Books on Books
Kenneth Rexroth, Classics Revisited; More Classics Revisited [1968, 1989]
This two-volume series of essays is itself a true classic. I dont know any other work of literary criticism that can match it. Rexroth often manages to say more of interest in an essay of three or four pages than acclaimed critics do in book-length studies. This is because his concerns are not narrowly literary. In reexamining these basic documents in the history of the imagination he is actually recapitulating the whole range of human experience all the potentials of humanity (as yet largely unrealized), all the tragedies, all the beauties, all the follies, all the different ways of looking at life.
A list of the 100 books discussed in the two volumes, along with some 70 others that he planned to discuss but never got around to, can be found here. Some of the Classics Revisited essays are online at this site, but I cannot urge you too strongly to get your own copy of the whole thing. Its the sort of reference you want to have at your fingertips.
[Rexroth list of ten influential books]
Clifton Fadiman and John S. Major, The New Lifetime Reading Plan
I read Fadimans The Lifetime Reading Plan when it first came out (1960) and it served me as a very helpful guide to the Western classics. The selection was good, though fairly conventional, and the brief remarks on each recommended work were useful introductions aimed at reasonably literate but not necessarily well-read readers. Two later editions slightly revised the list without changing the general orientation. The fourth edition (1997), retitled The New Lifetime Reading Plan, includes for the first time a significant selection of Asian classics (plus a few from Africa and Latin America), added by co-author John S. Major. This makes the book considerably more recommendable as a general guide. It is not on the same level as Classics Revisited, but it may serve as a useful supplement to it, providing information about a number of basic works that Rexroth did not discuss.
In lists such as these the choices of the greatest ancient works tend to be nearly unanimous. Its harder to get as good a perspective on works that are closer to our own time, and different peoples choices are subject to lively disagreement. So it is here: I have no quarrel with most of Fadiman and Majors earlier selections, but many of their twentieth-century picks seem pretty lightweight to me perhaps worth reading, but hardly meriting the status of essential classics.
I have reproduced the Fadiman-Major list here.
Charles Van Doren, The Joy of Reading
Van Doren discusses many of the same Western classics featured in the Fadiman-Major book, but also includes a number of personal favorites of more varied merits.
Mortimer Adler et al. (ed.), Great Books of the Western World
As the title indicates, this 60-volume set is limited to Western classics. The editors rationale for this decision (and for the innovative educational curriculum that was largely based on these same works) was that the works in the Western tradition comprised a more or less coherent Great Conversation in which the writers and thinkers, however divergent their views, debated with each other across the ages in largely the same terms; whereas there had been no comparable level of dialogue with the various Eastern traditions. This perhaps once-valid argument no longer seems so convincing. In the last few decades we have seen an accelerating global unification that, for good and ill, has tended to bring all cultures together. A person can no longer be considered educated who is not familiar with the basic works of the East as well as the West.
The translations in the first edition (1952) were often poor. This has been largely remedied in the second edition (1990). Although the set includes major works of literature, it is strongly idea-oriented and contains a greater proportion of difficult works of philosophy and science than most other lists of classics. Most readers will feel no need to own all these works, and the ones they do want are available in cheaper editions, in some cases with better translations. The main reason to get the Great Books (assuming you come across a reasonably priced used set) is for its two-volume Index of Ideas, The Syntopicon (see the entry at the end of the “Western Philosophy section).
I have reproduced the Great Books table of contents here.
Harold Bloom, The Western Canon
Bloom is an extremely prolific and erudite critic. He is usually worth reading when he discusses the classics. In my opinion he is less reliable when he discusses more modern works.
William Theodore de Bary et al., A Guide to Oriental Classics
This book lists approximately 100 major works in the Islamic, Indian, Chinese and Japanese traditions, with annotated bibliographies of different translations and background material. I have reproduced the table of contents here.
Raymond Queneau (ed.), Pour une Bibliothèque
In the early 1950s Queneau asked several dozen French authors and critics to list the hundred books they would choose if they had to limit themselves to that number. This book (long out of print) reproduces all of their responses and tabulates their votes to arrive at an overall top 100 list. I have reproduced that list here. It is naturally much more weighted toward French works than the other lists mentioned here, and may introduce you to some French writers who are not so well known among English speakers. It should also remind us of how narrowly Anglocentric (or Eurocentric) our own lists undoubtedly appear to those in other countries.
Ford Madox Ford, The March of Literature
A leisurely, idiosyncratic, and worldly-wise journey through the whole world of literature by the great novelist and critic.
Edmund Wilson, Essays and Reviews [1895-1972]
Wilson was an independent writer and critic who was very widely read without being at all academic. Axels Castle, which includes illuminating essays on Yeats, Proust, Joyce and Gertrude Stein, is his most well known volume of literary criticism, but his other collections of essays and reviews are almost always interesting, even when he is delving into minor and obscure authors that you are unlikely ever to read: The Triple Thinkers, The Wound and the Bow, The Shores of Light, Classics and Commercials, The Bit Between My Teeth. Most of them have recently been collected in two Library of America volumes.
Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western
Penetrating examinations of different modes of consciousness and perception reflected in brief passages from Homer, Petronius, Dante, Boccaccio, Rabelais, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Stendhal, Virginia Woolf, and other great writers. The most famous example is the opening chapter, Odysseus Scar, where Auerbach contends that Homers narration of the recognition scene between Odysseus and his childhood nurse reflects a different sense of time among the ancient Greeks.
R.H. Blyth, Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics
Elucidates the Zen elements in Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Dickens, Cervantes, and other sometimes even more unexpected places. This is one of the books that have most significantly influenced my views of literature and life.
Henry Miller, The Books in My Life
Essays on a diverse range of books and authors, including a list of the 100 books that most influenced him. Millers opinions are very erratic and he goes off on all sorts of nonliterary tangents, but I recommend this book for its lively and iconoclastic spirit.
Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, How
to Read a Book
This is not about how to read in the minimal sense, but how to read well; how to approach intellectually difficult works so as to understand what the author is really saying; how to read “actively” (for real understanding) as opposed to passively (for mere information). It is so full of good practical advice that I can hardly begin to summarize it here. Suffice it to say that if you have not read this book you are probably not getting the most out of your reading, no matter how well-read you may be. This co-authored edition is distinctly better than the earlier one authored by Adler alone.
Mortimer Adler, The Paideia Proposal
In the 1930s Mortimer Adler and Robert M. Hutchins introduced a new style of education at the University of Chicago. Textbooks and lectures were largely eliminated. Instead, students gathered in small groups to read and discuss classic texts, learning how to determine just what was being said and how to articulate their own responses to it. The role of the teachers was primarily to facilitate the discussions. (How does this authors view differ from the previous author we read? What aspects do you disagree with? On what grounds? . . .)
This program continued until the 1950s, but it met with numerous social and academic resistances and ultimately failed to make much of a dent in American higher education. Adler concluded that it might be more effective to direct his efforts to an earlier stage. The Paideia Proposal outlines his ideas for a holistic liberal arts education beginning in grade school. Two subsequent volumes, Paideia Problems and Possibilities and The Paideia Program, go into more detail. Some of Adlers other writings on education are collected in Reforming Education.
Personally, I am dubious about the possibility of a meaningful educational reformism within the present society. But if nothing else, the above-mentioned books contain some good critiques of the existing educational system and give some hints as to what a more fully educated life might consist of. For those who may be interested, there are two small colleges that carry on a great books program substantially like what Adler and Hutchins had in mind: Shimer College (my alma mater) and St. Johns College. A recent crisis at Shimer is discussed here.
David Denby, Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and
Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World 
A middle-aged film critic goes back to school for two semesters of great books discussion courses. This book includes some good observations on the recent culture wars over the Western Canon.
Richard D. Altick, The Scholar Adventurers
Intriguing accounts of various literary discoveries and detections unearthing long-lost manuscripts, exposing literary forgeries, solving mysteries about authors, etc. Altick wrote a number of other very readable books on literary biography and literary history, with particular focus on his speciality, the Victorians. Unlike many academic scholars, he knows how to write, well enough that it's a pleasure to read him.
Language and Translation
Ive always found just about any books about language to be interesting, whether they deal with the origins of words, the colorfulness of slang, the difficulties of translation, or the decipherment of ancient writings. Here are a few that you may enjoy: Mario Peis The Story of Language, Bill Brysons Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way, James Essinger’s Spellbound: The Surprising Origins of English Spelling, H.L. Menckens The American Language (one-volume abridgment, ed. Raven McDavid), Lewis Thomass Et Cetera, Et Cetera: Notes of a Word Watcher, Simon Winchesters The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, Ernst Doblhofers Voices in Stone: The Decipherment of Ancient Writings, John Chadwicks The Decipherment of Linear B, Eric Partridges many works on slang, etymology, etc.
Some interesting books on literary translation: Theodore Savorys The Art of Translation, William Arrowsmith and Roger Shattuck (ed.), The Craft and Context of Translation, Reuben Brower (ed.), On Translation, Robert M. Adamss Proteus: His Lies, His Truth, William Radice and Barbara Reynolds (ed.), The Translators Art, Burton Raffels The Art of Translating Prose. The different views are often quite contentious. The Radice-Reynolds book, for example, is a collection of essays by different translators of Penguin Classics, whereas the Raffel book caustically attacks what he sees as the flabby and pedestrian quality of most Penguin translations. (I agree with Raffel’s critiques of many of the earlier Penguin translations, but I think the quality has considerably improved in the more recent Penguin editions.) The arguments in favor of various types and degrees of literal renderings or freer adaptations, colloquial or formal styles, etc., are never-ending because there are no perfect translations, only more or less successful approximations. Such debates may seem more interesting to those who know one or more foreign languages, but I think they are actually more important for those of you who know none, because they make you aware of the sorts of things that are lost or distorted in translation.
Incidentally, Ive found Collins-Robert to be the best French-English dictionaries. I use the huge two-volume Super Senior” edition, but there are large, medium and small one-volume editions that will suffice for most purposes. For those interested in refining their French, I recommend perusing books of false cognates (words that look the same but actually have different meanings), such as Kirk-Greenes French False Friends or Thody and Evanss Mistakable French.
[Rexroth essay on literary translation]
Section from Gateway to the Vast Realms (Ken Knabb, 2004).