Books (and movies and plays) you should be familiar with in order to converse well in modern society

Earlier today I was watching an episode of CSI Vegas where some folks had impersonated FBI agents, to the point of carrying on an investigation, getting some people shot, and eventually leading the real police to the kingpin.

In the final scene, when the cop was talking with the last fake FBI dude, it was clear that the line between fantasy and reality had been blurred and he was going to spend his days in a mental institution.

On parting, the cop gave him a gift: a copy of Don Quixote of La Mancha.

Now, two months ago, I wouldn’t have understood what this meant.
Last month, however, I saw a production of The Man of La Mancha, so the reference was crystal clear. In fact, the simple showing of the book cover communicated to me an intense understanding of the emotions in play.

It is not the first time I have heard a reference to Don Quixote, but it is the first time I really understood the depth of the reference.

If I were compiling a list of books and such that everyone should read in order to best interpret references, it would include works like Tom Sawyer, 1984, and Dr. Strangelove. Each of these can be easily worked into a conversation and the listener would understand a huge amount of what the speaker was getting at.

What others do you think should go on this list?

Most of Shakespeare, but especially Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Othello, Richard III, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Julius Caesar.

The Bluffer’s Guide, Bluff Your Way in Art, Literature, Cinema, Music, Opera, Wine, by David Frost.

The original. Much imitated since.

Gilbert and Sullivan. Not all of their output, but at least **The Mikado **and The Pirates of Penzance.

The Usual Suspects.

I actually just saw a reference to it in the TV show Burn Notice. “The devil has a name…and it is Chuck Finley.”

You could do worse than to watch your way through one of those godawful Oscar-iffic “100 Year 100 Whatever” lists. You need On the Waterfront, Citizen Kane, Chinatown, Gone With the Wind, etc.

A good Biblical grounding is a must, though, if you have to pick one thing to know for cultural literacy. The Bible and Shakespeare.

Ah yes. Faust.

Where others might say “a deal with the devil” I prefer “a Faustian deal”
Never read it, but I did read a few summaries online, enough to get the gist.

Star Wars. I was friends with a girl once who had never seen the original trilogy. It broke my heart. And then I forced her to watch it with me.

The Bible. Everyone seems to overestimate their familiarity with it, to the point where a huge number of people attribute pretty much anything that sounds “wise” to it, even if the phrase/verse actually comes from somewhere like Shakespeare’s plays.

Mark Twain. At least Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

Steinbeck- Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, Sweet Thursday.


If reading the Bible itself seems tiresome, try Isaac Asimovs Guide to the Bible.

  1. (Not really a good read but important for cultural literacy)

Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe- book.

I, Claudius.

Also in film-


A Christmas Carol in film or book.

Duck Soup.

At least one 3 Stooges short.

The Godfather.

It’s a Wonderful Life.

King Kong

Monty Python and the holy Grail

7 Samurai

Wizard of Oz.

Let us take care not to list favorites or even well-written or well done stuff. What we need here are things that are critical to cultural literacy, books and films that other books and films (and esp Bugs Bunny cartoons:p) play off of.

You’re going to need some non-fiction in there too. I suggest
Ever Since Darwin - or better yet, a collection of Stephen Jay Gould’s essays dealing with evolutionary theory.
Manufacturing Consent - Chomsky
The art of War - Lao Tzu
The Kama Sutra - Mallanāga Vātsyāyana.
Guns Germs and Steel - Jared Diamond
Kant and the Platypus - Umberto Eco

and a few more I can’t think of right now.

Doesn’t it depend largely on the cultural background of the people you are talking to, their education, interests and your intention in starting or joining a conversation?

First time I was in Barcelona, we went with local friends to a party filled with people from publishing houses, their authors, well, you know the crowd.

You can talk with them about American or English literature, movies, plays or music endlessly, of course, but that’s just disrespectful when you can also converse about the creations of one of the richest and oldest and most vivid arts communities in the world. They, otoh, tried their best to refer to the German arts and point to its influences on the work of any Spanish or Catalan author I was talking about – and, not surprisingly, they knew far more about the subject than I did. Learned a lot and got a guide who showed me Pepe Carvalho’s Barcelona the next day.

I think you look painfully ignorant when you do not at least show some interest in the works of art of the society you are presently in. And to stir the conversation in a direction that highlights your own culture’s creations is as ignorant as arrogant – unless it fits the occasion.

