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An audience poll in three parts! - Almost certainly not Johnny Depp.

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December 9th, 2012


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01:19 pm - An audience poll in three parts!
1) In order to be considered educated in modern English literature (paper, so no movies or TV), one must (at a a bare minimum) be familiar with:

[Insert your answer here]


Me, I'm thinking:

Brave New World
1984
Animal Farm
Heart Of Darkness
Hamlet[1]
Romeo And Juliet[1]
The Bible[1][2]
A Tale Of Two Cities

Basically, a reference or allusion to the major points of any of those should be caught by anyone.

What else should be on that list?


2) I'm also thinking of an "honorable mentions" list, with stuff like The Lord Of The Rings, Treasure Island, The Lottery, Lord Of The Flies, I Am Legend, Ender's Game[3], Catcher In The Rye, Atlas Shrugged[3] - stuff where people CAN still be considered well-read without having read them, but they may be missing out. What should be on that?


3) It is not a coincidence that "grade school curriculum" heavily overlaps my essentials list, I think. Is this confirmation bias, or an indication that the Essential Reading list for schoolchildren actually starts with some really good choices?



[1]: gets "Modern English" cred by proxy and influence
[2]: No, seriously, INFLUENCE. But annotated, so people should know The Empty Tomb and The Brutal Torture Of Innocent Job By The Allegedly Benevolent Overlord[4], but who gives a shit about Zachariah? Point is, you need the highlights becuse they show up, a LOT, in other places.
[3]: Being able to recognise popular crap as CRAP, and dissect the failures of logic, worldbuilding, and persuasion is an important skill that more people should have.
[4]: The Book Of Job is a demonstration that not only CAN Satan win, but that he wins any time he feels like putting any effort in, because God is a gullible chump. But this is a diversion.

(127 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


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From:sparkindarkness
Date:December 9th, 2012 06:34 pm (UTC)
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I can reference most of them, but haven't read them all (and some I'd rather put my feet into a blender first)
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From:theweaselking
Date:December 9th, 2012 06:38 pm (UTC)
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Yes, but it's the ability to reference them, and to catch a reference made to one of them, that matters for this list.
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From:peristaltor
Date:December 9th, 2012 06:52 pm (UTC)
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LOTR might actually have classic status now. A few years ago, to the horror of "serious" literary folk, Tolkien was voted Author of the Century for the influence LOTR had on fiction. He invented an entire genre which remains all but unchanged today; not many can claim that.

I'd also throw Moby Dick into the essentials list.
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From:mckenzee
Date:December 9th, 2012 07:14 pm (UTC)
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Yes, show the whale some love!
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From:dreamshade
Date:December 9th, 2012 07:01 pm (UTC)
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My memory of Heart of Darkness was that it was boring as eff, but at least it was short...
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From:theweaselking
Date:December 9th, 2012 07:09 pm (UTC)
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Heart Of Darkness was light and easy - but I wonder how much of its cultural relevance is dependent on Apocalypse Now.

One of MANY reasons I ask!
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From:mckenzee
Date:December 9th, 2012 07:13 pm (UTC)
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I think allusions to Poe, Lovecraft, and Homer should be recognized.

Maybe Beowulf and Gilgamesh?
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From:theweaselking
Date:December 9th, 2012 07:20 pm (UTC)
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Homer, Beowulf, and Gilgamesh are not in any way "Modern English". Poe and Lovecraft, sure, what would you consider the most essential of them?
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From:andrewducker
Date:December 9th, 2012 07:57 pm (UTC)
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Much though I love Brave New World, and think it altogether more likely as a future (or, indeed, present) than 1984, I don't think that recognition is on the same level as 1984, Animal Farm, Hamlet, etc.

I'm intrigued that none of your list are from the last 50 years. From which I would deduce that it was the list of books you were introduced to between the ages of 14 and 25, and that you were therefore born in the 70s.

However, going with your list: Of Mice And Men, Diary of Anne Frank, To Kill A Mockingbird, Metamorphosis, Pride & Prejudice, Flowers for Algernon, Slaughterhouse V, and something by Joyce.

