I’ve just finished an English Literature Degree – here’s the novels worth reading, and ones to avoid

When I talk to people about their bucket lists, I often hear them say “One day I will read the complete works of Shakespeare!” I’m not unfamiliar with Shakes myself, but the prospect of reading every last play and sonnet for the sake of it sounds like an utter bore. So many people feel obliged to read the classics, but sometimes the reason a book is a classic has far more to do with history and the formation of the canon than if it is actually an enjoyable read. Luckily for you, I have just finished my degree in English Literature and can tell you just which novels from across my course are worth reading, and which you should avoid at all costs.

Avoid – Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

This is the first novel I ever studied in English Lit, and boy did it set the bar low. Putting aside how colonial writing about killing the natives of the island and converting those who remain to Christianity (which is A LOT to ask of a modern reader), the prose itself is unbearably dull. So much so that I found a passage of it that had the exact same lengthy, repetitive style as American Psycho, which, as anyone who has read it will know, is an INTENTIONALLY boring novel. But because of its status as one of the first-ever novels, it is still essential reading for all first-year English Literature students. God help you all.

Read – Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

It’s the classic novel that everyone insists is a must-read – and they’re right. It is well known that the novel and the popular film adaptations are wildly different, and I’m not just talking about the erroneous “It’s alive!” line that never existed in the book. The monster isn’t a misunderstood well-meaning oaf, like in most adaptations, but an intelligent, feeling creature who just wants to find companionship in a world determined to hate him. The writing is beautifully Gothic, its themes seem to multiply every time you read it, and it stands as the first-ever science fiction novel.

Editor’s note:

Alasdair Gray’s ‘Poor Things’ is a modern response to ‘Frankenstein’, and absolutely brilliant, reimagining the Monster as a young woman named Bella in 19th Century Glasgow, with a complex multi-perspective plot. I can’t recommend it enough.

Avoid – Jane Eyre

I’m going to lose a few of my English Lit student girlies here but I can’t stand Jane Eyre. It gets a lot of love for its romance and for the strong female protagonist, and strong she certainly is. What they don’t tell you is that she also complains. A lot. Sure, she may have a lot to complain about, but how to enjoy a character who at every turn seems determined to be unhappy is something I’ll never quite understand.

Read – Orlando 

Certainly the least accessible of my recommendations, Orlando is an intensely lyrical novel by Virginia Woolf that was written as a love letter to her lover Vita Sackville-West. The title character begins life as a nobleman in Elizabethan England, and as the years pass he transforms, through some unexplained and uncontested magic, into a woman; a woman who lives for centuries. For Orlando, gender is sometimes wonderful, sometimes restrictive, and frequently contradictory, and her contemplations on it are fittingly timeless. The line “clothes wear us, not we them” is something I think about every time I dress up for an event.

Avoid – A Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark by Mary Wollstonecraft

Here’s the thing about Mary Wollstonecraft’s autobiographical romanticist travelogue – it is wonderful. It is so earnest, so immediate, and often so raw emotionally as she writes to a man who has long since fallen out of love with her. So why should you avoid it? Because it is hard to appreciate all that makes it wonderful outside of an English Literature course. Reading romanticist literature is like trying to watch a bar fight in slow-motion: everything seems to happen all at once, and only by piecing it together through context can you understand the whole scene before you. If you’re already familiar with romanticism, or you find yourself travelling with a broken heart and a lost sense of self, you should read A Short Residence. For everyone else, this is one of those times when reading a classic for the sake of reading it just isn’t worth it.

Read – Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

The title of this book makes it sound like a fun holiday romance and does nothing to communicate just how twisted this novel is. This 1989 American novel is about a couple who run a travelling carnival and decide to breed a freak show, which by the time you have finished reading Geek Love seems like light fare compared to some of the events that follow it. But it is far more than a cheap horror; it is sophisticated and tender, yet also cruel, both to its characters and its reader. It won’t be for everyone, but if English Literature has taught me anything, nothing is. You have to find your own little slice of literature: your favourite writers, your favourite genre, your favourite period. That’s how you find your classics.

Flora Gosling, she/her (@flora_gosling)

Image credits: https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20151204-the-25-greatest-british-novels


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