26 February

The David Foster Wallace syllabus linked-to below, though obviously not an addition to the "great books" canon, reminds me of a few informal lists of great books that I'm not including in my project: those read by students across the four years of their undergraduate education at St. John's College (and its famed "great books program"); and a few lists from Columbia University courses as documented in David Denby's book Great Books. Links to transcriptions of Denby's lists are available at Teeter's Great Books Lists. St. John's Academic Programs page provides information about their methods and links to the current reading lists. These lists are excluded not so much because of the context of their creation, but because in principle they change annually, or every semester or quarter. In fact, extensive primary research would be necessary to discover the extent to which they have changed; even then, their inclusion with other "great books" lists would be a difficult to justify. First, we would have to ask what similar courses--that is, covering the entirety of mankind's known literary history--have been taught at other universities. Second, only a few of the "great books" lists have come in multiple editions, and even then rarely more than two. Unlike with music-album lists, where every list a publication makes is included, despite two or more of them being very similar (such as the 2012 and 2003 Rolling Stone lists), I'm only including the final editions of "great books" lists. Again, the general differences between these lists are important. Roughly half of the "great books" lists I'll be compiling, and especially the largest ones (and the largest by far, Harold Bloom's) are the work of a single individual or two individuals. Many of those composed by a group of people (at least implicitly so, as in some cases we do not know exactly who made the choices) have been published recently, since 2007, as an inordinate number of lists have come about in these years. Thus, with most of the lists for which multiple versions exist, a single author or two has revised his own work, in some cases a large book itself of literary value. As with the work of artists, the final version of a work is considered primary, no matter how much interest we might have in earlier versions. Many of the syllabi for "great books" courses undoubtedly are the work of an individual, but the limitations imposed by the context in which those lists were created detract from their value (these limitations include the brevity of particular courses, or the four-year schedule of undergraduate education, thus making the lists shorter and less likely to include unique entries; and the difficulty of deciding which version to use--the last in these cases is not necessarily the final, or preferred, version).

David Foster Wallace's 1994 Syllabus: How to Teach Serious Literature With Lightweight Books