Photo by Muffy Aldrich
The Modern Guide to The Thing Before Preppy

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Classic Prep School Books

Growing up, one might - when meeting new people at social events - compare books as a way of finding common ground. Most of said texts, of course, could be drawn from a fairly finite pool of assigned reading, including examples below.

An appeal of certain communities is a predictable set of valued behaviors.  One may, however, ask if being fluent with numerous samples from a classic canon remains useful in the modern world.

Classic prep school books include:
  • The Deptford Trilogy and The Cornish Trilogy by Robertson Davies 
  • Peter the Great by Robert Massie
  • Our Vanishing Landscape and anything else by Eric Sloane
  • The Silver Horn by Gordon Grand
  • Walden by Henry David Thoreau
  • The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells
  • Virgil's Aeneid. 
  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  • The Red and the Black by Stendhal (Marie-Henri Beyle )
  • Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham
  • Complete the Louisa May Alcott series by reading the additional books Little Men, Jo's Boys, etc. and as an antithesis, look up The Little Colonel series. 
  • Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead
  • The "Little House" series of books by Laura Ingalls Wilder
  • Misty of Chincoteague
  • Everything by Jane Austen
  • Everything by O Henry, 
  • Everything by Edgar Allen Poe ( who dropped out of UVA and still experienced literary success) 
  • Everything by The Bronte sisters. 
  • On the Beach by Nevil Shute
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith 
  • A Separate Peace by John Knowles
  • The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden
  • Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh 
  • A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr
  • Anything by Agatha Christie 
  • Anything by P.D. James
  • Anything by Barbara Vine
  • The Rector of Justin by Louis Auchincloss
  • The Man in "The Gray Flannel Suit", by Sloan Wilson
  • John Irving's The World According to Garp
  • The Class by Eric Segal.
  • P. G. Wodehouse books are classic brit humor; especially the Jeeves and Blandings series.
  • The Mandelbaum translation of Ovid's Metamorphosis
  • Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose
  • Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
  • Everything by Robert Frost.  And stop at Robert's grave in the Old Bennington Cemetary when in the vicinity.
  • Anything by Edgar Allan Poe
  • The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry. In French.
  • Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
  • Anything by Auchincloss
  • Anything by F. Scott Fitzgeral
  • Novels by Louis Auchincloss
  • The works of Henry James.
  • Anything by John McPhee
  • Anything by William Faulkner
Classic short stories include:
  • The Interlopers by Saki (H.H. Munro)
  • The Necklace by Guy de Maupassant
  • August Heat by William Fryer Harvey
  • The Ant and the Grasshopper by W Somerset Maugham
  • Unreasonable Doubt by Stanley Elli
  • Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
  • The Monkey’s Paw by W. W. Jacobs
  • The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell
  • Leiningen Versus the Ants by Carl Stephenson 
  • Rikki-Tikki-Tavi by Rudyard Kipling
  • The Cremation of Sam Magee by Robert W. Service
  • Shooting An Elephant by George Orwell
  • The Lottery by Shirley Jackson
  • So Much Unfairness of Things by C. D. B. Bryan, 
  • Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway


  1. Thank you Muffy. Great post and much more exhaustive than the list in the OPH. GLH

  2. Excellent list. Prep schools of the Left Coast would add John Steinbeck. We also read the plays of Henrik Ibsen, a favorite of our English department.

  3. I am in a classic lit book club and we've read many of these books, but I can't wait to share this list with them!

  4. But to answer the question - is being fluent with numerous samples from a classic canon still useful in the modern world? That's a tough one. It thrills me when someone references a classic, but I realize more and more that the general public is not at all familiar with many classics so . . . . I'm sure other readers will have better answers and opinions. I just find it sad that I live in a county of more than 1 million people and we have only 8 people in our classic lit book club.

  5. I went to a "prep school" (although we called it private school) in NYC. We did had some from this list in our curriculum. Three short stories we read that made a big impact on me that are not on your list:

    "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been" Joyce Carol Oates

    "A&P" John Updike

    "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" Flannery O'Connor

  6. Oh! And to answer your question, for me, reading these classics is useful in a modern world. Good writing always has utility if such usefulness is to include becoming more appreciative and observant of nuance, emotion, and the details in daily living. It's no different than appreciating good art.

  7. Mark Twain supposedly defined a classic as something everyone wants to have read but which nobody wants to read.

    1. That statement sums up my having to read Silas Marner in grade school.

  8. Always made my AP Government class read " The Prince" by Machiavelli...

  9. My summer English reading list, the summer before I entered, included reading in existentialism (The Stranger by Camus, and No Exit, by Sartre); I also remember reading The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers.

