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Monday, August 21, 2006

Cultural literacy

I got into an interesting discussion with some friends over the weekend.

There are always those folks (such as Howard Bloom) who insist that in order to be culturally literate you have to have read all the books on a particular list.We determined that the relevance of cultural literacy is much more narrow than that. Cultural literacy is most relevant in the circles where you interact. Among friends, what provides the common language and common culture?

So we set out to try to come up with a list (or at least a few titles) of the books that all of us had read cover to cover. It was an amusing exercise and there were definitely books that would be irrelevant to people outside our cultural subgroup while others are probably pretty common.

For us, the list included:

Most of us had read The Canterbury Tales but two of us couldn't sworn we'd read it cover to cover, though we knew we'd read most of it. We couldn't claim the complete works of William Shakespeare, but all of us had read all the tragedies, romances, comedies, and sonnets. Some of us hadn't read all of the histories yet.

Then, of course, there were a lot of books where all but one of us had read it. There were also a couple of divisions that went along gender or age lines. Likewise, most couples had a far longer common reading list than those they shared with the rest in the group. Regionalisms didn't seem to matter a whole lot, though most of us in the group were from the upper Midwest.

What about you? Think about your group of friends. Do you think there are books that all of you have read? What happens when you take out books read in school? Are there books that are in your circle that are probably uncommon elsewhere?


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