The Culture Gabfest Bucket List: Books you’ve got to read.

The Culture Gabfest Bucket List: Books You’ve Got to Read

The Culture Gabfest Bucket List: Books You’ve Got to Read

Slate's weekly roundtable.
March 5 2014 2:28 PM

The Ultimate Culture Gabfest Reading List

A “bucket list” of books that will make you a smarter culture hound.

Slate’s Culture Gabfest podcast is sponsored by Audible, the Internet’s leading provider of spoken audio entertainment. This spring, Dana, Steve, and Julia are assembling the ultimate culture reading list—books that you’ve got to encounter if you are serious about understanding books, TV, film, poetry, and what makes great things great.

These books are all available on Audible, which has a special deal for Slate listeners: Get a free audiobook from Audible’s collection of more than 150,000 titles and a subscription to a daily audio digest when you sign up for a 30-day free trial at

The Slate Culture Gabfest’s Audible Bucket List



Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell, read by Jeremy Northam. Recommended by Steve (listen at 26:39). George Orwell’s account of fighting in the Spanish Civil War convinced Steve that great written works could be non-fictional. It’s quite possibly the greatest non-fiction book ever written.


John Donne's Poems, read by Christopher Hassall. Recommended by Julia (listen at 15:12). Every John Donne poem is a faceted gem. His aptly chosen words, brimming with compressed meaning, will make you a poetry-convert.


Moby Dick by Herman Melville, read by Anthony Heald. Recommended by Dana (listen at 14:00). Anthony Heald seems to understand every nuance of Melville’s language. Dana may complete her decadelong attempt to finish Moby Dick with his aid.


The Confessions of St. Augustine read by Simon Vance. Recommended by Dana (listen at 13:11). St. Augustine’s “memoir” (if the fourth century had memoirs) feels remarkably modern. Scintillating and timeless, it convinced a young Dana to major in Medieval studies.



The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, read by Robin Field. Recommended by John Swansburg (listen at 15:54). Dear to John’s heart, this autobiography recounts Franklin’s rise from son of a candlemaker to Founding Father.


The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty, read by multiple narrators. Recommended by Steve (listen at 33:03). He’s a particular fan of Welty’s “No Place for You, My Love,” which will have you swooning. Take refuge on the nearest fainting couch!


Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain, read by Michael Prichard. Recommended by Steve (listen at 26:29). This portrait of life on the Mississippi and the genesis of Mark Twain is so essential—and none of the gabbers has read it. A testament to the fact that everyone’s got more reading to do.


Homer's Odyssey, translated by Robert Fitzgerald, read by Dan Stevens. Recommended by Julia (listen at 11:14). While some prefer Robert Fagles' translation (shown at left), Julia stands by Fitzgerald's, a forthcoming version of which will let you take part in Homer's oral tradition by having Downton Abbey star Dan Stevens read you this classic of all classics.



The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, read by Barbara Caruso. Recommended by Dana (listen at 32:40). A character study of the willful, winsome Lily Bart, this harsh parable about life in Gilded Age New York is a great starter for those who haven’t yet read Wharton.


Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, read by either Susan Ericksen or Emma Messenger. Recommended by Steve (listen at 16:40). Discover the brooding, passionate interiority of young Jane Eyre with an audiobook that is highly recommended for those of you with mysterious secrets in your upstairs attics … and even more so for those who don’t get that reference.


The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, read by Jesse L. Martin. Recommended by David Haglund (listen at 24:39). Inspired by the cadences of the black American church and the King James Bible, Baldwin’s voice on the page is unforgettable. The Fire Next Time reflects on civil rights, religion, and Baldwin’s own personal history.


Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, read by Dan Stevens. Recommended by June Thomas (listen at 16:49). Brush up on Gothic literature with this dark, philosophical classic, which showcases the evolution of contemporary ideas about education.

And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts, read by Victor Bevine.


And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts, read by Victor Bevine. Recommended by Dan Kois. Randy Shilts 1987 masterpiece of investigative reporting chronicles the American AIDS epidemic and the government’s sluggish response to the tragedy. It’s a must-listen for those interested in the 1980s and gay history.

Sleeping Beauty by Charles Perrault read by Julia Whelan.

Sleeping Beauty and Other Classic Stories by Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm, read by Julia Whelan. Recommended by Dana. These classic fairytales from the 17th-century French author Charles Perrault and the inimitable Brothers Grimm are worth revisiting—they’re darker and richer than Dana remembered them.

His Dark Materials Book 1.

His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman, read by Philip Pullman aided by actors. Recommended by Julia Turner. This series’ intrepid heroine Lyra navigates a world that is fascinating, richly textured, and philosophically complex. As much as Julia loves Harry Potter, she thinks that these books are darker and subtler than their J.K. Rowling counterparts.


The Poetry of Emily Dickinson, read by Julie HarrisRecommended by Dana Stevens. Queen of the poetry pantheon, Emily Dickinson created another language within the English language that you can burrow into with the voice of British stage actress Julie Harris. 


The Power Broker.

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert A. Caro, read by Robertson Dean. Recommended by Julia Turner. For anyone interested in the current shape and state of New York City, this monumental biography of midcentury New York bigwig Robert Moses is an essential guide to the city’s political and geographic history. At 66-hours long, it’s perfect for listening while tooling around your own city … or for driving across all of Mongolia!



Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, read by Jeremy Irons. Recommended by Stephen Metcalf. Remembered by many as that titillating text from high school, Lolita is also a deeply humane tragedy worth revisiting.  This bucket list essential is narrated by Jeremy Irons, who played the novel’s protagonist in 1997.


The Great Railway Bazaar.

The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux, read by Frank Muller. Recommended by Dana Stevens. Written by one of the great travel writers of all time, The Great Railway Bazaar narrates Theroux’s journey by train through the eastern half of the globe. Read by Frank Muller, this audiobook is a perfect companion for your own summer travel.


Portrait of Artist.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, read by Jim Norton. Recommended by Stephen Metcalf. James Joyce’s classic bildungsroman A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is one of Steve’s favorite books of all time. It’s where the hyper-modernist Joyce of Ulysses meets with the lyrical Irish Joyce of Dubliners, and Jim Norton’s lovely lilting voice brings it to life.


The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin, read by Richard Dawkins. Recommended by Dana Stevens. Charles Darwin’s diaristic account of his five-year journey aboard the HMS Beagle is close to Dana’s heart. A mix of science and travel writing, The Voyage of the Beagle is surprisingly lyrical, witty, and fun. This version is read by today’s foremost evangelist for anti-theist thinking, Richard Dawkins.



The One and Only SHREK! Plus 5 Other Stories by William Steig, read by Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci. Recommended by Dan Kois. If you only know Shrek from the movie, you must go back to William Steig’s classic story—the most listened-to audiobook in Dana Stevens’ house. The collection also includes “Brave Irene” and “Doctor De Soto,” among others. This version is brought to life by beloved actors Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci.


The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century by Alex Ross, read by Grover Gardner. Recommended by Julia Turner. In this exhaustive history of music in the century just gone by, Alex Ross guides us through a remarkable heterogeneity of sound. The Rest Is Noise takes in genres from serialism to jazz and events from world wars to ’70s New York, demonstrating once and for all that the story of music is as pure a kind of history as any other.


The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge, by David McCullough, read by Nelson Runger. Recommended by Julia Turner. David McCullough tells the story of the most iconic feat of engineering in New York’s skyline. This isn’t just the biography of a bridge: It is also a history of social landscapes, modern technologies, and the visual identity of a big city in a big century.