Harold Bloom’s Canon: The Essential List

Harold Bloom western canonOn Monday I introduced Harold Bloom‘s 1994 bestseller, The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. I decided to create a “canonical list” in today’s blog for those who are inclined to try to soak in this great radition. Taking the books that Bloom focusses on in each chapter and putting them into list form provides us a good decade of reading, and an excellent introduction to the main features of our Western Euro-American literary heritage. I have tried here to include the entire list so that you will not need to read his Western Canon in its entirety before you begin reading great books. Likewise, this list can help you to prepare to read The Western Canon–or a literary course like it–with your primary work complete.

I discussed some cautions about the project and some limitations in his list on Monday. His treatise is a huge romp through a culture of books. If you would like to be overwhelmed, simply turn to Bloom’s 40 page appendix of canonical works. It is a good 50 years of bedtime reading, and at least 20 years of professional reading. It is too complete to be of any good. Instead, I focussed on the books that Bloom himself thought were good examples to draw out of the canon. I think it makes a wonderful reading list. My goal is to complete it by 2025, but a strong reader could complete the list in a year.

Harold Bloom teachingTo Bloom’s list I have added Virgil and Homer because of frequent references in the text. Not on the list is Dr. Johnson’s huge Lives of the Poets—something I will read in the next few years. Bloom also used wide swaths of nonfiction writers Michel de Montaigne, Nietzsche, and Freud, which I haven’t included. I have left Boswell’s Life of Johnson in the list because of its importance, and how it gives us Johnson and the poets all in one. You might want to remove it and simply focus on the fiction.

Beyond this rather narrow list, any canonical reader will have to have a knowledge of Blake, Coleridge, Dostoevsky, T.S. Eliot, Emerson, William Empson, Freud, Hemingway, Henry James, D.H. Lawrence, Christopher Marlow, Fernando Pessoa, Alexander Pope, Shelley, Wallace Stevens, Charles Williams, and Yeats. And, of course, you will need to know the classics, the Bible, the Greek philosophers, contemporary literary critics, the existentialist writers, and the most popular poets of history. Since each of these authors represents a lifetime of work, a canonical list like this one help us move through the syllabus of Western ideas without getting lost in any one of its wonderful margins.

Foundational Work (Theocratic Age)

  • Homer
    • The Iliad (Greek, 8th BCE)
    • The Odyssey (Greek, 8th BCE)
  • Virgil, The Aeneid (Latin, 29-19 BCE)
  • The Bible

Late Medieval and Renaissance (Aristocratic Age)

  • Dante Alighieri, Comedia/The Divine Comedy (Italian, 1308-1320)
  • Chaucer, Canterbury Tales (English, 1475)
  • Shakespeare
    • Love’s Labour’s Lost (English, 1597)
    • Hamlet (English, 1603)
    • Othello (English, 1604)
    • King Lear (English, 1606)
    • Macbeth (English, 1611)
  • Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote (Spanish, 1605)
  • Moliere, The Misanthrope (French, 1666)
  • John Milton, Paradise Lost (English, 1667)
  • James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson (English, 1791)
  • Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust (German, 1772-1790)

19th Century+

  • William Wordsworth
    • “The Ruined Cottage” (English, 1800)
    • “Tintern Abbey” (English, 1798)
  • Jane Austen, Persuasion (English, 1818)
  • Walt Whitman,
    • Leaves of Grass (English, 1855)
    • “Song of Myself” (English, 1855)
  • Emily Dickinson, The Poems of Emily Dickinson (English, 1800s)
  • Charles Dickens, Bleak House (English, )
  • George Eliot, Middlemarch (English, 1874)
  • Henrik Ibsen, Peer Gynt (Norwegian, 1876)
  • Leo Tolstoy, Hadji Murad (Russian, 1896-1904)
  • Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time = Remembrance of Things Past (1913)
  • James Joyce, Ulysses (English, 1922)
  • Virginia Woolf
    • Orlando (English, 1928)
    • A Room of One ‘s Own (English, 1929)
  • Franz Kafka, The Blue Octavo Notebooks (German, 1917-1919)
  • Fernando Pessoa, Mensagem (Portuguese, 1934)
  • Jorge Luis Borges, The Garden of Forking Paths (Spanish, 1941)
  • Pablo Neruda, Canto General (Spanish, 1938-1950)
  • Samuel Beckett
    • Endgame (English, 1957)
    • Murphy (English, 1938)
    • Waiting for Godot (English, 1953)

Harold Bloom

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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33 Responses to Harold Bloom’s Canon: The Essential List

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I did enjoy Hadji Murad! (Being a slow reader, I tend to keep reading assorted short works of Tolstoy, rather than tackling War and Peace – despite Lewis’s persuasive commendations and example of rereading it! – or Anna Karenina (which the 1978 BBC adaptation left me thinking would be too uncomfortably ‘heavy’), or Resurrection,(or the early ‘autobiographical trilogy’) come to that. But I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all I have read – especially the late (parable-like) little tales.)