    And WHERE is James Thurber?

  10. I just remembered that in my junior year, my creative writing teacher was Robert Frost's editor. Great teacher.

  11. Reading these classic books, and others that fit this mold, provides perspective, world view, exposure to great writing and use of literary devices, access to personal experiences of history and culture. Also, thinking, attention, focusing and self discipline skills are required. If not possessed,these may be developed. So- my answer is yes, so relevant, and more necessary than ever. I am not an English teacher, just a book lover.

  12. I read both THE FOUNTAINHEAD & ATLAS SHRUGGED in my teens and re-read them every 2-3 years or so. I also read everything written by Eric Segal and by Scott Fitzgerald. Great list Muffy and I agree, more extensive than Lisa Birnbach's Official Preppy Handbook.

    I remember reading THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP while at Navy Officer's Candidate School in Newport, RI in 1982.

    1. THE FOUNTAINHEAD and ATLAS SHRUGGED are two books perfectly aimed at the 10th grade education-level adolescent male conservative. So nice that you're still getting so much out of them all these years later.

  13. There are classic lit book clubs? Why did I not know this? Will start looking for one. Read many of the books on the list but would like to read the rest.

    1. We created our own. We put it on MeetUp to attract members and now we are private. I look forward to it each month. We have interesting - and sometimes - passionate discussions. I have learned that, even though I may go into the meeting not liking a particular book, by the time I have heard everyone's point of view, I usually come away with an appreciation of it. It's a real treat to be involved.

  14. I hope many of these books are included in today's curricula. I read many of the classic Classics in the original Latin and Greek; my children read same in translation since classical languages were elective. Their reading lists had a more international flavor to them, which I think is good. Whether prep or not, a core set of literature for all schools would be excellent - common points of reference. We look at sports that way, wish we had more in the way of literature and the arts. When Comey made his "meddlesome priest" quote and the TV presenters had to explain, my heart sank. Not going to get on my soap box about education, but I made sure my children read their required, as well as recommended reading lists every school year, otherwise I would not have been able to talk to them and they would not have understood me!

  15. Given the current direction of private liberal arts education,
    "Rules For Radicals" Saul Alinsky is a must for every Ivy League hopeful.
    After all a young mind is a terrible thing to waste.
    Doubtful that anything from WFB Jr. will ever find a list.

    1. Sad that a proper private liberal arts education—or, really, proper education in general—is considered "radical" in any way. WFB Jr. would be as appalled by that development as any liberal.

  16. I have always enjoyed reading literary classics, both novels and short stories. This is a pretty comprehensive list. I've read many of them, all of Fitzgerald most of Hemmingway. How about Cheever's "The Swimmer"? Lord of the Flies, The Invisible Man, Slaughter House Five, Henderson the Rain King, The Glass Menagerie, The Things They Carried, Trifles and A Dolls House are some of my favorites. I love conversations about classic literature.

  17. This is a very good comprehensive list. I find it sad (if not appalling) to hear that in many public schools, the entire novel is no longer read. With reduced attention spans and a curriculum loaded with , let's just say, "other things", only excerpts of classic pieces are read and discussed.

  18. Is this shot inside the Blackstone Library? Anyway, nice list.

  19. I hate to sound so cynical but this list is populated by too many dead white males to pass muster in today's academy. And if it doesn't have a social justice angle it may as well not exist.

    That said, personally I like your list and it does seem to reflect a core sensibility or set of valued behaviors as you call them. The inclusion of Davies and Stegner especially pleases me, although I agree that Cheever must be added (the first paragraph of "The Housebreaker of Shady Hill" is practically a WASP manifesto).

  20. Uh, Shakespeare anyone?

  21. When I retire, I intend to read the entire 51 volume Harvard Universal Classics" anthology of classic works from world literature, compiled and edited by Harvard University president Charles W. Eliot and first published in 1909

  22. Not a book, but one of my favorite scenes from Gilmore Girls; prep school bonding:

  23. That's a nice list of the things I was supposed to read, but didn't instead opting to read cliff notes and worry about latin or chemistry homework.

  24. Agree on Cheever being included. He was actually a very dark writer in many ways, probably reflective of his interior life. I would add the following:

    The poetry of Wallace Stevens and WB Yeats
    Anything from GK Chesterton
    A lot of Flannery O'Connor
    Dostoevsky - The Brothers Karamazov (highly recommended)
    Heller - Catch 22
    Some of the works of Thomas Pynchon
    George Elliot - Middlemarch
    Everything by Evelyn Waugh

    I'm sure there are more that I am forgetting...

  25. Very good-I’ve read some of these but have some work to do!


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