Joseph Brodsky’s List of 83 Books You Should Read to Have an Intelligent Conversation


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.

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
18. Ovid: Meta­mor­phoses, Hero­ides, Amores
19. The New Tes­ta­ment
20. Sue­to­nius: The Twelve Cae­sars
21. Mar­cus Aure­lius: Med­i­ta­tions
22. Cat­ul­lus: Poems
23. Horace: Poems
24. Epicte­tus: Dis­cours­es
25. Aristo­phanes: Plays
26. Claudius Aelianus: His­tor­i­cal Mis­cel­lany, On the Nature of Ani­mals
27. Apol­lo­nius Rhodius: Arg­onau­ti­ca
28. Michael Psel­lus: Four­teen Byzan­tine Rulers
29. Edward Gib­bon: The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire
30. Plot­i­nus: The Enneads
31. Euse­bius: Eccle­si­as­ti­cal His­to­ry
32. Boethius: Con­so­la­tions of Phi­los­o­phy
33. Pliny the Younger: Let­ters
34. Byzan­tine verse romances
35. Her­a­cli­tus: Frag­ments
36. St. Augus­tine: Con­fes­sions
37. Thomas Aquinas: Sum­ma The­o­log­i­ca
38. St. Fran­cis of Assisi: The Lit­tle Flow­ers
39. Nic­colò Machi­avel­li: The Prince
40. Dante Alighieri: Divine Com­e­dy (Tr. By John Cia­r­di)
41. Fran­co Sac­chet­ti: Nov­el­le
42. Ice­landic sagas
43. William Shake­speare (Antho­ny and Cleopa­tra, Ham­let, Mac­beth, Hen­ry V)
44. François Rabelais
45. Fran­cis Bacon
46. Mar­tin Luther: Select­ed Works
47. John Calvin:  Insti­tu­tio Chris­tianae reli­gio­n­is
48. Michel de Mon­taigne: Essays
49. Miguel de Cer­vantes: Don Quixote
50. René Descartes: Dis­cours­es
51. Song of Roland
52. Beowulf
53. Ben­venu­to Celli­ni
54. Hen­ry Adams: Edu­ca­tion of Hen­ry Adams
55. Thomas Hobbes: The Leviathan
56. Blaise Pas­cal: Pen­sées
57. John Mil­ton: Par­adise Lost
58. John Donne
59. Andrew Mar­vell
60. George Her­bert
61. Richard Crashaw
62. Baruch Spin­oza: Trea­tis­es
63. Stend­hal: Char­ter­house of Par­ma, Red and Black, The Life of Hen­ry Bru­lard 
64. Jonathan Swift: Gulliver’s Trav­els
65. Lau­rence Sterne: Tris­tram Shandy
66. Choder­los de Lac­los: Les Liaisons Dan­gereuses
67.  Baron de Mon­tesquieu: Per­sian Let­ters
68. John Locke: Sec­ond Trea­tise on Gov­ern­ment
69. Adam Smith: The Wealth of Nations
70. Got­tfried Wil­helm Leib­niz: Dis­course on Meta­physics
71. David Hume: Every­thing
72. The Fed­er­al­ist Papers
73. Immanuel Kant: Cri­tique of Pure Rea­son
74. Søren Kierkegaard: Fear and Trem­bling, Either/Or, Philo­soph­i­cal Frag­ments
75. Fyo­dor Dos­to­evsky: Notes From the Under­ground, The Pos­sessed
76. Alex­is de Toc­queville: Democ­ra­cy in Amer­i­ca
77. Johann Wolf­gang von Goethe: Faust, Ital­ian Jour­ney
78. Astolphe-Louis-Léonor, Mar­quis de Cus­tine: Empire of the Czar: A Jour­ney Through Eter­nal Rus­sia
79. Eric Auer­bach: Mime­sis
80. William H. Prescott: Con­quest of Mex­i­co
81. Octavio Paz: Labyrinths of Soli­tude
82. Sir Karl Pop­per: The Log­ic of Sci­en­tif­ic Dis­cov­ery, The Open Soci­ety and Its Ene­mies
83. Elias Canet­ti: Crowds and Pow­er

“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. Props go to Stan­ford for the typed out list of books.

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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Comments (29)
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  • Jay Mandeville says:

    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?

    • Elisabeth Kielland says:

      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! :)

  • wyclif says:

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

  • sgtoox says:

    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.

  • blahblah77 says:

    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

    • Eglu0117 says:

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

  • Rob Gressis says:

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

  • hhgttg says:

    Needs some Marx methinks

  • powelstock says:

    Clas­sic blind spot for Sovi­et writ­ers: Kaf­ka.

  • Tim Bergen says:

    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.

  • 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.

  • 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:

  • commoncitizen says:

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

  • Jim says:

    No Thomas Aquinas?

