespeare?

  • Ty Moore says:

    Glad to see Carver (Raymond) mentioned in there. In addition to the absence of Conrad, the Russians, and Faulkner, I don’t see Kafka. Kundera is a good mention, though The Unbearable Lightness of Being is missing. I guess one cannot read every book or writer worthy of mention on this list. There is a whole slew of missing contemporary writers that the modern writer should also have a look at.

  • Kirsty Murray says:

    Nice to see a few African authors included despite the shortage of Europeans. But as with so many lists like it, not one Asian, Indian, Middle Eastern, or Australian/Oceanic author cracks a mention. Something myopic about lists that have such a narrow perspective on world literature.

  • Pedantic Soul says:

    This is one, Kirsty: Kobo Abe is Japanese. But point taken.

  • Joe Strummer says:

    @Bob Jensen – There are hundreds of lists featuring Dostoyevsky, Camus, Conrad and other authors most people read in the tenth grade. You’re welcome to read one of those instead.

    @Ty Moore – Barthelme died in 1989.

  • Kevin Stetz says:

    I assume this list is 20th Century novels to read.. although no Joyce?

  • Oliver Holmes says:

    Alas, a coffee stain obfuscates Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

  • Suhrita Sengupta says:


  • Kresling says:

    Whenever I read a list like this, I remember part of a Raymond Carver story wherein the protagonist is told about a man who once read his way through the entire encyclopedia.

    ‘Wow,’ he says, ‘I’d love to know what happened to a guy who’d do something like that….’

    ‘He’s dead.’

  • Marilyn Richardson says:

    Only see one crossed off. Shocked, sad, and angry. Invisible Man indeed.

  • Bill says:

    this makes me want to pick up some Barthelme again!

  • Rob Hamilton says:

    I wonder if, by becoming a sort of academic heirloom, this list is being accorded a significance far beyond its real merit.

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