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Wayne Stauffer says:

    i get my sophomore lit students to think about what makes for “good reading” or “great literature” with a small set of criteria gleaned from several literary analysis guides (XJ Kennedy and his kind) and by asking them what qualities they hold valuable. I don’t try to compel them to think a specific work should be great in their minds, but try to help then see that the new pieces i’m introducing hold these qualities.

    I am curious, though, about how soon (or later) after publication we decide a work should be canonized. you’ve mentioned Dickens and Austen and maybe Twain as being popular writers in their time, yet not given the literary respect by their peers that they later received by subsequent generations. most of the popular (among professors) anthologies of contemporary literature usually go up to the 1980s, maybe early 1990s…25-30 years ago…so does a writer need to be talked at conferences and subject of cult status in the literary hubs for 20 years to join the “club”?

    i’m interested in your thoughts or those of other of your FB followers wayno Sent from my iPad


    Liked by 2 people

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      I’m out of touch – were those anthologies contemporary when they first came out in the 1980s and 1990s, without being updated thereafter?

      I’ve certainly known things I thoroughly enjoyed (and studied) that did not age well in the course of a decade or two – personal development of critical perception or taste, or more than that?

      Your questioning makes me want to reread Lewis’s Experiment on Criticism to see how he attends to immediate appeal and enjoyment on rereading (and even, an appeal distinctly moving to rereading).

      Liked by 2 people

    • Wayne, my wife uses the term “living books” rather than “great” or “canonical”. It’s a nice distinction for teaching.
      As far as how long … I don’t know. Locally, in Canada we call a “Canadian classic” something that is about a generation old and is still a leading book. In the Western canon, I don’t know we could do that. Clearly Narnia is a children’s class, but I don’t think Harry Potter is. Tolkien’s work is classic and central to the fantasy canon. Is Gene Wolfe’s? I con’t know. And you are right: there are cult classics, popular despite being unpopular.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Joe R. Christopher says:

    Are (as I assume) the non-list authors in the last paragraph simply your suggestions? Of so, I’ll ignore them in the discussion of Harold Bloom’s list. Off hand, I think I want the addition of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, for a western culture list (what you call the Foundation area). Aeschylus, his trilogy–the _Oresteia_ (or, perhaps, his _Prometheus Bound_). Sophocles, his three plays (not written as a trilogy) on Oedipus and his family. Euripides, his _Medea_ or perhaps his _Bacchae_. For someone whose base language is English, I’d add _Beowulf_. I’m bothered by the lack of knowledge of the Arthurian tradition for the western culture. Thus, for those whose base language is English, I’d add _Sir Gawain and the Green Knight_ and Malory’s account (short or long version). Bloom certainly likes Shakespeare in the Renaissance, doesn’t he? How about some dipping into Petrarch’s sonnets + Spenser, “Epithalamion”? I think “The Ruined Cottage” is an odd choice for Wordsworth but I agree with “Tintern Abbey.” I think the particular novel by Woolf is a mistake. But I don’t have time tonight to really go over his later choices, even at the level I’m skimming. Maybe, not probably, I’d get back to the list.


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Thanks! – I was wondering about Classical drama, too (Aristophanes included), as well as Plato (or Socrates-Plato, or Plato-Socrates) considered as literary artist(s), whether one thinks of The Apology or the quality of dialogue, or (integral yet detachable) ‘set pieces’ like the ‘myths’ of the Cave and of Er.

      Liked by 1 person

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  7. Wow, you really paired down Bloom’s gigantic list to its essentials!
    (a convenient way of keeping track of books) rendering of the complete list has 1531 titles!.

    Liked by 1 person

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  17. 5k40 says:

    Reblogged this on 5k40.


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  20. Fabio says:

    Hi. I just wanted to point out that you have omitted one of the fundamental authors cited by Bloom in his Canon. The Portuguese Fernando Pessoa!


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