  • MizzCabbage says:

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

  • Artice says:

    Inter­est­ing. One can only pon­der how Pla­to could have ever strung togeth­er a cou­ple of intel­li­gent thoughts hav­ing nev­er had the lux­u­ry of read­ing The Sagas of Ice­landers. Thank good­ness we mod­ern folk have the ben­e­fit of hav­ing so many oth­er trains to jump.

  • Don says:

    The list seems focused only on peo­ple-stuff. The rest of the uni­verse, observ­able or hypoth­e­sized, is pret­ty inter­est­ing too. There isn’t much STEM on the list.

  • Kellyann says:

    I sus­pect one might need a broad­er per­spec­tive than just the white patri­ar­chal male per­spec­tive, to have a tru­ly intel­li­gent con­ver­sa­tion.

  • Ewan says:

    No Twi­light?

  • Ryan says:

    Great read­ing list if you want to have a riv­et­ing con­ver­sa­tion with old dead white men.

    Maybe that isn’t fair. It’s a sol­id list of good reads. I’ve read some of these, but not even close to all of them. The arti­cle implies the list is dat­ed; I’d like to think if he were to come up with a list today there would be a bit more diver­si­ty in authors.

    But wait, is a con­tem­po­rary read­ing list for ‘intel­li­gent con­ver­sa­tion’ even pos­si­ble? What if the days of a col­lec­tive lit­er­ary back­bone are over?

    This list is root­ed in the clas­sics. This arti­cle is under attack in the com­ments sec­tion part­ly because of that. How­ev­er, a gen­er­a­tion (or two) ago there was a decent chance that edu­cat­ed peo­ple had actu­al­ly read these books. (Back then, Net­flix did­n’t exist)

    Diver­si­ty, while good, may have cre­at­ed ‘over choice’ in lit­er­a­ture. ‘Read this!’ ‘No, read that!’ ‘Okay fine. I’ll read them… ALL! … Lat­er! Sounds like too big a task right now.’ **Turns on TV**

    “But, (you might say) a col­lec­tive read­ing list isn’t cru­cial for an intel­li­gent con­ver­sa­tion. Read what­ev­er floats your fan­cy. Gath­er knowl­edge. Share it with oth­ers. They’ll lay­er on their thoughts and expe­ri­ences and we’ll all be rich­er for it.”

    Okay. But have you ever been to a book club where every­one read a dif­fer­ent book? I haven’t. Because it would prob­a­bly go like this:
    GLEN: “In my book, the author sug­gests A.”
    MARY: “Is there a chance they real­ly did­n’t mean A? Maybe they were try­ing to express… B?”
    GLEN: “Oh I’m sor­ry, did you read the book?”
    MARY: “Well… no…”
    GLEN: “Then shut your !#$*ing mouth!”

    Glen is a jerk, obvi­ous­ly, **Shakes fist at Glen** but the point is: hav­ing com­mon knowl­edge makes intel­li­gent con­ver­sa­tion eas­i­er.

    Unfor­tu­ate­ly, once you leave an aca­d­e­m­ic set­ting, com­mon knowl­edge is hard­er to come by. Out­side of the weath­er. Oh the nuanced com­plex­i­ties of the weath… **throws up in paper bag**

    Side Thought: If I could go back in time, I’d go back to col­lege. Not for a par­ty; I’d only stay for about five min­utes. I’d go back to the first time I decid­ed not to do the assigned read­ing for a class. I’d grab myself by the shoul­ders and shout, “Do you have any idea how valu­able this is!? To have a group of peo­ple all read­ing the same thing at the same time? And, to have an EXPERT lead­ing the dis­cus­sion? You have no idea how rare that is in the real world. You think you’ll have MORE time to read after you grad­u­ate? HA!”
    End Side Thought. So, if the days of hav­ing Cul­ture’s Col­lec­tive Read­ing List are over, what’s the secret to intel­li­gent con­ver­sa­tion in our brave new world?

    It’s safe to say that read­ing will always play an inte­gral part in pro­vid­ing the fuel for con­ver­sa­tion, so let’s revis­it the ‘read what­ev­er you like’ approach. How do you turn what you’ve read into a con­ver­sa­tion with­out turn­ing the con­ver­sa­tion into a one sided infor­ma­tion dump?

    For some rea­son my mind goes to the way Ford came up with the idea to cre­ate the assem­bly line for the Mod­el T. Hen­ry Ford noticed the way meat pack­ers in Chica­go would turn a cow into nom-noms*. Each butch­er would deal with a dif­fer­ent cut of beef from of the same cow and send the rest down the line to the next butch­er. In turn, each butch­er got extreme­ly effi­cient at their task, and the process became much smoother and more prof­itable. Ford repli­cat­ed that mod­el to make cars.