Witn an honorable mention for The Man Who Was Thursday.

Oh, and The Complete Series Of Unfortunate Events. Of course :->
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From:andrewducker
Date:December 9th, 2012 07:58 pm (UTC)
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Just realised that Kafka is disqualified for not writing in English. Also, Anne Frank.
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From:sparkindarkness
Date:December 9th, 2012 08:12 pm (UTC)
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What about Dracula? It can be argued that that's the foundation for a vampire craze that is still ongoing. Everyone recognises the name Dracula, everyone knows the essentials of the story - even the essential legends of what a vampire is (culled from a gazillion versions in ancient mythology) were defined and popularised by Stoker

Of course, on that score we could probably say the same for Anne Rice
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From:theweaselking
Date:December 9th, 2012 08:23 pm (UTC)
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Dracula is an excellent choice. Anne Rice, well, that would depend on the future, but barring a brief White Wolf-based break in the 90s her fiction has not been historically relevant so far.
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From:dianavilliers
Date:December 9th, 2012 09:05 pm (UTC)
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I'd stick in a vote for Pride and Predjudice.
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From:lederhosen
Date:December 9th, 2012 09:17 pm (UTC)
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Alice in Wonderland.

The Jungle Book might be worth a Hon Mention, and ditto A Study in Scarlet or Hound of the Baskervilles, although this might vary by country.
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From:mckenzee
Date:December 9th, 2012 10:02 pm (UTC)
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Catch 22, Cat's Cradle, V., Handmaiden's Tale...
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From:whisperkit
Date:December 10th, 2012 01:31 am (UTC)
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Cat's Cradle why? I mean, I liked it a lot, but I don't see it as a book that society assumes you to have read by any stretch.
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From:moof
Date:December 9th, 2012 10:30 pm (UTC)
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"Educated" by whom? English majors? Comic book aficionados with degrees in Medieval Literature? Readers of 4chan, who'd describe this as a "literature meme list"?

I can't remember the last time someone made a Brave New World reference (save literally saying "brave new world") other than a giggly "pneumatic" comment.
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From:catlin
Date:December 10th, 2012 02:20 am (UTC)
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Unfortunatly I know far to many Ayn Rand fanatics. I hear Brave New World any time they want to gut social assistance programs.

Along with denigrating the middle class working men and women, of course.
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From:harper_knight
Date:December 9th, 2012 10:54 pm (UTC)
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I have a feeling any list like this you create will have a heavy overlap with another list entitled "Books most people absorb references to through the normal course of interacting with people throughout their lives, although they'll do so quicker if they read, which they should because reading is awesome", (okay so titles aren't my best genre) but will be lesser than that list because you're insisting on books originally written in English - except for the Bible, which you're grandfathering in, but refusing to do so for any others. That's why it overlaps with the grade-school curriculum list - not confirmation bias, simply that it seems likely that everyone who has ever made a grade-school reading list has gone through essentially exactly this process.

Also, I can't quite tell if you're making a reference list.. that is, books people should be familiar with because they are a huge part of the modern book-reading culture and have had or will have an impact on modern literature, or a prescriptive list, books you think the modern book-reading culture should be familiar with because you like them and everyone else should too dammit. If the former, Harry Potter certainly belongs on it; you may not like it, but you can't deny the impact it's had.. although I like the books myself, they're entertaining, I do agree with you about the atrocious internal consistency and worldbuilding. A book doesn't have to be well-written to be interesting or important, as any number of 'classics' show.

