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Your high school English teacher probably did everything they could to incorporate classic literature into the curriculum. Sadly, there aren’t enough hours in a day to cover all the must-reads, so you inevitably skipped at least a few. Unfortunately, this could prove troublesome when you sign up for your first course as an English major.
In college, most literature classes spend hours comparing one book to another. If you’re unfamiliar with the classics, odds are you’ll struggle to connect the dots and fall behind. Keep up with your classmates and contribute to discussions by adding the following books to your must-read list.
1. “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding
Perhaps you’ve heard of “Lord of the Flies,” but never got around to reading it in high school. This timeless classic follows a group of schoolboys who try to start their own civilization after being stranded on a deserted island. However, they fail in the face of terror, sin, and evil, and it’s unclear whether the boys ever make it out alive.
The novel consistently juxtaposes themes like savagery and civilization, fascism and democracy, and immortality and morality. It also suggests that humans are inherently prone to self-destruction, a topic that’s sure to fuel great class discussions.
2. “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen
Most English majors are familiar with “Pride and Prejudice.” There is a movie adaptation, after all. However, if you want to understand the full story — and all its literary devices — on a deeper level, you’ll pick up a copy and dive in.
This classic love story is one of the most popular in English literature and tells the tale of rivals-turned-lovers in Regency England. It deals with universal themes like friendship, death, betrayal, and struggle, with many readers saying it has more substance than modern romance novels.
3. “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain
Mark Twain wrote various stories in his lifetime, but “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is easily his best masterpiece. Set along the Mississippi River in the 1800s, this book explores themes like friendship, racism, and hypocrisy. It’s also brimming with satire, humor, and irony, as Twain demonstrates what life was like in the antebellum South through the eyes of the young — and mischievous — Huck Finn. English majors are sure to appreciate the dynamic character development, too.
4. “Othello” by William Shakespeare
If your high school English teacher forced you to dissect “Romeo and Juliet,” line by line, you’re probably trying to avoid Shakespeare at all costs. However, the author’s “Othello” might just be worth the read. This book presents a classic Greek tragedy and the most prominent black protagonist in early Western literature.
Like “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” it dives into topics like race and racism. However, readers will also explore themes like the warping power of jealousy and suspicion, military heroism and the dangers of isolation in this timeless classic.
5. “The Odyssey” by Homer
Can’t get enough Greek classics? Try reading Homer’s “The Odyssey” next. This story offers one of the most complete images of Greek mythology and the underworld, plus it expands on other sources like Eripedes’ “Cyclops” and Aeschylus’ “Oresteia.”
Because it’s such a literary staple, “The Odyssey” will probably come up at least once in any good English class. However, if your high school failed to include it in the curriculum, you better get your hands on it before college starts. That way you have plenty of talking points when someone mentions Odysseus or Circe.
6. “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley
Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” is the novel that kick-started the science fiction genre, so you better believe you’ll at least touch on it in a college literature class. Written from the female perspective, this classic has a good element of romanticism, with eloquent descriptions of the human condition sprinkled throughout. Of course, you’re sure to get a dose of gore and horror, too. It’s Frankenstein, after all. What did you expect?
7. “The Canterbury Tales” by Geoffrey Chaucer
Written by Geoffrey Chaucer at the turn of the 15th century, “The Canterbury Tales” includes racy stories from the Middle Ages. Besides its entertainment value, the timeless piece of literature is bursting with poetic power, most notable its depiction of social classes class in the late 14th century. The tales encompass comedy, pathos, tragedy, and cynicism, themes that English majors should be familiar with, especially in this context.
8. “Don Quixote” by Miguel Cervantes Saavedra
With its experimental form and playful literary devices, many experts regard “Don Quixote” as the first modern novel, making it a must-read for English majors. This book has inspired a host of writers, including Dickens, Melville, and Faulkner, and it’s easy to see why. “Don Quixote” is ultimately a book about books, reading, writing, idealism, materialism, life, and death. Its message is that filtering reality through any idealogy affects your perception of the world, for better or worse.
Expanding Your Reading List
Whether you’re in high school, college, or somewhere in between, it’s important that you know and understand literary classics like the ones above. English majors must have a firm grip on such influential books if they’re to succeed in academia and beyond. Plus, these novels will help grow your vocabulary and boost your comprehension skills so you start college strong.
Expand your reading list to include a classic or two and get lost in their pages. Who knows. You might even enjoy them more knowing you picked them up for fun, rather than for an assignment.