For many who major in English, the four years it takes to get an undergraduate degree tend to fly by. After all, English majors love to read good books and study the beauty of the English language. Fortunately, reading doesn’t end with the walk across the graduation stage, and there are plenty of masterful, must-read books that aren’t commonly taught in English degree programs. Below, we’ve listed 30 must-read books to complement your English degree.
All the Light We Cannot See
All the Light We Cannot See is a modern day classic that hasn’t yet made it onto the typical English course syllabus. The historical novel flawlessly shuffles perspectives between Marie-Laure, a blind young French girl, and Werner, a German orphan. Set during the Second World War, All the Light We Cannot See offers students a compelling lesson in tightly woven storytelling and beautiful, heartfelt language.
You don’t need to be religious, or even believe in God, to complement your English degree by reading the Bible. A huge chunk of art, literature, and history hinge on Biblical stories and other religious teachings. By reading the Bible as literature, you’ll open yourself up to a further understanding of countless books, paintings, stories, and philosophies.
The Call of the Wild
Written in 1903, The Call of the Wild tells the story of Buck, a sheep dog/St. Bernard mix who is stolen from his home in California and shipped north to Canada’s rough and tumble Klondike. Over the course of this classic novel, London beautifully writes from the perspective of this dog, who becomes torn between a faithful devotion to a human named John, and the primitive instincts he needs to survive. The Call of the Wild is the perfect example of a book that tells the age-old story of man and his dog from the challenging perspective of the canine.
Candide is often included in literature curricula in France, but it’s usually ignored in America and other English-speaking countries. That’s a shame, because Voltaire’s classic is a must-read for anyone wanting to expand their knowledge and complement their English degree. Though it’s considered social satire, Candide was actually banned upon its release because of its inferred blasphemy and political hostility.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Books told well from an unexpected perspective come few and far between, and books told well from the perspective of autism are practically nonexistent. Well, except for Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. This international bestseller tells the story of 15-year old Christopher John Francis Boone, an animal-loving autistic teen who decides to solve the mystery of a dog killed in his neighborhood.
Miguel de Cervantes
The Spanish are beautiful wordsmiths, and yet there are a surprisingly few Spanish classics. Don Quixote is an exception, and a must-read for anyone who enjoys well organized, well written novels. The story tells the tale of a clumsy old knight on a quest to prove himself. It’s funny, clever, and best of all, unexpectedly meaningful.
The Faerie Queene
This Elizabethan classic has been largely forgotten, but is a must read for anyone with any interest in English literature. Combining epic poetry with dramatic narrative, The Faerie Queene explores themes like Truth vs. Error, virtue, and chivalry. Readers are bound to be entertained by the grand adventures, the female heroes, and the slaying of giants and dragons. At the very least, the surprisingly humorous sex and fart jokes will keep the chuckles coming.
Johann von Goethe
Published in 1802, Johann von Goethe’s Faust is a rare find on today’s college English syllabus. Written as a play, Faust is the account of a bet between God and Mephistopheles for the soul of the titular character. The classic is loaded with important themes, including the difference between good and evil, while also setting a great example of positive debate skills.
If this modern classic was included in your English degree program, then stop everything and write a thank you email to your professor. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a story everyone knows — or at least, it’s a story everyone thinks they know. Fans of science fiction will appreciate that this book is often credited with inspiring the genre, while analytical types will enjoy the entertaining story that explores myriad themes dealing with humanity.
This bestselling novel, about a love triangle that begins in college, explores a number of themes that are worth some consideration. Among them are love, friendship, and the importance of making difficult decisions. Though Freedom is worth a read simply as an entertaining story, English majors will surely appreciate the way Franzen writes with humanity and familiarity.
Unfortunately, Gulliver’s Travels is often overshadowed by other, perhaps more famous novels of the early 1700s. For this reason, Jonathan Swift’s classic is often left off English syllabi. Still, it’s worth the read! Gulliver’s Travels is both entertaining and an important commentary (okay, satire) on human nature.
I Served the King of England
Eastern European literature is tragically underrated. For anyone who truly wants to complement their English degree and expand their literary tastes, I Served the King of England is a fantastic place to start. The novel was a bestseller in its native Czech Republic. It tells the story of a Ditie, an ambitious but not-very-bright waiter living in Prague before and during World War II. It’s at once funny and tragic, and will remind you a little of Don Quixote.
While both of Homer’s epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey are worth reading, those looking to complement their English degree should read The Iliad at the very least. The Greeks really knew how to compose drama and a good story, and this classic piece of epic Greek poetry takes place during the last year of the Trojan War.
David Foster Wallace
Already a sort of cult classic, Infinite Jest is a must-read for any lover of literature. Besides being wildly entertaining, Infinite Jest brings up an endless list of potential discussion topics in its description of a future North America. The book is long, but a must-read when it comes to complementing your English degree.
Jude the Obscure
Jude the Obscure is the last full novel of the tragically underrated Thomas Hardy. It follows the life of the ambitious Jude Fawley, from his lower-class upbringing in southern England, to his deceitful marriage and all that follows. Though this classic tale was highly controversial when it was initially published, today it is considered one of Hardy’s best novels, and a must-read.