On a fairly unrelated note, I'd like to point out that that's a common mis-reading of the Book of Job. However, even Wiki will tell you that the Satan mentioned in that book is not "Lucifer" or "The Devil" or any such bullshit, in fact the concept of there being some sort of consistent evil being like that hardly even exists in the New Testament, much less the old - he's mostly a creation of Early Christianity, partly inferred from little bits in the Bible, partly possibly from other sources cut out of the Bible since, partly from who knows where. In the Book of Job specifically, the word used just means 'adversary', and the 'Satan' in the book is implied to be an angel, a member of God's court, and not a fallen one either. It's not some evil guy traipsing around making everyone's day bad - it is more like someone whose job is to be what we might call a 'devil's advocate' in the heavenly court.
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From:theweaselking
Date:December 9th, 2012 11:46 pm (UTC)
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I have a feeling any list like this you create will have a heavy overlap with another list entitled "Books most people absorb references to through the normal course of interacting with people throughout their lives, although they'll do so quicker if they read, which they should because reading is awesome",

Well, yes. It's the list of References One Should Get, Dammit. So yes, the ones everyone "must" get by absorption is a relevant set.

you're insisting on books originally written in English - except for the Bible, which you're grandfathering in, but refusing to do so for any others.

A point of order: I'm not REFUSING to grandfather in non-Bible non-English texts, I'm simply stating that I can't think of any other non-English texts that are so absolutely essential to the understanding of most of English lit. And, because the early-modern English Bible translations are important, I include them on this "essentials list".

If you can present an argument for why any other non-English book should be essential to the study of English literature, I will be happy to see it.

I can't quite tell if you're making a reference list.. that is, books people should be familiar with because they are a huge part of the modern book-reading culture and have had or will have an impact on modern literature, or a prescriptive list,

The first, more than the second, but that's an important distinction. In particular....

Harry Potter certainly belongs on it; you may not like it, but you can't deny the impact it's had.

Yeah, no. I very nearly put Harry Potter on the "honourable mentions" list, but it has not yet been demonstrated that Harry Potter is any more, or less, relevant than 50 Shades Of Grey or The Infinite Ender's Game Sequels or Interview With The Vampire or Left Behind.

They're all popular serieses, and they all *might* be Important Historical Documents, but it's not yet clear that they are the defining works of their time or of the future. Give it another 25 years?

I'd like to point out that that's a common mis-reading of the Book of Job. However, even Wiki will tell you that the Satan mentioned in that book is not "Lucifer" or "The Devil" or any such bullshit,

True, but, and this is important, the devil-figure, regardless of his true identity, suggests that The Honourable Man Job is full of shit and only worships God because God gives him things. In response, out of the paranoid fear that Job might not love God if God stopped showering Job with blessings, God ruins Job's life. God drives Job's friends to idolatry and then murders them. God kills Job's children. God, in fact, clearly ensures that everyone except Job absolutely rejects Him before sending them to their final judgement.... and then, having damned EVERYONE in Job's life, deliberately, he goes to Job and Job is all "God, I knew you weren't such a complete asshole as to have done all the shit you did to me and my family. And this wasn't ALL just a stupid bet, right?" And God is all "....uhhhhhh CRAP. You've got Me. Well, fuck, uh, uuuuuuhhh.... Yes, it was a TEST, right, a TEST, and I wasn't just fucking your life up for no good reason because I'm a petty stupid asshole who is easily manipulated by any given 'Devil's advocate' who makes me damn dozens to hundreds of souls in a misguided and irrelevant gullible effort to test ONE virtuous dude. Right? Right?"

And God, feeling bad for being such an utter fuckwit, spares Job, leaving Satan up by a score of "everyone in Job's life except Job, to one". And demonstrating that any time he WANTS souls to be damned, all he has to do is challenge God and God will give him tons of souls and happily doom all the neighbours and relatives and children, in pursuit of TESTING someone. And, hey, if that person fails the test? Satan gets him, too.

The Book Of Job demonstrates that, whenever Satan wants something, he gets it, because God is a chump.
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From:dglenn
Date:December 9th, 2012 11:21 pm (UTC)
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I'm going to jumble up "must have read" and "need to have a passing familiarity with" in one list, 'cause that's about as organized as I can manage right now:

"The Nine Billion Names of God".
Just enough Sherlock Holmes to catch references to characters and methods (and story structure), and recognize where those are being re-used in different guises.
Fahrenheit 451.
For Americans, at least (not sure whether it's as important for others to read): The Crucible.
"Wakefield".
"The Cremation of Sam McGee".
The Stars My Destination.
The Wizard of Oz (though I'm sure many folks skip it on account of already having seen the movie).
"What Good is a Glass Dagger?"
One I expect some arguing over: Dune.

