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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