The Little Prince
Antione de Saint-Exupéry (Translated by Richard Howard)
It would be a mistake to assume that The Little Prince is not worth reading simply because it’s a children’s book. In fact, anyone looking to complement their English degree could learn a lot from this beloved little volume. For example, Saint-Exupéry writes in a style unlike anyone else, and translator Richard Howard sticks closely to every poetic syllable in his stunning English translation.
The Master and Margarita
Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita makes for a nice alternative to the typical (read: more popular) Russian novels. Also unlike the typical Russian novel: this one is funny! On the surface, The Master and Margarita follows the devil as he makes a visit to Moscow. Dig a little deeper, however, and you’ll see this book is a serious critique of the Stalinist regime.
The Mysterious Island
Anyone who has ever sat through a literature class probably knows the name Jules Verne. However, precious few have ever taken the time to read his lesser-known The Mysterious Island. Part mystery and part science fiction, this classic actually helped to solidify the popularity of both genres when it was first published in 1874.
Yet another must-read ancient Greek classic is Oedipus Rex. Widely considered to be one of Sophocles’s best works, Oedipus Rex is one of the foremost examples of solid Greek storytelling to have survived the centuries. In addition to gaining a better understanding of story construction, students who read Oedipus Rex will experience firsthand the origins of Freud’s famous “Oedipus Complex.”
On the Road
On the Road may be a quick read, but it’s a heavy one. On the surface, Kerouac’s classic is about a group of wealthy college-aged students who make a series of bad decisions while on a road trip. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll discover that On the Road actually has a lot to say about post-modernism and what it’s like to be young.
Aeschylus’s The Oresteia is the only surviving ancient Greek theater trilogy, and it’s a good one. Consisting of three parts — “Agamemnon,” “The Libation Bearers,” and “The Eumenides” — The Oresteia tells the tragic story of the House of Atreus. Important themes include the differences between revenge and justice, as well as personal vendetta and organized litigation. Though the trilogy was awarded first prize at the Dionysia festival of 458 B.C., it’s little known today and mostly only read in classical-type environments.
Persuasion, Jane Austen’s last novel, is often set aside in lieu of some of her more famous titles. Still, this quick read deserves a spot on any literature lover’s To Read list. Persuasion tells the story of Anne Elliot, who finds herself reacquainted with an ex-fiancé she hasn’t seen in seven years. Like Austen’s other books, Persuasion has its fair share of social commentary. Also, it’s laugh-out-loud awkward and hilarious.
Socratic dialogue and true critical thinking is a lost art, which is why no education should be complete without reading Plato’s The Republic. This classic text actually presents Plato’s ideas about philosophy and political theory, but he uses Socratic dialogue to fully engage the reader and communicate his points.
The Spanish Tragedy
If you majored in English, then there’s no doubt you’ve read Shakespeare’s Hamlet. But have you read The Spanish Tragedy, the book said to have inspired Shakespeare? Probably not. Consisting of a play-within-a-play and a ghost intent on revenge, this 16th-century play is a must-read for anyone who loves English literature, Shakespeare, plays, or literature of the Middle Ages.
A Tale of Two Cities
No one describes a time or place quite like Charles Dickens. In A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens brings to life Paris before and during the French Revolution. In addition to beautiful language and imagery, those looking to complement their English degree will get a bit of a history lesson as well, as Dickens poetically pits the French peasantry against the aristocracy.
The Things They Carried
Stories about the World Wars, the Holocaust, and other conflicts are widely read and discussed in school, but curiously, stories about the Vietnam War are often left off the list. Perhaps that has to do with just how controversial the Vietnam War remains to this day. Still, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is one to break the cycle. The book is actually a collection of stories documenting the trials of a platoon of soldiers while fighting in Vietnam. The stories are fiction, but based on O’Brien’s real-life experiences.
As far as Shakespeare goes, Twelfth Night is hardly the most popular. And yet, this classic romantic comedy about mistaken identity shouldn’t be missed by anyone who declares himself an English major. Almost as if it were written for modern audiences, Twelfth Night deals with gender, sexuality, traditional roles, and one’s place within society.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Harriet Beecher Stowe
A classic that is widely referenced, yet rarely read, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is one of those books that will make its reader feel uncomfortable — which is exactly why it should be read by anyone looking to complement their English degree! Both praised and criticized when it was first published, Uncle Tom’s Cabin provides is an excellent example of “advocation fiction,” while also serving as a very entertaining, very human story.
The Underground Railroad
An entire college course could be taught about Colson Whitehead’s masterful The Underground Railroad. In this beautifully written novel, Whitehead reimagines the historical slave trade and turns the actual Underground Railroad of history into, well, a literal railroad. It’s captivating, poetic, and most importantly, it has something to say.
Don’t give up on this book once you hear that it’s about a colony of rabbits living in a field. In truth, Richard Adams’s classic Watership Down is a timeless, well-written, and important story dealing with various social and political issues. It’s thought-provoking and worthy of discussion, while also being incredibly entertaining.