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Calling all bookworms - top ten books for English Literature students


Faculty: Arts, Humanities, Education and Social Sciences
School: School of Humanities and Social Sciences
Course: BA (Hons) Writing and English Literature
Category: Language, literature and media

24 February 2020

When I first thought about this blog piece, I immediately thought of the classics - Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby, Great Expectations, War and Peace, to name a few. But is there a must-read list?

The classics above might draw groans from even the most avid reader – or applause.

But to be honest, I can’t give you a definitive set of books that every literature student must read. It depends on the modules you will take. In my first year of Writing and English Literature we looked at a huge range of novels, including some of the most well-known texts and some obscure ones!

The writers I am going to suggest are names I remember popping up on modules more than once and knowing what they’re about will help you engage in the university-level discussions.

  1. John Milton – Paradise Lost. An epic poem spanning multiple books, detailing Satan’s escape from Hell and deception of Eve in Eden.
  2. John Donne – range of poetry. A Renaissance poet you’ll probably have heard of, notable for works such as The Flea and To His Mistress Going to Bed.
  3. Jane Austen – Persuasion. The only one of her novels that I’ve read but I did find it charming. Her books are a good insight into how the middle classes viewed such acts as war and marriage.
  4. Alice Walker – The Color Purple. The first black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, in 1983. A powerful story examining African American women, their relationships, abuses and place in society.
  5. Shakespeare, of course. Any literature course isn’t complete without a bit of Shakespeare. Just a brief knowledge of a handful of his plays will give you a bit more confidence in tackling The Bard if you haven’t before.
  6. Mary Wollstonecraft – A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. One of the founding feminist philosophers. Her daughter Mary Shelley went on to pretty much invent the Gothic genre of literature with her novel Frankenstein.
  7. Sylvia Plath – The Bell Jar and Collected Poems. One critic calls her 'the high priestess of suffering'. If you’re writing about poetic technique and need some good examples, it’ll be hard to find someone better.
  8. Olaudah Equiano – The Interesting Narrative. One of the most notable writers from the abolitionist campaign to end the slave trade. His autobiography is also a gateway into other equally excellent books written by former slaves during this period.
  9. Maya Angelou – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Poet, singer, memoirist, civil rights activist, calypso dancer, street car conductor, single mother, magazine editor in Cairo, administrative assistant in Ghana, confidant of Malcolm X and Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Her series of memoirs and poetry are vital in my opinion.
  10. Lord Alfred Tennyson – In Memoriam. Another epic poem written in dedication to Tennyson’s friend who had just died. Well over 100 stanzas long. Yikes. Again I must reiterate that just reading an online summary will do.

So there we have them – my suggestions. Not only good to get to grips with the kind of texts that may come up on your course, but also to widen your reading palate and open your world view.

Happy reading!

Jennifer studies Writing and English Literature at ARU in Cambridge. If language is your thing, come along to an Open Day to find out more about our English and writing degrees.


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