As promised, I’ve tried to narrow down two centuries of theory to a list of fourteen essentials in the fields of historical criticism, feminism, African-American and post-colonial studies. These are the works you are most likely to encounter in graduate coursework in the humanities. Some of them will probably be assigned at some point, but going ahead and reading at least parts (no one expects you to read the entire Marx-Engels reader in your first year, or ever really) of some of them in your fleeting moments of downtime really would be an excellent use of that time. Other grads/profs can add their favorites in comments, but I didn’t intend this list to be encyclopedic. It’s more of a survival guide than anything else.
Hegel–I would just go check out a Hegel reader of some sort and read a few excerpts. If nothing else, you should be able to talk about the “Hegelian view of history,” which influenced guys like Marx and which guys like Nietzche and Foucault later revised. In brief, the Hegelian view of history was proto-Darwinian, asserting that the trajectory of human history was toward greater and greater levels of improvement.
Marx–You will eventually want the Marx-Engels Reader for your personal library. I guarantee you will see it assigned in multiple grad seminars. You should go ahead and read a little of it your first year, so that you can shut up The Theorist when it becomes clear that he actually doesn’t know what commodity fetishism is.
Nietzche–I think of Nietzche as semi-optional but certainly recommended reading for anyone who “does history” in some form. Nietzche says absolutely batshit stuff at some points, but his answer to the Hegelian view of history is important for understanding more essential figures like Foucault. If you see a Nietzche reader in a pile of free or cheap books, I’d pick it up.
Durkheim/Weber–Both are important figures in the field of sociology, though most folks in literature will get through grad school without having to read them. Consider them essential reading if you are interested in the impact of economics on culture (Weber especially) or religion. Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is one of my favorites.
Foucault–If there’s one theorist that you should start reading pretty much immediately, it’s Michel Foucault, because he turns up absolutely everywhere, and I think citing him in your term papers is mandatory (I kid, I kid). You can start almost anywhere, but I wouldn’t jump head-first into The Birth of the Clinic or Archaeology of Knowledge without a bit of prep. Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality,Vol. I are actually fairly accessible and are good introductions to his methodology.
Derrida–Derrida is definitely essential reading for revolutionizing the way we think about language, but don’t be ashamed if it takes you forever just to read a sentence. I recommend small bites of Of Grammatology when you’re feeling particularly spry. Eventually you’re going to cheat and just go read his wikipedia page for an overview, but you should give it the good old college try.
Freud–You are also going to want the Peter Gay edited Freud Reader for your personal library at some point. It’s another one of those that will come up a lot. even though no one really cites him directly all that much anymore, he’s essential background reading if you want to understand Lacan or foundational feminist theory. (I’m not putting Lacan in here, because just…ew. But yeah, you’ll probably see him assigned as wella t some point).
Butler–Now we’re really getting to the good stuff! Judith Butler is one of the founders of modern feminist theory, and you will want to pick up Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter once you’re tired of all the dead white guys I just listed.
hooks–bell hooks is essential for taking feminist theory beyond the study of white ladies. She is also an essential voice in the field of feminist pedagogy. Read everything eventually, but pick up Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism ASAP.
DuBois–I’m grouping these more thematically than chronologically, if you haven’t yet noticed. DuBois is an essential voice in African American studies and in the study of race in general. Along with William James, he was also central to pragmatist philosophy at the turn of the twentieth century. And he’s refreshingly readable. Get The Souls of Black Folk for your personal library.
Gates–Henry Louis Gates, Jr’s The Signifying Monkey is also a core text in African American studies and a really great read. I would read DuBois and have a working knowledge of Derrida’s basic (hahahaHAHAHAHAHAHA…I crack myself up) ideas before reading it.
Said–The Palestinian theorist who described the Orientalist (a white Westerner who studies the Orient) gaze and more or less founded post-colonial theory. Start with Orientalism and read Culture and Imperialism at some point.
Anderson–If you do anything in post-colonial/ethnic/area studies, you are going to hear Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities mis-quoted a whole lot by your fellow graduate students. Go find out what it actually says.
Spivak–Gayatri Spivak may be the most erudite theorist alive right now. She translated Derrida for sweet Baby Jesus’s sake. A Critique of Post-colonial Reason is essential reading in the field of post-colonial and ethnic literatures, though it is indescribably dense. You might check out her article “Can the Subaltern Speak” first, and my Amazon search tells me that she co-wrote a book with Judith Butler! How cool is that!