Literary Essentials for Cocktail Parties, a Syllabus

Recently, a dear friend reached out to me asking for recommendations of “classics.” She reads a lot but primarily contemporary works and felt like she missed the boat on a lot of those “big” books that people “should” read. Because I love both making lists and being a busy body, I offered to create a syllabus for her. I asked what her primary goals were and she responded with a desire to get the jokes and references that come up around literature. Ahhh, I thought, She wants the cocktail party knowledge, a.k.a., the stuff that comes up in casual conversation over which erudite people laugh and wink and and knowingly swirl their drinks. So I did a bit of crowd-sourcing with my fellow English PhDs and then unabashedly baked in my own knowledge and biases. The result is the Cocktail Party Literature Essentials syllabus below.

A few caveats:

  • If you want to go really foundational, a friend shared the list for the Great Books program at St. John’s college, which covers a lot of pre-Renaissance stuff, plus philosophies, that I did not include.
  • It is a truth universally acknowledged that the literary canon is bullshit. And yet it is a catch-22 in that there are books that are taught and discussed and referenced back to and rebutted by other works and this list reflects this fact for good and for ill. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
  • I agonized over whether to do the truly #basic move of organizing chronologically and by British, American, and other nationalities. Again, c’est la vie.
  • Starred * items = the short list
  • Last, I could not resist adding some snarky commentary on several items. Consider yourself warned. Here there be dragons.
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels

Cocktail Party Literature Essentials – A Syllabus

English Renaissance

  • *William Shakespeare: Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth
    • This selection led to the following doctor-friends exchange:
      • Friend #1: Lear! I really think Lear, Hamlet, and Macbeth are the tragedy trinity (Tragic trinity? Trinity of Tragedy?) I don’t even like Lear all that much… but it’s so heavily quoted, the core structure is reused over and over in popular literature… definitely cocktail party fodder!That being said, if someone doesn’t want to read it, no argument from me.
      • Me: I put it on… and then took it off and added in ‘Macbeth’ only because I like it better.
      • Friend #2: Lear + Macbeth ftw. Ham-who-now?
      • Me:

British Regency and Romanticism

  • *Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
    • I’d rather recommend Persuasion because it’s my favorite but P&P definitely gets referenced the most plus, with all respect, it’s probably the funniest and best of Austen’s books. Austen is a great innovator of the novel but she does not really fit into any trends or schools other than the rise of the novel as the form of modernity (i.e., the rise of capitalism and the middle class, colonialism and slavery, fall of the monarchy, industrial revolution, scienticism, etc.)
  • Romanticism
    • William Wordsworth, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” and “Tintern Abbey”
    • Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ozymandias” and “Mont Blanc”
    • John Keats, “Bright Star” and “Ode to a Nightingale”
    • Frankenstein, Mary Shelley

Note: If interested in poetry at all, these are important poets. Byron is the one I left off because he’s both douchey and boring. Frankenstein is actually a really good book but your cocktail-party contributions will mostly be, “Actually, Frankenstein is the doctor, not the monster, which the book actually calls the Creature.” That said, it’s important early science fiction and horror, and the story of its inspiration and creation is itself legendary


  • *Charlotte Brönte, Jane Eyre.
    • Strong recommendation: Pair J.E. with *Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, with Rhys doing a feminist, post-colonial, post-modernist critique of J.E. Another pairing along the same lines would be Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and Things Fall Apart and “The Trouble with Heart of Darkness” by Chinua Achebe
  • Emily Brönte, Wuthering Heights
    • Most people would * this one. It’s important but I don’t care for it much. I’ve heard people say good things about Anne’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall but it’s not read as much as “Wuthering” and “Jane” by a mile so I left it off.

19th Century American

  • *Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter.
  • *Some Emily Dickinson poetry.
  • *Walt Whitman, Excerpts from Song of Myself
    • Honestly, I’d skip the rest of this. Emerson and Melville are the other big players.

Turn of the Century/Early 20th Century America

  • Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth
  • Henry James, Portrait of a Lady
    • Note: I loathe Henry James, and this book, so I’d say you could skip him but he’s big.
  • W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

British Modernism

  • *Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
    • Could also make a case for To the Lighthouse but “Dalloway” is what people know the best.
  • *James Joyce, “The Dead”
    • This is the final story in Joyce’s collection Dubliners and a nice snapshot of what Joyce can do, including his “negative epiphany” device and a sampler of early Joycian stream-of-consciousness style. However, if you really want to know Joyce, Ulysses is his most important book (but it’s long). Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is much shorter, still good, and has his stream-of-consciousness style.
  • *T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land (poem).
    • Eliot was born American but made his life in England, which means that both countries claim him so I got to read him in every poetry class regardless of national organization.

American modernism

  • T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land (natch)
  • *F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
  • *Ernest Hemingway, In Our Time, The Sun Also Rises, or A Farewell to Arms.
    • The first is the young Hemingway, figuring out what he’s doing. It’s short stories and a short volume. “Sun” is his quintessential “Lost Generation” book and “Farewell” is probably his best known book aside from The Old Man and the Sea, which is boring but also short. For Whom the Bell Tolls is also much beloved. But truly, one Hemingway is enough to get the flavor and point. You could also just read selected stories: “A Clean, Well Lighted Place,” “Hills Like White Elephants,” and “The Big Two-Hearted River.” 
  • Willa Cather, My Ántonia
    • This is her most famous and widely-read book. I could also make cases for The Professor’s House (hand’s down, one of my favorite books ever) and Death Comes for the Archbishop.
  • *Langston Hughes, “Let America be America Again” and “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”
  • *Nella Larson, Passing
  • Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
  • William Faulkner is the other elephant in the room here. If you want just a taste, go to the short story “A Rose for Emily.” For fiction, either The Sound and the Fury or Absalom, Absalom. He’s important as a writer but was also a bastard-coated bastard.

Mid-Later 20th Century American

  • Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House
    • Her short story, “The Lottery,” also gets the Jacksonian flavor but nothing compares to HHH.
  • Flannery O’Connor, “The Revelation,” “Parker’s Back,” “Good Country People.”
  • *Toni Morrison, Beloved or Song of Solomon 
  • *Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony
  • Allan Ginsburg, *“Howl” and “The Sunflower”
    • Beat movement without needing to read Jack Kerouac, plus Ginsburg was a lovely human and “Howl” is an important poem.
  • Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five (Also Breakfast of Champions and Mothernight)

Sidenote: Can you tell I’m a 20th century, primarily Americanist. lolz

Later 20th Century British

  • Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot
  • Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
    • Fun to pair with Hamlet
  • Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go

Other Nationalities/Literature in Translation

  • *Marcel Proust, “Swann’s Way,” from In Search of Lost Time
    • This first volume of the opus has the famous “madeleine” scene that epitomizes Proustian style and is the only thing that 98% of people know about.
  • *Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
    • Find a recent translation for sure.
  • Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov or Crime and Punishment
  • Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis or Amerika.
    • Kafka also has some great short fiction if you want more of a tasting menu, such as “The Hunger Artist” or “In the Penal Colony.”
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude or Love in the Time of Cholera
  • Jorge Luis Borges
  • Haruki Murakami

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