The Book List: Are these the titles you need to read to get into a top university?

Every Wednesday, Alex Johnson delves into a unique collection of works

Alex Johnson
Tuesday 08 May 2018 22:23
Harvard students might be poring over tomes that you’ve neglected
Harvard students might be poring over tomes that you’ve neglected

The Elements of Style by William Strunk
The Republic by Plato
The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx
Biology by Neil Campbell
Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Ethics by Aristotle
Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes
The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli
Oedipus by Sophocles
Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Revolutionary revelations: Karl Marx regularly pops up on syllabuses across the globe

If you like lists of books, there is no finer way of losing hours of your life to the internet than by heading towards the Open Syllabus Project at This enormous undertaking aims to bring together in one database all college and university syllabuses in the USA, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. At the moment it holds about 1.1 million, mostly from the last 15 years. Overall, it provides an intriguing picture of which books are moulding our students’ thoughts and lives. Or as The Washington Post puts it, “What Ivy League students are reading that you aren’t”. The top 10 most-assigned titles are listed above. One of the beauties of the site is that there are various filters you can put in place to drill down. So using “History” + “United Kingdom” results in:

Orientalism by Edward Said
What is History? by EH Carr
The End of the British Empire: The Historical Debate by John Darwin
In Defence of History by Richard Evans
The Making of the English Working Class by EP Thompson
The Pursuit of History by John Tosh
The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx
Hope and Glory: Britain, 1900-2000
British Imperialism, 1688-2000
History in Practice by LJ Jordanova

And here’s what “English” + “Mississippi” looks like:

The Open Boat by Stephen Crane
The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock by TS Eliot
Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
Deliverance by James Dickey
A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
The Awakening by Kate Chopin
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
Gimpel the Fool by Isaac Bashevis Singer

‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ is perhaps a surprise addition to academic study 

In general, writing guides such as The Elements of Style and textbooks (eg Biology by Neil Campbell) do well in many lists. So does, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, The Communist Manifesto, the result of it being included in numerous disciplines including history, sociology and politics. It also throws up some unusual results. If you try “English” + “University of Oxford”, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s String Quartet number 14 in G Major K387 comes in at an impressive number seven.

There are also other ways the data can be analysed. The Open Syllabus team point to Time magazine’s mistake in adding Evelyn Waugh to its list of the “100 Most-Read Female Writers in College Classes” as perhaps the result of the author of Decline and Fall being “one of the losers in literature canon change, and that as a result very few people under 40 have read him or, accordingly, been corrected on his gender during college”.

Mary Wollstonecraft lands a spot on Time’s ‘Most-read female writers in college classes’ roundup

Incidentally, the top 10 on Time’s list were (most-read first):

Kate L Turabian
Diana Hacker
Toni Morrison
Jane Austen
Virginia Woolf
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Elaine Nicpon Marieb
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Mary Wollstonecraft
George Eliot

Ideas specialists have put together a slightly more anecdotal list of which classic books are assigned to students in countries around the world, in the way that Lord of the Flies is read in the UK or To Kill a Mockingbird in the USA. This includes:

Albania – Kronikë në gur (Chronicle in Stone) by Ismail Kadare
Bosnia; Serbia – Na drini ćuprija (The Bridge on the Drina) by Ivo Andrić
Brazil – Morte e vida Severina (The Death of a Severino) by João Cabral de Melo Neto
Finland – Seitsemän veljestä (Seven Brothers) by Aleksis Kiv
Italy – I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed) by Alessandro Manzoni
Philippines – Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not) by Jose Rizal
Vietnam – Truyên Kiêu (The Tale of Kiêu) by Nguyễn Du

‘A Book of Book Lists’ by Alex Johnson, £7.99, British Library Publishing

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