Where Do Reading Lists Come From? (And Why Do We Love Them?)

William Germano and Kit Nicholls Offer a Brief History of a Familiar Format

Where do reading lists come from, anyway? Wouldn’t we love to know exactly what Plato’s students were required to read? In Aristotle and other ancient writers we have tantalizing glimpses of works and writers now lost. But even if we had them, those works would be subject to two millennia of thinking about the world, including the world of these ancient texts. Medieval pedagogues, for whom the university was a new invention, operated within a restricted universe of texts and an even more restricted universe of materials and approaches with which to teach them.

With the mechanical reproduction of texts and, later, with the invention of photography and other recording devices, a course of study could be structured around a more expansive and more individually inflected idea of what had to be read. That concept enters English only in Victorian times.

The OED traces the earliest uses of the term reading list to the mid-19th century. Was it a bookseller’s list of materials for sale, as an 1859 example would suggest? That would make it something close to a catalogue. By the 1880s, a reading list was specifically connected to a course of study. A century and a half on, the reading list is almost identical to that course of study, in which the course is something that moves through time and space, like a stream, or that runs its course, like a fever. In the 21st century, we’ve become used to the idea of the reading list as the course, as the syllabus, even as the object of study.

Even before reading list became a term of pedagogical art, the classroom was built around readings. Any history of education with a long view will reflect on how standard texts—from Cicero, as read in the early modern period, to the McGuffey Readers of 19th-century America—have shaped not only what people learned but the idea of a curriculum.

For centuries, Cicero’s writings on politics, friendship, and other difficult subjects were studied and imitated in Western European classrooms. In Tudor England, the Welsh mathematician Robert Recorde, an early proponent of algebra, wrote a widely influential treatise on teaching mathematics that was still in use more than a century later. (Recorde is credited with inventing the equals sign = as well as the wonderful word zenzizenzizenzic, meaning “to the power of eight.”)

The McGuffey Readers, which once taught the three Rs and now evoke a Little House on the Prairie nostalgia, dominated primary education in the United States for over a century. Cicero was a model to be imitated; Recorde and the McGuffey books, as different as they are, were meant to explain subjects to students who needed to learn them.

Modern pedagogy doesn’t depend heavily on imitatio, and Cicero’s glory days in the classroom are past (meanwhile, we’re poorer for the decline in oratory and rhetorical skills). The work of textbooks, however, has only become more sophisticated and demanding.

Time, life, students, experience, and disciplines all change, so why not the readings?

The modern reading list is designed to enable teaching that cannot be done by a textbook: If everything you wanted to teach in a class already existed within the covers of a book, you would assign that book and be done with it. By its existence, the reading list says that the course prizes its uniqueness. These readings, chosen by this teacher, will open up the class in unanticipated ways. Entries in a reading list are variables in an equation. The more variables, the more complex the equation, the more connections to examine, the more questions to pose and perhaps solve.

So, one gets down to work in choosing materials that are right for the institution, the course level, the class size. Even the same course, taught by the same teacher in different years to different populations of students, can require adjustments to a reading list that seemed perfectly calibrated to its subject—or at least it did the first time round.

For today’s teacher, imagining a reading list is a simple thing—the internet! online texts! paperbacks! photocopies!—until the headaches begin: the question of quantity, anxiety about the students’ attentiveness, worry about coverage. Then there’s your own relationship to reading lists. They were formative to your own education; you share reading lists with colleagues teaching the same subjects; you compose lists of readings for yourself. The more you think about what a reading list should be, the more you’re likely to reflect on how you and your subject have shaped one another.

What goes into a reading list? Some instructors choose materials they know well and teach year after year, sometimes without change. Others look for what seems like an ideal balance between tried-and-true teachable materials and experimental engagements with new readings, those that show up on a syllabus for a single semester and then, like seasonal flowers, are replaced by the new crop of promising selections. Yet other brave souls reinvent the reading list each time the course is offered.

Time, life, students, experience, and disciplines all change, so why not the readings? Many instructors, many courses, many approaches. Most, however, are bound by a teaching vision based on a sequential engagement with printed materials. Love me (or my course), love my reading list. For many of us, the reading list is simply those things we will study and that the student must read.

