You read a lot of books as an English major in college. Some books are more enjoyable, interesting, and frankly more worthwhile to read than others. As someone who recently graduated with a degree in English lit, I’ve thought a lot about all those hours spent staring at pages at my desk or in the library. Which books were most valuable to me in the context of my degree? Which books am I grateful to have been assigned, and which books do I wish I had been assigned to read? Today I’m going to share the five books I think every incoming English major should read. Think of this as part of what I would put on the syllabus of an Introduction to Literature class (in a parallel universe where I’m an English professor I guess??).
I wrote my first ever college English paper about signs of “civilization” in this classic novel, so it has claimed a bit of a special spot in my bookish heart. I was surprised to learn that Robinson Crusoe is thought by some people to be the first English novel. Personally, I think narration is one of the most important and fascinating aspects of studying literature, and it is helpful to see how a first person perspective autobiographical novel was written back in 1719. Robinson Crusoe has many other interesting points of discussion alongside narration: what constitutes a European understanding of “civilization,” the methods by which we endeavor to construct our own identities, race, class, language, etc. Reading this book may seem a little old school, but when analyzed and viewed through certain lenses I think it can be a really worthwhile read.
Oh, Faulkner–an English student’s worst nightmare. I think Faulkner is a fascinating writer (although sexist and racist at times, so there’s a lot to criticize him for–which is also important). My classmates HATED this book when we were assigned to read it in our Introduction to Literature class because it is very confusing. Between four different perspectives, two characters named Quentin, and the stream of consciousness narration, it’s easy to lose track of what’s actually happening. But I think there’s a lot that can be learned from struggling through this novel. As an English major you need to be able to read and digest challenging texts. You won’t love everything you’re assigned to read, and that won’t stop your professors from expecting you to read and understand it. Plus, there’s plenty of fascinating stuff here to discuss: the role of the notion of virginity and the function it played in southern society (very unsettling), our relation to time, how we use language as a means of identity and what happens when that language is replaced by something else, etc.
I had never heard of this autobiography of a former slave before being assigned to read it for my Introduction to Literature class. Not everything you read as an English major is fiction, so it’s important to learn how to analyze a text even when it’s nonfiction. I was absolutely enthralled by this autobiography when I first read it. There’s so much to think about in terms of race in America, writing as a sign of “civilization,” narrative techniques, etc. Reading and analyzing this text also allows you to practice putting books in historical context and bringing some of that perspective into your argument. And the writing itself is also so lyrical and elegant, which you know I have a soft spot for…
I’ve never actually been assigned to read this for a class, but I’ve always hoped that I would be. When I read this novel the summer before my senior year of high school, I adored Jane as a character as well as Charlotte Bronte’s beautiful writing. After years of different English classes and learning about different ways to think about literature, I now see that Jane Eyre is a much more nuanced, complicated, and problematic novel than I first thought way back when. I would have loved the opportunity to unpack this novel in a classroom setting.
Another book that I wish I had the opportunity to read and discuss in a class. Reading this novel made me think about Jane Eyre–and the western canon in general, really–in a completely different way. We are often told that classics are the “truly great” books, and that’s true–but “truly great” can also mean “truly flawed.” Rhys exposes the racism upon which the western canon is built. Wide Sargasso Sea and books like it should absolutely be assigned more often.
If you are an incoming English major, best of luck with your bookish endeavors! What books do you think all incoming English majors should read? What do you think of the books that I’ve mentioned? What’s the best book you’ve ever been assigned to read? Let me know in the comments section below!