I want to include "Uncleftish Beholding", but that's more for the sake of what it illustrates regarding the language itself (and, of course, about unclefts) than for its connection to Literature.

And I really, really want to include Waiting for the Galactic Bus, but not enough other people have read it yet to make the list. Same goes for Shadow Man.

Also, though they obviously don't belong on this list, I'd think at least some knowledge of Homer, Malory, and Verne would be important for making more sense of Modern English works influenced by them.

I'm sure I'll think of more tonight as I'm falling asleep.

Edited at 2012-12-09 11:22 pm (UTC)
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From:theweaselking
Date:December 9th, 2012 11:44 pm (UTC)
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The Stars My Destination.

I liked it better when it was called "The Count Of Monte Cristo", and also written by someone who could compose an intelligent sentence. Alfred Bester was a plagiarist, incompetent, and also INCOMPETENT AT PLAGIARISM. He was the worst of all worlds.
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From:moiread
Date:December 9th, 2012 11:35 pm (UTC)
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> Basically, a reference or allusion to the major points of any of those should be caught by anyone.

Hahahaha, no.

We did Heart of Darkness and A Tale of Two Cities in high school, but I refused to finish them because I had better things to read. I really don't think anyone will be able to convince me this is not still the case. I tried Brave New World as an adult because hey, look, a classic, and actively threw it across the room halfway through. I will never finish it. I will never ever read Atlas Shrugged. Nor will I ever read any more of the Bible than I need to in order to look up what someone else is going on about.

I'll get some references to these books anyway just from being someone who runs in literary circles in North America and enjoys other works that make a lot of pop culture references, but most of them? Probably not. I could not have told you who John Galt was until two years ago when ads started running for the Atlas Shrugged movie, where everyone keeps asking who he is. I still don't know who he is, but I at least now know it's a thing from that work. I also don't really care.

I'm obscenely well-read and better educated in literature than 90% of people despite this, and also despite having never graduated high school or been to post-secondary. Not even remotely worried.

Edited at 2012-12-09 11:44 pm (UTC)
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From:theweaselking
Date:December 9th, 2012 11:53 pm (UTC)
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Nor will I ever read any more of the Bible than I need to in order to look up what someone else is going on about.

Yes, but I would expect that, should I make a reference to moneylenders being thrown out of a temple, you would get that.

I could not have told you who John Galt was until two years ago when ads started running for the Atlas Shrugged movie, where everyone keeps asking who he is.

And, I would call that a minor failing in cultural literacy, along the lines of not knowing other references from The Hobbit or The Lord Of The Flies or any other fantastic nonsense book.

I'm obscenely well-read and better educated in literature than 90% of people despite this,

Which is one of the reasons Atlas Shrugged is on the "extra credit, maybe" list. Along with a bunch of actually good books, among the "commonly influential" set.
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From:rev_ursa
Date:December 10th, 2012 12:37 am (UTC)
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I am very sad that no one else has mentioned the Name of the Wind reference in the name of this post. Either that or P. Rothfus stole it from someone else that I am failing to remember/know.

For modern American Lit, we (unfortunatly) must throw in the Great Gatsby.
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From:dglenn
Date:December 10th, 2012 01:43 am (UTC)
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*nod* And on a less-unfortunate note, maybe All the King's Men. I haven't been able to decide whether The Human Comedy belongs on the list or not.

Has anyone suggested any Twain yet?
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From:cleodhna
Date:December 10th, 2012 12:58 am (UTC)
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I agree wholeheartedly with your inclusion of the Bible, but I would introduce a caveat: THE WHOLE BLOODY THING.
People need to know not just our mythology, but that this is mythology, and presenting it in its myth-encouched, occasionally insanely boring, often insane, occasionally strikingly beautiful, occasionally unmistakably socialist (that Jesus!) is the only way to cut through the artificial mythology wrapped around it by the fundamentalist nutjobs who daily threaten normal people. I have read it through twice, and keep three versions on the shelf for looking stuff up and a read now and then. I'm an atheist better familiar with the bible than most bible-thumpers, and I actually really like a lot of it. Job, above referenced, is a favourite of mine.