When you are at a party with people from around the world, chances are, you are too clueless to talk about their arts but it’s not polite to assume the lowest common denominator is American or European arts production, you might strike a nerve; doing so unwittingly just makes you look stupid.

I have a friend who is woefully underexposed as far as old books and movies- she says her policy was always “if it’s not animated, I don’t like it.” So I’ve been trying to educate her some

Things I want her to read or see (some of which she still refuses):
Wizard of Oz
Peter Pan
Alice in Wonderland
Charlotte’s Web
Sound of Music
Mary Poppins
Lord of the Flies
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Gone With the Wind

I also think everyone should see Monty Python & the Holy Grail and The Princess Bride. And maybe even Austin Powers because I know a lot of people quote from that.

Good stuff!

Just to clarify a bit, I’m not looking for “stuff everyone should know to be well rounded”

Rather, I’m looking for stuff that might easily come up in a conversation that is not about the work.

For example, Rigamarole might easily say “Use the force, Luke” in a conversation with his friend and she should (now) understand the point.

I think that a good starting point in another culture would be to check out what children read in school.

Some years ago I asked this exact question to a guy working in a Brazilian bookstore in Rio. He gave me a broad selection. For example, for classic literature, he handed me some books by Machado de Assis, and for modern lit, Cidade de Deus (City of God).

It’s pretty humbling trying to slog through proper literature in another language. You think you speak the language fluently, and then you struggle with a book that a middle school kid would read effortlessly (if reluctantly).

Huh. I wonder where you’re from. I’ve never read any of these, and only heard of two of these books and two other authors from this list, and yet I think I have no trouble conversing quite well and knowledgeably in any conversation I have in the US, with natives and visiting foreigners that I encounter in my work. I’ve worked in marine architecture and aerospace design for 31 years, so that’s a lot of people, and only the Kama Sutra ot The Art of War has ever been casually referenced or alluded to in my experience.

Yeah, that should cover the basics.

But if you ever talk to Germans, there is a good chance, they will find it odd, when you try to engage them in a conversation about the classics or other school stuff (which they will quite probably not know as well as you do anyway). And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because what we call Gegenwartskultur, which includes contemporary art, politics and science as well as the present attitude towards life, the universe, everything, is overwhelmingly alive.

Wherever I go, I try to learn the contemporary stuff in advance and that can be spotted, to a certain degree, on the web sites of the leading domestic news sources and e-zines, high- and, more so, middlebrow.

Beyond that, I think you need to know who you will be dealing with to avoid sounding smug or illiterate.

I know that feeling :o. I thought, my Portuguese couldn’t be that bad, it was. And actually speaking … oh well, in no time, I was tempted to downgrade from “Eu falo só um pouco de português” to “Desculpa, eu não falo português”.

Well, I might have misinterpreted the question. But when I read:

Books (and movies and plays) you should be familiar with in order to converse well in modern society

I thought of a list that included some basic texts of currently topical subjects.

I agreed with a lot of the works previous posters had listed, but thought also that some non-fiction works would be useful (in retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have listed the Kama Sutra).

Now the poster has stated "Just to clarify a bit, I’m not looking for “stuff everyone should know to be well rounded”, OK, that’s where I misunderstood the question perhaps. Although I still think that a lot of the sorts of questions that come up over dinner with friends are best discussed after having first read the basics, and that’s why I listed the books I did. As to your question I’m from Australia originally, although that itself might not be illuminating.

Sorry to sidetrack. Back to the thread, as I now understand it…, to quote, “stuff that might easily come up in a conversation that is not about the work”.

Well all I can say is, the Bible and Shakespeare as others have said. Other than that, it depends on what circles you run with I guess.

Nice books, but hardly required for cultural literacy. :smiley:

With the Kama Sutra and The Art of War, one needs only be familiar with them, the “Clif’s notes” version of each is fine- which also applies to such dense and nigh unreadable classics such as James Joyce and Ayn Rand…maybe even Kafka.

However, Guns Germs and Steel is a good choice here, I think.

Depends on what “well” means, but conversation in modern society refers to the Simpsons and Star Wars far more than say, Tolkien.

You could live a full, happy life with the occasional “tilting at windmills” and Jonah’s whale references going over your head, but if you don’t know what The Empire or who Mr. Burns are, you’re going to get frustrated after a while.

I can’t believe no one mentioned Pulp Fiction. The phrase “I’m gonna get medieval on your ass” is used to death in conversations, tv shows and movies. Lots of other lines and scenes from the movie are frequently quoted are alluded to frequently.