In 1972, poet Joseph Brodsky angered government officials in his native Russia and was expelled from the country. With the help of fellow poet W.H. Auden, Brodsky settled in the United States, found a position at Yale and taught classes at Mount Holyoke as well. Later, he accepted professorships at both Cambridge and the University of Michigan. (Not bad for an autodidact!)
Of the many opinions Brodsky espoused to his students was that they could not carry on intelligent conversations unless they had done fundamental reading in what he considered influential texts. He passed out a list of these works to everyone in his classes.
Monica Partridge, a former student at Mount Holyoke recalls an early class meeting with Brodsky. On the Brodsky Reading Group blog, Partridge wrote that
“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. 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.”
Here are the books or works on that list. I’m proud to say that unless the conversation turns to “Icelandic Sagas” I could pretty well hold my own at a Brodsky cocktail party…