The more people who read this book and think about it, the better.
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From:dglenn
Date:December 10th, 2012 01:44 am (UTC)
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"an atheist better familiar with the bible than most bible-thumpers"

Isn't that description redundant?
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From:nancylebov
Date:December 10th, 2012 02:54 am (UTC)
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Definitely the Bible and Shakespeare (probably Hamlet, Macbeth, and Romeo & Juliet), though I've been told that young people are much less likely to get Biblical references than they used to be-- if true, this suggests that the Bible will become less of a cultural source.

I'm not sure that more than a sketchy knowledge of _Atlas Shrugged_ is required, since it seems as though a great many of the people who love it missed the point. Did you know that the book is an extended attack on crony capitalism?

Definitely _1984_. Possibly _Farenheit 451_.

I don't think _Heart of Darkness_ gets mentioned much.

For Dickens, "A Christmas Carol".

_The Velveteen Rabbit_.

Children's books may have more staying power in some sense because if people loved them as children, they're likely to pass them on to their own children. I think the odds favor Harry Potter as having a long term effect.

Kipling: "If"

Possibly _The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_.

I suggest that instead of _Dracula_, we have The Matter of Vampires-- vampires are an idea cluster rather than a single work.

Edited at 2012-12-10 02:54 am (UTC)
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From:matgb
Date:December 10th, 2012 06:27 pm (UTC)
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Definitely If. and I'd say The Jungle Book as well, admittedly the film's part of that, but the influence was faily significant in many ways (English Cub Scouts get titles from the characters, for example).

And definitely Twain, almost certainly Huck Finn.
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From:cosmiccat
Date:December 10th, 2012 03:59 am (UTC)
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Paradise Lost. It basically invented (or at least codified) the modern perception of Satan.

For Canadians specifically, The Handmaid's Tale rates if only for the stark introduction into "and this is what Canadian literature is like".

Out of Shakespeare's plays, I'd add Julius Caesar.

Oddly, despite being Old English, Beowulf might deserve to be on the list - if only because of the effects of its most recent translations into modern English. For example, Tolkien's translation of Beowulf leads directly into The Lord of the Rings and it's particular cadence and forms of speech, and from there into pretty much all fantasy everywhere. Maybe it's more Honourable Mention territory, though.

And The Book of Job is about God torturing Job in the same way that The Republic is about how much Plato enjoyed chaining people up in caves.
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From:theweaselking
Date:December 10th, 2012 07:03 pm (UTC)
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The problem with adding Beowulf is that while it's undeniably influential, it's also not written in modern English. Same with Chaucer.

And The Book of Job is about God torturing Job in the same way that The Republic is about how much Plato enjoyed chaining people up in caves.

I gotta ask: What message to you think Job has that's *more* clear than "God will fuck up your life on a bet, and wants you to thank him for it?"
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From:skington
Date:December 10th, 2012 04:59 am (UTC)
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It's been mentioned in passing already, but here's another vote, in category 2, for Catch-22. The idea of a catch-22 is, I think, widespread enough to deserve mention, and if not the rest of the novel's theme of military inefficiency and absurdness are popular enough.

I don't think Heart of Darkness warrants category 1 for a UK audience. It's certainly not something that Brits, in my limited experience, think is a canon of literature. And A Tale of Two Cities should be category 2, not category 1.

If Treasure Island is on the list for category 2, Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver's Travels should be there also, if only because certain people are liable to use the terms Lilliputian and Brobdingnagian and then protest that everyone should understand what they're saying.
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From:dscotton
Date:December 10th, 2012 07:06 am (UTC)
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The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

The Lord of the Rings is pretty essential, but people probably absorb a sufficient amount of it through the movies, as with the Wizard of Oz.