Where does a reading list appear on a syllabus, and what difference might that make? You might, for example, announce at the end of the syllabus several important works that symbolically stand for the course itself. For a class on the individual and community in late modernity, you might choose Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community alongside Rebecca Solnit’s very different Wanderlust: A History of Walking.

Some syllabi double down on the reading list, indicating which of the works listed needs to be read when, the selections attached to specific weeks (Week 8: Putnam 183–215, Solnit 81–160), without necessarily requiring the entirety of any author’s text. Some teachers resist what they think of as spoon-feeding the class by breaking the readings up this way. Others see it as a means of ensuring that the material gets read.

Teaching an entire book, slicing it into sections, and attaching those sections to specific weeks permits the teacher to focus, and not coincidentally alerts the class that the teacher really does mean that you have to have read these pages. Specific reading assignments have another advantage, too: They give the teacher the opportunity to guide the students’ engagement with the author’s work, here a long section of a book about the history of walking—in the country, in the city—and what we might learn from it. Sometimes the weekly reading is determined by the teacher’s sense of how quickly students read. Sometimes it’s determined by the ideas that organize the course.

There are pluses and minuses in the week-by-week breakdown. Reading an entire book feels like it should be the gold standard, and in many ways it’s what we hope our students will want to do, devouring a text, page after page after page. That gesture reflects the mimetic model of teaching: Be like your teacher and immerse yourself. In graduate school training, which is fundamentally pre-professional, that sense of the reading list feels reasonable.

Here are the books that are central to the course. Now read them. Yet graduate students are not just older undergraduates. By graduate school, the advanced student has developed strategies for reading and patterns of making sense of what has been written in a field. Handed a list of titles, graduate students are likely to know what they are looking for and where to look for it.

Teaching undergraduates, as well as high school students, and building a reading list for them means providing a more specific set of directions: not only what to read but how to read and what to do when you get there. The readings you identify on the syllabus tell the student what to read, but you can make the announcement of those readings do a lot more.

“Next week we’re going to read Putnam and Solnit, two very different writers thinking about very different perspectives on the problem of being an individual in postindustrial society. As you read these texts, this is the question you should be thinking about.”

The first rule of reading lists is the saddest: Your student can’t read everything, and neither can you.

You then launch the question. If you get the question right, your students come to class primed for a discussion of the texts within the larger context of the semester’s work. If it’s a lecture course, their informed preparation allows you to take a deeper dive into the subject.

You might object that these are questions of pedagogy and not exactly of reading lists. But the reading list isn’t just the content that you teach. It’s also a tool you use to teach students how to read all sorts of things, including a reading list itself.

There are famous reading lists. In the humanities, one can turn to the vertigo-inducing document that the poet W. H. Auden provided for the course he taught on “Fate and the Individual in European Literature” at the University of Michigan in the fall of 1941, a year when the fate of the individual in Europe was very much in question.

Auden’s reading list gestures grandly and widely (The Divine Comedy, Horace’s Odes, Moby Dick, one drama by T. S. Eliot, four by Shakespeare, The Brothers Karamazov, and so on). Auden includes nine opera libretti, which he clearly thought of as important European literature, and adds a further list of recommended reading, in which he finally includes works by two women, both distinguished anthropologists.

Much has been made of Auden’s list. For some, it’s a bracing reminder of a time when an undergraduate would be given a mountain of treasure and expected to examine every coin and gem. The core humanities curricula at places like Columbia University and the University of Chicago keep alive the big vision of a massively ambitious undergraduate humanities education, long decried as the cemetery of dead white males and now given more dimensions by the inclusion of writing by persons not male, not white, and sometimes not even dead.

Few of us today can indulge in the vertiginous ambition of Auden’s reading project. Fewer of us would want to. The aging 21st century is a different place—technologically, pedagogically, socially, politically—than the pre-digital American Midwest during World War II. It would also be hard to conceive a course that by definition was uncompletable. Because the first rule of reading lists is the saddest: Your student can’t read everything, and neither can you.

So we choose, not only what is best and most important but what is most useful for the community your classroom works to sustain. We invest much in the selection of materials on the reading list, and not without reason: The reading list is the poster child for an approach to teaching and a perspective on a subject.

