I owe my love of reading to my mother. It really is as simple as that; my entire life she instilled in both my sister and me a love of the written word. Often, I cannot get out of Barnes & Noble without buying at least five books. I graduated with a degree in British and American Literature and when I received my Masters in English education, I was excited with the prospect of discussing literature with my students.
Yet, what I have found is that most of my students no longer have the exposure to the literary giants and do not have the love of reading that I have. As the years have passed, I purposely design my syllabus around authors that I believe students need to read, particularly if they never take another English class again. It is with this thought that I created a list of classic texts that I believe everyone should read at some point in their lives. Some are easier reads than others; some are novels; some are epic poems. All are worth the time it takes to fall in love with the words. I kept the list in chronological order just for convenience:
1. Dante Alighieri – Inferno
If you have time, read the entire Divine Comedy, but this is by far the best of the three. It is an epic poem and is a challenging read but it is worth the effort. Be sure to find a modern translation – Mandelbaum’s translation is the one I own. One interesting note to keep in mind, Dante places sins of passion above sins of reason in hell. Do you need to read every line? No. Unless you have a fascination with 14th century Italian politics – Dante was exiled and not particularly happy about it, as you will see.
2. Geoffrey Chaucer – The Canterbury Tales
Again, another challenging read but worth the time. Much like Dante, find a modern translation or I have one that pairs the Old English version with the modern translation on the opposite page. Unfortunately, the cliché “lost in translation” applies here. I believe it is beneficial to see both versions. Do you need to read every tale in the book, no. Medieval literature is not particularly cheery (the plague, the church was corrupt, all in all not a pleasant time in English history). Chaucer did not finish the tales so skip the unfinished ones. My personal favorites are “The Wife of Bath” and “The Pardoner’s Tale.”
3. William Shakespeare – Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet and a few sonnets
Insert groan here, as many of my students do. For some reason, they hate Shakespeare. The man gets a bad rap that he never used to have. Picking what you should read by him is always difficult. Most people say they have read the two tragedies I listed above but we all read them in either high school or college and hated them – trust me. Try reading Macbeth now. The political treachery is far more interesting as an adult. Romeo and Juliet I picked because I do not believe people realize the entire story takes place in four days. As for the sonnets, I suggest reading the first line. If you like it, keep going; if you do not, skip it. But I suggest reading at least ten – they are beautiful works – and only fourteen lines.
4. John Milton – Paradise Lost
I love John Milton. In college, I took an entire class on Paradise Lost. What is interesting about Milton is that he was not AT ALL a nice person – which might be putting it mildly. Think Beethoven in literature except that he was blind not deaf. He composed this epic poem after he lost his sight and dictated it to his daughters. He is the master of enjambment – uneven line breaks in poetry that cause you to pause unnaturally. What Milton did that makes this poem particularly interesting, is that Satan looks almost like the hero of Paradise Lost. He is not. Milton wants you, the reader, to realize that it was Satan’s pride that led to his fall. It is definitely worth the read.
5. William Blake - Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience
Clearly I love the Brits. Blake actually completed the illustrations for Paradise Lost and he is one of my favorite poets. His poems are accessible but certainly contain a deeper meaning that you will find enjoyable and more modernized concepts than the four gentlemen listed above. For example, “The Chimney Sweeper” deals with child labor loss and the innocence of a small child whereas “A Poison Tree” focuses on the sins of man – Blake manages to include almost all of the Seven Deadly Sins in twelve lines. Again, do you need to read all of them, no. But browse through and you will fall in love.
6. Mary Shelley – Frankenstein
Odd choice, I know. But we all have seen the movie – or seen Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein – which is by far a funnier version than Shelley’s classic. Mary Shelley was very young when she wrote Frankenstein and it is interesting to see her take on the faults and flaws of Victor Frankenstein (remember the scientist is Frankenstein – not the monster). Many consider this the first version of science fiction but it includes some great elements of horror and gothic tragedy. Just think about who you pity throughout the novel. You might surprise yourself.
7. Emily and Charlotte Brontë – Wurthering Heights and Jane Eyre respectively
I combined them because, well, they’re sisters and I think it is interesting to read the two of them back to back to actually recognize the differences in their writing styles. They died young (Charlotte at 38 and Emily at 30) and were neglected by their father after their mother died. Reclusive and shy would be generous terms. Jane Eyre starts off as a very dry read but is worth the plodding through the beginning to get to an amazing, strong female character in literature. Wurthering Heights conveys a vitality in both Heathcliff and Catherine that Emily could never display. She also manages to intertwine the pitiful working classes’ lifestyle and the extremely religious. Combined, the sisters’ novels are worth the read.
8. Mark Twain – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Mark Twain is perhaps the most influential American writer to date. These two novels, when taken together, give us a clear view of what life in the South was like in the late 1800’s. Huckleberry Finn has come under fire lately because of the language used but it is worth the read the way Twain intended it. Remember language changes – see The Canterbury Tales and Shakespeare. Just because we do not speak like that now, does not mean it is not relevant. The two novels are tales of innocence, experience and the lives of the two boys. Twain’s sarcasm and writing style in the two novels are evident and the picture of our society is clear.
9. F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Great Gatsby
Again, insert groan here. We have all read it. We have all seen the movie. We have all been forced to read it. Read it again. It is completely different as an adult when you will pick up on Fitzgerald’s subtle imagery and symbolism as well as his critique on society. I could go on forever about Fitzgerald and the entire Lost Generation but I will not. Just read the book again. Let it speak for itself.
10. Ernest Hemingway – A Farewell to Arms
My love of Hemingway might be more than my love of Milton. I picked A Farewell to Arms because it depicts a tragic love story amidst the mess of World War I. Henry and Catherine battle throughout the novel with their emotions. Hemingway, without a doubt, critiques the atrocities of war and the effects of it on the mental and physical state of the soldiers. It is a beautifully written story. If you have time, read everything that Hemingway wrote and then read his biography. When you think of a Man’s Man – Hemingway is it.
I literally could go on forever with books that I think you should read. When you finish this list, Google “The English Literary Canon.” Pick any author on there that strikes your fancy. Find one who has a weird name. Find one who is in an era of history that you like. The above list of ten has maintained my love of reading throughout my adult life. I promised myself that this summer I would read thirty books – I have finished five so far. Hopefully this list will inspire you to find the little known authors of the Renaissance or a new author who uses Hemingway as an inspiration. They are literary giants for a reason – and they deserve the credit that they were once afforded. Yes, modernized literature is important but knowing where our words come from is also important.
Rebecca Campbell has her MA in Secondary Teaching from NYU and BA in English Literature from the University of Maryland. She is a New York, New Jersey and Maryland certified secondary English education teacher. Rebecca has been teaching college-level English since 2009 and hopes to enhance her students understanding of literature and works to develop and maintain a high standard of excellence in their writing.
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Written Exclusively For Mission Read 2013