I agree with the nomination of The Raven.

3. I think neither. Rather, I would say that a major reason these things are an essential part of culture is that everyone learns them in school. They're shared context. And of course, they're taught in school because they're an important part of our culture.
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From:hwrnmnbsol
Date:December 10th, 2012 09:13 am (UTC)
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Regardless of what comprises this list, it should be noted that it is shrinking. Presumption of literacy is not what it once was, not because people are ignorant-er, but because we live in an age where media other than books compete for our brain-space. Much less so a generation ago.

So, while Moby Dick is a classic of literature, and was written in the English language, I submit to you that if one invokes 'call me Ishmael' in the modern era, knowing what you are talking about in the present day is relegated to the status of Jeopardy-answer trivia, not a requirement of being a generally with-it person. I think this did not used to be so.

I like many of the inclusions in the comments. I think we're a little light on poetry though. The Widening Gyre is frequently referenced. So is The Road Not Taken.
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From:dglenn
Date:December 10th, 2012 05:27 pm (UTC)
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"a little light on poetry"

Understatement!
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From:thornae
Date:December 10th, 2012 09:34 am (UTC)
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In Michael Dirda's exceptional eclectic work on books and the love of them, Book by Book, he lists 16 “patterning works” - not necessarily obvious classics, but books later authors regularly build on. “Know these well, and nearly all of world literature will be an open book to you.”

- The Bible (Old and New Testament–King James Version)
- Bulfinch’s Mythology (or any other accounts of the Greek, Roman, and Norse myths)
- Homer, The Iliad and The Odyssey
- Plutarch, Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans
- Dante, Inferno
- The Arabian Nights
- Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur (tales of King Arthur and his knights)
- Shakespeare’s major plays, especially Hamlet, Henry IV, Part One, King Lear, A Midsummer Night’s Dream,The Tempest
- Cervantes, Don Quixote
- Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe
- Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels
- The fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen
- Any substantial collection of the world’s major folktales
- Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
- Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
- Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

I certainly would agree with it, although I think Doyle really built on Dickens, and you could equally argue that some of Malory's sources are as important as his collection.
Nonetheless, it's a pretty comprehensive coverage.


It's one of the many excellent lists and musings in Dirda's work, which I strongly and enthusiastically recommend to anyone with a love of books.


Another list book of interest is Jane Gleeson-White's "Classics", which contains reviews and notes on 62 works from ancient to modern that the author considers to be classics, as well as top ten lists from many other authors. (My brilliant and scarily organised wife has collated all of them, and there are links to each from the previous link.)


And to go on your B list, James Hogg's "The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner", which is not as well known as it should be, given that it is arguably the first psychological thriller.


Also, Barry Hughart's "Bridge of Birds", which I personally think should be considered a classic.


Edited at 2012-12-10 09:36 am (UTC)
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From:scifantasy
Date:December 10th, 2012 02:30 pm (UTC)
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Having Brave New World, 1984, and Animal Farm is overkill. I would say "at least one of," and bias toward 1984.

The problem is you're declaring this an absolute list: every condition must be met. I don't buy that. I'd like to see it as more either-ors: at least one of those above three, at least one Shakespearean tragedy and at least one comedy (preferably Much Ado About Nothing), I'd reject the Bible or at least restructure its inclusion. One Dickens, either Great Expectations or A Tale of Two Cities by preference. And so on.

There isn't one way to be educated in English.
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From:dglenn
Date:December 10th, 2012 05:25 pm (UTC)
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Does MASH belong on either list, or is it enough to have seen the movie or the television series?
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From:torrain
Date:December 10th, 2012 11:40 pm (UTC)
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...MASH was a book?

(I believe my answers suggests that familiarity with the written version of it is not assumed for cultural literacy.)
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From:rgovrebo
Date:December 10th, 2012 09:14 pm (UTC)
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I'd add Three Men in a Boat and Day of the Triffids to the honourable mentions.

Even if you don't necessarily see references to them everywhere, reading them gives you a wee bit of insight into the society that made characters like Tolkien and Orwell.

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