“We seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves.” –C.S. Lewis.

for Kaizen, Marshall, and Blake

By J.S. Porter

Here’s the popular wisdom. What matters in education are the STEM subjects: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, just as in the economy what matters are the Information Technology (IT) companies – Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Google, and Facebook.

You need a lot of STEM to get into IT.

What’s the use of history, art and literature or language, philosophy, and critical thinking? Are they as dead as Latin in our school system?  Maybe.

And yet.  A single essay by the English art critic and author John Berger can revivify a prehistoric Cave drawing or Van Gogh’s sunflowers with unforgettable clarity. A good liberal arts education gives students roots and wings.

Will your life come to an end if you never see Hamlet on screen or on stage?  No, but you may not be as large in your imagination as you become when you expose yourself to one of the world’s great plays on what it is to be a struggling, conflicted human being.  And so it goes: a speech by Dr. King, notes by Simone Weil, a letter by Keats, an essay by James Baldwin, a story by Chekhov, a poem by Emily Dickinson can be an engaging and thrilling experience. The experience may even enlarge your being.

Here’s a list of readings – my roots, my wings—for you to poke around in.  Lots of holes and gaps. You may have your own list.  David Bowie has his. (See below.)  If so, let’s exchange them.

A Liberal Arts Reading List

Mother Goose, Dr. Seuss, Dennis Lee

The Iliad, The Odyssey, Gilgamesh, Tao Te Ching

The fairytales of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen

The satires of Jonathan Swift

The plays of Shakespeare, and then Sophocles, Ibsen, Beckett

Greek myths, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Tomson Highway’s talks on Aboriginal Mythology and his book-length essay Comparing Mythologies

The parables of Jesus

Job and other stories from the Bible

The short stories of Chaucer, Chekhov, Kafka, Hawthorne, D.H. Lawrence, Hemingway, Carver, Cheever, Clarice Lispector, Roberto Bolaño, Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant

Novellas and tales by Henry James

The dialogues of Plato

The poetry of Li Bai (Li Po), Du Fu (Tu Fu), Basho, Rumi, Milton, Tagore, Blake, Wordsworth, Whitman, Keats, Césaire, Emily Dickinson, Yeats, Rilke, Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Milosz, Neruda, Lorca,  Anna Akhmatova, Mahmoud Darwish, Wole Soyinka, Octavio Paz, Seamus Heaney

Essays by Montaigne, Emerson,  Nietzsche, Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence, Orwell, James Baldwin, John Berger, Loren Eisley, Virginia Woolf, Robert Hughes,  Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, Hannah Arendt, Rebecca Solnit, Don McKay, Lydia Davis

Journals and Dairies by Thomas Merton, Emerson, Thoreau, Anaïs Nin, Emily Carr, Virginia Woolf

Letters by St. Paul, Chekhov, Van Gogh, John Keats, Ted Hughes

Novels, a few favourites:  Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Voltaire’s Candide, Melville’s Moby Dick, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Tolstoy’s Master and Man, Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, Kafka’s The Trial, Orwell’s Animal Farm, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom,  André Breton’s Nadja, Robert McLiam Wilson’s Eureka Street, Lawrence Durrell’s Justine, Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund, Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room,  Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival, Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Soseki’s Kokoro, Kawabata’s Snow Country, Kundera’s Life Is Elsewhere or Immortality, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Roth’s The Human Stain,  Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye

Songs by Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Emmylou Harris, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Gordon Lightfoot, The Beatles, Bob Marley, Eminem, Stephen Sondheim, George, and Ira Gershwin

Notes by Coleridge, Simone Weil, Albert Camus

Biography: Boswell on Johnson, Eckerman on Goethe (conversations), Tadié on Proust, Edna O’Brien on Joyce, Carlos Baker on Hemingway,  Richard Holmes on Coleridge, George Steiner on Heidegger, Alberto Manguel on Borges

Autobiography: St. Augustine, Montaigne, Rousseau, Bertrand Russell,  Camara Laye’s The African Child, Heisenberg’s Physics and Beyond, autobiographical fiction by J.M. Coetzee (The Lives of Animals, Boyhood, Youth, Summertime), Patti Smith’s Just Kids or M. Train,  Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Memoirs by Nabokov, Jung, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up, and John Glassco’s Memoirs of Montparnasse

Literary criticism by Barthes, Bachelard, Harold Bloom, Hugh Kenner, Lionel Trilling, Edward Said, Steiner, Frye, F.R. Leavis, Hélène Cixous, Malcolm Cowley, Helen Vendler, Edmund Wilson, Camille Paglia, Cynthia Ozick, John Updike (book reviews), Heidegger (on poetry), Coleridge (on Shakespeare and Wordsworth)

The sermons of Paul Tillich

Lectures by Emerson, the Massey Lecture Series (including Northrop Frye on the imagination, George Grant on Nietzsche, Hugh Kenner, Thomas King, Robert Fulford, Richard C. Lewontin’s Biology as Ideology and Ursula Franklin’s The Real World of Technology)

Aphorisms of Pascal, Nietzsche, La Rochefoucauld, Oscar Wilde, Emil Cioran, Marshall McLuhan

The speeches of Churchill, the Kennedys (John & Robert), Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Maya Angelou

And something else: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince/The Little Prince, plus Frog and Toad are Friends by Arnold Lobel.  And The Wind in the Willows if you’re really ambitious.  And Ian and Sylvia’s “Four Strong Winds,” and Emmylou Harris’ “Cup of Kindness.”


My friend Marshall Soules poses some interesting questions:

“Imagine a 4-year undergraduate liberal arts program that requires students to make up their own canon and justify their choices with short critical essays / articles. The students could meet regularly to discuss the virtues and problems with canons of literature: binding cultures and traditions; embedding conformity etc. What constitutes global culture? Should we (try to) be conversant with it? To what extent do canons of literature contribute to exclusionary thinking when it comes to global culture?”

Here’s David Bowie’s Reading List: