Books I Wished I Had Been Assigned to Read as an English Major

In less than a week I graduate with a bachelor’s degree in English, and it’s a very bittersweet moment for me. Although I am very excited to move onto another chapter of my life, I’m also sad to leave my amazing friends and the lovely Wheaton community behind. However, the end of undergrad also marks the end of studying English for me, which is bittersweet in itself. Today I’m going to share some of the books I wish I had been assigned to read as an English major. Imagine the class discussions we could have had! Imagine how much better I would have understood these books! Maybe someday…

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Have I already read Moby Dick? Yes. However, I read it on a family road trip a few summers back and remember skimming through most of it. Let me tell you, it’s a good thing I was in a car for hours with nothing else to do because otherwise I probably would have stopped reading altogether. Yet I’ve never been able to shake this feeling that I’ve missed something fundamentally fascinating about this novel, like I just haven’t been able to crack its code. Something tells me that I would have appreciated this novel much more if I had read it in a classroom setting and really dove into some of its nuances and complexities. But alas! it remains a dull, dragging enigma.

Ulysses by James Joyce

Do I just want someone to explain big books to me? Maybe. While studying abroad at Oxford I actually attended nearly an entire James Joyce lecture series in which I learned all about A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses, neither of which I have read. But I was so fascinated by the charts and webs the professor drew regarding all the mythological allusions in these texts, especially in Ulysses, that I couldn’t help but return to that lecture hall week after week to listen to someone talk about novels that I had never read. I know that some colleges offer classes solely on Ulysses, and I think it would have been fascinating to take one of these at some point in my college career.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

This is another novel that I read a few summers ago but wish I had gotten the opportunity to read it alongside a class. Brave New World is often lumped together with unsettling novels like 1984 by George Orwell. While Huxley’s novel is certainly unsettling at times, I was pleasantly surprised by its humor and wit. There’s a lighter tone here, a parodying of sorts perhaps, that makes me want to know more about what exactly this book is trying to say. Does the novel take itself seriously? Are we meant to take the novel seriously? These are the kinds of questions I would have loved to explore in a classroom setting.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

I read this novel this past summer thinking that it might be helpful for writing my honors thesis. While I didn’t end up using it in my thesis, I’m still glad I read it because it offers a fascinating perspective that challenges one of my favorite novels, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Many of the parallels and oppositions are fairly easy and quick to spot, but I would have loved to learn more about the historical context in which this novel is set in order to better understand the significance of many of power dynamics, hierarchies, and systems that it draws on. Perhaps this would also make me think a bit more critically about Jane Eyre, despite my love for it.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

Continuing on with this Brontë theme, I wish I had been assigned this seldom discussed novel. Anne is the only Brontë sister I have never read anything by, as I feel is the case for most people who dabble in Victorian literature. It would have been interesting to read this novel alongside other people who are also missing a text by this third sister. If her writing is anything like that of Emily or Charlotte, it would also be helpful to have some guidance through its density of details and language.

Have you read any of these books or been assigned to read them for a class? What are your thoughts on them? Do you think reading them with a class made a difference? What are some books you wish you had been assigned to read? Let me know in the comments section below!



30 thoughts on “Books I Wished I Had Been Assigned to Read as an English Major

  1. My high school English teacher once recommended Brave New World to us, but I never got around to read it. And I’m very disappointed with the books I’m assigned for class. It’s usually the ones my professors have enjoyed reading and that are related to what we’re talking about in class, but I never like them (and I’ve even gotten bad grades on my oral evaluations because I couldn’t understand due to not liking them). It’s the first time now, though! I’m reading The Handmaid’s Tale and really, really loving it. Fingers crossed for a decent evaluation next month haha

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    1. Oooh The Handmaid’s Tale is SUCH a great one to read in a class! I read it for one of my tutorials at Oxford and it was so interesting and “fun” (although not in a pleasant way, in a thought-provoking discussion way) to talk about. Best of luck with your evaluation–I’m sure you’ll do fab! 🙂

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  2. I’ve read “Moby Dick” four or five times, the last time reading it aloud to my wife, something we were doing for amusement back then. I found that having to perform it forced me to find more nuances in the book as well as a deep fund of humor–Melville is almost as funny as Twain when he wants to be! The homoerotic undercurrent (something you find in most of Melville’s work) also came out in greater detail, and of course the well-known commentaries on pride, greed, and the sheer magnificence of life. It’s a book well worth studying while reading it for the sheer pleasure of good writing.

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    1. Oooh I’ve never read an entire book out loud like that, but it does sound like it would make you think about a book a bit differently. I’ll have to give Moby Dick another shot!


  3. I’ve read Brave New World and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I didn’t remotely enjoy Brave New World, but Tenant is fabulous. It’s clear Anne Bronte was way ahead of her time, advocating for women’s rights and freedoms in a way I’m not sure her sisters ever achieved. She’s the overlooked Bronte sister, but she feels rather revolutionary.

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  4. We read Jane Eyre last year and honestly, the amount of times Wide Sargasso Sea has been referenced since makes me wish we’d been assigned it too. I haven’t read it yet but definitely want to at some point.

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    1. Ooh you should definitely give Wide Sargasso Sea a whirl when you get the chance! It really makes you think about Jane Eyre in a whole different light, which I feel like would be really interesting if you’ve already studied it in class.


  5. I studied “Wide Sargasso Sea” in my undergrad for our seminar course and absolutely loved it. It’s such a fascinating spin on Bronte’s “Jane Eyre”, one that I actually makes more sense ha-ha! The story is heart-wrenching, but it’s a beautiful tale.

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    1. Oooh if you enjoyed Jane Eyre then I would highly recommend Wide Sargasso Sea. It offers such a thought-provoking, eye-opening perspective on Jane Eyre and British lit in general.


  6. One of the things that motivated me to start a book blog was the fact that I had read Moby Dick. Moby Dick, to me, felt like two and a half books where two books were brilliant and one half were confusing (and anger inducing. No Herman Melville, riding an animal is not the same as killing an animal).

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    1. That’s such a great way to describe it! I totally know what you mean–there were parts of Moby Dick that made me think “yeah, I can see why this is a renowned classic” and others that completely negated that statement.

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      1. It’s strange when you go from sitting on the edge of the seat in anticipation, and the next page scream “That’s not what that word means”. I read a lot about Herman Melville, and he did work as a whaler. Moby Dick was also not the book he was famous for in his own time. Moby Dick might be a book that needed to be removed from the time it was written to be appreceated, but at the same time having it removed in time makes some of the book… not relevant anymore. I guess by this book that whailing wasn’t a high status occupation in Melville’s time.

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  7. I would have loved to been assigned to read Ulysses. I’ve tried several times to read it on my own, and while I finally managed to get about halfway recently, I just wish I had peers and a professor to explain what the heck is going on, you know?

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    1. Oh, absolutely! I feel the same way! Whenever I do try to tackle it again someday I’ll probably end up reading Sparknotes or something along with it… it’s such a struggle to get through!

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  8. This is such a great list! There are so many books that I think of that I was sort of disappointed that I wasn’t required to read. I will admit, though, I wasn’t an English major, but I was really impressed with my assigned reading, both in my world lit classes and humanities and English classes, etc. A Brave New World was definitely one of those! I actually read it for a classics book club read, and I absolutely loved it. The Portrait of Dorian Gray was another. Great list!

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