What is the quickest and most efficient way to become well-rounded in knowledge of literature of both new and old?
I would like to contribute a few quotes from famous men to supplement what I wrote in my Post #3.
No profit grows where is no pleasure taken;
In brief, sir, study what you most affect.
Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew, 1.1.39
(By "affect" Shakespeare means what you most like.)
A man ought to read just as inclination leads him, for what he reads as a task will do him little good. --Dr. Samuel Johnson
The book which you read from a sense of duty, or because for any reason you must, does not commonly make friends with you.
William Dean Howells
Bodily exercise, when compulsory, does no harm to the body; but knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind. -- Plato
Underscoring the statement of post #4 that taste is acquired, a reader must, indeed, be exposed to the classics and various authors first. Then, after reading one work by a quality author, so often a reader turns to others.
Often, too, it is necessary to read several works by certain authors before the reader truly comprehends the messages and style of these authors. (e.g. William Faulkner). Amazingly, sometimes it is later on that one reaches this understanding, perhaps even when reading another work by a different author. Suddenly, something clicks and comparisons, etc. are made that lead to understanding.
One way in which a student can expand his/her knowledge and understanding of literature, in addition to reading copiously, is to read criticisms of literary works. Such reference works as Contemporary Literary Criticism are, indeed, helpful.
There are several lists out there of the most important books to read. While the lists might be questionable, it's a start. When I graduated from high school I spent the summer before college working my way through such a list. It was a very educational and rewarding experience.
Here is one such list:
I chose this one because it seems pretty varied and well-rounded.
Here's a list of books to read before college:
There's no substitute for doing the reading. If you really like literature, then this will be the fun part. You should make a conscious effort to read all kinds of things, even things you don't think you'll like. It's also worthwhile to get other people's opinions about books, sometimes they can give you a new way of looking at things.
Read things from different time periods and different countries. Most well-known works will be translated into English. If you read from the same time period and the same place you won't be "well-rounded."
I agree with the statements made in the above posts. Becoming well-versed in literature takes time...and there are many ways to do it; many attitudes you can adopt that will lead you into and through the world of literature.
If you'd like to increase your familiarity with texts before you have the chance to read them all, you may be helped if you read literary criticism. There are many works of criticism out there which comment on literature, old and new, and offer context for the work as well as description and analysis of the literature.
My most comprehensive study of authors and works of literature came when I was studying for the English Praxis test! I had a degree in literature for a few years and went back to school to teach and take that test. I bought colored 3 X 5 cards and divided the authors and works up by period (or chronology, really). White cards were for the Greeks, Pink cards were for the middle-ages, blue cards were for the Romantics, Green cards were for Victorian writers and so on and so forth. I wrote the author's last name on the top left-hand corner, then first name. Below that, I listed a few of the author's most popular works. On the right-hand side, I wrote down famous quotes or characters from those works that might have been referred to on the test. I didn't read all of the works, but I knew about them from classes and had read excerpts. I studied the cards when I had time and eventually had the basics to take a major literary test; but, I don't think that would have helped hat much if I hadn't had the degree in literature first.
Taste is learned. You may not enjoy your first few pages of Faulkner or first few hundred pages of Dostoyevsky, or material that you find alien or unsettling. But reading it, you develop your skills as a reader and intellectual range and gradually expand the limits of what you like. I think the questioner's attitude is right -- just read and absorb, and even when you may not enjoy the process of reading a given book, you can take pleasure in how knowledge of that work connects to other things you read.
Just as the person who deliberately explores a variety of cuisines and food groups will have a more well-rounded and healthier diet than one who just stays in a comfort zone, so too in literature the more you read and learn to understand works you may find difficult or unappealing initially, the more skilled and well-rounded a reader you become -- and the more you come to enjoy a wide range of works.
I believe it is a mistake for a young person to try to absorb too much too soon. If you enjoy reading you ought to continue reading what you like and not get involved with a lot of books that are supposed to be great but may not appeal to you at the present time. If you like a particular author and have enough free time for extracurricular reading, then you ought to continue reading that author--Hemingway, Faulkner, or whoever--until you are saturated and then move on to someone else. Your tastes will inevitably change with increasing age, and you shouldn't force yourself to try to like and understand books before you are ready for them. Of course, you will be introduced to many writers in your college career, and these you will have to deal with whether you like them or not. But when you do your extracurricular reading you should please yourself. There is no quick and easy way to acquire a well-rounded knowledge of world literature, but you shouldn't be in any hurry. You have a whole lifetime in which to enjoy books, and enjoyment of literature is vastly more important than having a reputation for being "well-rounded," whatever that means. Read what you like to read.
As this involves reading thousands of books, it will not really be quick -- it's more of a beginning to lifelong learning. There are ways to make it efficient, though. The main one is to move chronologically, because as later books reference earlier ones, it will be easier to understand, for example, the Renaissance, if you have already covered classical and Biblical backgrounds.
Many projects such as the Harvard Classics or the Great Books of the Western World collect together many important works and can be purchased inexpensively on line (bookfinder.com is a good search engine for this).
Another useful tactic is audio books. You can download many literary works in audio form to your MP3 player and listen to them while driving, working out, or doing errands.