    Ford applied learn­ing from one sit­u­a­tion to a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tion and it was a huge suc­cess. I think that’s a real­ly impor­tant skill to devel­op: to be able to think that way. It may be a key to hav­ing great con­ver­sa­tions in this ‘post col­lec­tive read­ing list’ world. It’s the abil­i­ty to iden­ti­fy unlike­ly asso­ci­a­tions in order to find com­mon ground between seem­ing­ly unre­lat­ed pieces of infor­ma­tion. The result can be a bit of an ‘ah ha!’ moment, and a new, fun con­ver­sa­tion. Dra­mat­ic exam­ple!

    WILLIAM: Hitler’s down­fall real­ly start­ed when he waged a war with Rus­sia. He should have nev­er tried to fight a war on two fronts.
    Egads! Thinks Emi­ly. I don’t like World War II, I don’t love vio­lence and I know next to noth­ing about it. How can I help shape this con­ver­sa­tion with my knowl­edge so I can par­tic­i­pate?
    EMILY: I don’t know if you’ve read EndGame, it was a Biog­ra­phy about Bob­by Fis­ch­er; but his down­fall real­ly start­ed when he start­ed blam­ing the world for his per­son­al prob­lems. He start­ed mak­ing trea­so­nous state­ments, and in the end Ice­land was the only coun­try will­ing to give him asy­lum. Do you think Hitler behaved the same way? Did he take respon­si­bil­i­ty or did he blame his fail­ures on the peo­ple around him?

    Now Emi­ly and William are talk­ing about, “why do peo­ple rise and fall?” instead of just talk­ing about World War II. Jamie can still apply his WWII knowl­edge to the con­ver­sa­tion, but this way it’s eas­i­er for both to par­tic­i­pate. Also, through the lens of ‘why do promi­nent peo­ple rise and fall’ Emi­ly may find hear­ing about Hitler a bit more inter­est­ing. This new lens may also pull in Jason, who is pri­mar­i­ly con­cerned with why Anne Hathaway’s pop­u­lar­i­ty is dwin­dling, while Jen­nifer Lawrence is unstop­pable right now. (Soo tempt­ed to go on anoth­er tan­gent…!)

    Did you notice the oth­er thing Emi­ly did to help keep the con­ver­sa­tion going? It’s sub­tle, but it can make a big dif­fer­ence if you want to keep some­one engaged and with you when you bring new and seem­ing­ly unre­lat­ed infor­ma­tion into a con­ver­sa­tion. Jamie said the word, ‘down­fall’, and so did Emi­ly. This was Emily’s way of prov­ing to William that she was lis­ten­ing; she respects his com­ment and input and she thinks he’s smart, so she’s using his con­tri­bu­tion to spring­board into the next lev­el of the con­ver­sa­tion. I use a phrase to sim­i­lar effect that peo­ple make fun of me for: I’ll say, “to your point about ___, (some­thing relat­ed to that).” I get some grief when I say it some­times, because my mind tends to take leaps and the sec­ond point may not be as close­ly tied to the first point as I thought it would when I first start­ed talk­ing.

    But real­ly, can you blame me? Here we are try­ing to strike up intel­li­gent con­ver­sa­tion with­out a uni­ver­sal read­ing list! They don’t teach rhetoric in schools any­more either, so we’re all just mak­ing it up as we go. It’s worth try­ing. If all else fails, you can always chat about how we’re hav­ing an unsea­son­ably cold… **Grabs Paper Bag**

    *Nom-nom – the sound your mouth makes when you eat some­thing you real­ly like. Nom-noms refers to the food itself which in this case is beef, which is deli­cious. See also, ‘real yum­my food’.

  • Mark says:

    I don’t have much to add, except this: Any list of English/American poets that over­looks the late Ken­neth Rexroth is incom­plete. And not to plug a spe­cif­ic ven­dor, but this small book will get you prop­er­ly acquaint­ed:–1&keywords=The+Selected+Poetry+of+Kenneth+Rexroth

  • Luke says:

    Addi­tions missed–Presocratic Greeks, Niet­zsche and Wittgen­stein might be impor­tant.

    I also agree, some east­ern philoso­phers Con­fu­cius, Bud­dhism, Tao­ism and Zen would round it out.

    For STEM would you could add Can­tor, Ein­stein, Planck, etc, maybe throw in a Wittgen­stein of the Trac­ta­tus and Rus­sell with the Log­i­cal Pos­i­tives.

    To under­stand Amer­i­ca more: Whit­man, Thore­au, Twain

    Women: There­sa of Aval­on, Hilde­gard of Bing­ham, Steinem

  • Cory says:

    What specif­i­cal­ly would you add to the list?

    Please also note that 1st on his list, the Bha­gavad Gita, is from the land of ancient India… how do you con­sid­er that “white”…?

  • wk ceuppens says:

    Dear Luke

    Beware of the auto-cor­rect.

    There­sa of Aval­on: hilar­i­ous.

    As is Hilde­gard of Bing­ham.

    Brod­sky would have you killed on the spot

  • John Wallach says:

    An over­whelm­ing­ly Euro­cen­tric list.

  • Kim says:

    Your com­ment was excel­lent and fun­ny, good read!

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