About once a term I make a point of haranguing my students about the books they should have under their belt if they are serious about being English students. This lecture (rant) is one of several that tend to surface in my normal rotation, the others being (1) You all should read more history; (2) You all should read more, period; and (3) What the hell do you mean none of you have seen Casablanca? Seriously? (for this last category, substitute any classic film I mention in passing in class that elicits blank looks of incomprehension).
Unlike these three curmudgeonly rants however, the books-you-should-read-to-major-in-English riff is one I do in the hopes that it might actually sink in with some people. Six books, I say—there are six books you should read if you want to understand the vast majority of the allusions in English literature written before 1950. They are as follows:
Homer, The lliad and The Odyssey
Virgil, The Aeneid
Dante, The Divine Comedy
I sometimes get the sense that some of my senior colleagues see me as a theory-obsessed postmodernist—which, to a certain extent, is true enough; I'm also someone whose own research bleeds over into media, film and television, and popular culture. But when it comes down to it, I'm also a pretty hardcore traditionalist when it comes to teaching the canon and what I think students in English should be given as background. I'd quite cheerfully have a course teaching these six books as a requirement for our English degree if it was feasible to do so (I'd quite cheerfully teach that course too, when it comes down to it).
At any rate, I often feel as though my exhortations are falling on deaf ears, so it is quite gratifying to hear from a student—as I did this morning—that my suggestion was taken seriously. Chatting with a student as a walked from class to my office, I learned that he was knee-deep in Dante's Inferno—and enjoying it! Wonders never cease.