Sometimes teachers worry about the signals their reading list may give off to others: deans, other teachers, professionals in contiguous fields. In the digital age, there’s nothing private about the reading list for your course, just as there’s nothing private about your syllabus. A few keystrokes, and the document is globally accessible. It’s worth keeping in mind that the document we might intend for our students only is readable in many ways by many different kinds of readers.

A course description and a reading list say a lot not only about the subject but also about a teacher’s perspective on a field. Our reading lists are where our scholarly interests meet the discerning publics of students, colleagues, and curriculum committees.

So a reading list may look like the requirements you’ve set for your course, but it’s other things, too. A vision of a field, a set of questions, a historical window onto a discipline. A set of possible keys to possible locks. What might it mean for a student to read Rumi or Audre Lorde for the first time? Or to struggle with Kant’s idea of justice? The consequences of reading are unforeseeable, and the unforeseeability of those consequences goes to the heart of what we do as teachers.

What we choose to assign inevitably becomes evidence of a set of assumptions—yours, or maybe your department’s—about a subject. We might like a reading list because it distills and codifies. “My reading list marks out the coordinates of the subject, and with it my course can lay claim to a field of inquiry.” We might like a reading list because reading the list itself is an act of affirmation. “My reading list is a gesture, a story about a field, and a set of questions.” It should be, too.

There is always more, always something you have to leave out, always approaches and materials missing.

For some teachers, a new course’s reading list is a declaration: The problem we’re studying is real and requires our attention—new approaches to marginal tax rates, environmental changeand aquaculture in Caribbean nations, the psychological consequences of overcrowded prisons—even if there can yet be no exhaustive, defining statement on the subject. When a reading list is carefully coordinated to coursetime, it becomes not just a sequence of encounters with a subject but something more—a series of markers that lay out something like a story.

If your course has weekly readings—and every successful course has something for students to do for each class meeting—you’ll have 15 or sixteen 16 to engage your students with voices that are not your own. A reading list is polyphonic, if only we look at it that way. Shorter readings are easier to allocate: an article, this report, that white paper—something that can and should be readable in one sitting.

Anticipating what your students can consider a one-sitting reading and breaking down the weekly readings accordingly can help create the conditions for a more serious engagement with the material. Thirty pages? Fifty? Fifteen? The right number will vary from discipline to discipline, from text to text, and from course to course.

Most of us compile reading lists made up of important works—classics, things that made our minds pop, trusted old friends, new discoveries. We want so much to believe that reading lists are central to the course that we can easily forget a guiding principle: Readings are windows, not monuments. Even the most encyclopedic readings are samplers, selective engagements that—to return to our metaphor—help move forward the story your course is telling.

Because stories can’t tell everything and still be stories. They leave things out for the sake of building a narrative, offering a perspective, and engaging an audience. Anyone who has ever put together a reading list knows this: By definition the list is incomplete. There is always more, always something you have to leave out, always approaches and materials missing, just as your course itself can’t possibly cover every aspect of its subject, no matter how carefully you’ve planned it out.

A syllabus—a reading list, a course—is partial, not just in the sense of being incomplete, but in the sense of directing its audience toward a way of seeing a subject. Window, not monument, at least not here, at least not now.

Homer is a monument, but teaching Homer is about giving the student tools to read Homer: That sounds circular and paradoxical, but stop and think about what you expect a student to get from reading the first two books of The Iliad. All sorts of things about mythology and poetry, drama and human interaction, the function of the gods that humans have built for themselves, the difference that two millennia make. Homer the monument is also a window onto Homer the monument. We put a classic like The Iliad on a reading list so that the six weeks our students can spend with it will throw that window open wide and let Homer in.

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Excerpted from Syllabus: The Remarkable, Unremarkable Document That Changes Everything by William Germano and Kit Nicholls. Copyright © 2020 by William Germano and Kit Nicholls. Published by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.

William Germano and Kit Nicholls
William Germano and Kit Nicholls
William Germano is professor of English at Cooper Union. His books include Getting It Published and From Dissertation to Book. Twitter @WmGermano

Kit Nicholls is director of the Center for Writing at Cooper Union, where he teaches writing, literature, and cultural studies.





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