As an English major especially, most of your time is spent reading. Some classics are unbearable. Others are too dense. But some indomitably stay with you. Without further ado, here are the ten books everyone reads in college.
1. Heart of Darkness
This anti-imperialist novella by Joseph Conrad narrates the misfortunes of a European trading company in search of ivory. The majority of the story is set in the Congo where the first person narrator, Marlow, witnesses European brutality towards the native population. Although he usually acquiesces and openly agrees to this brutality, he becomes skeptical of the company’s gross imperialism. The novella juxtaposes the savagery of the natives with the savagery of the purportedly civilized Europeans, prompting an interesting question: behind the pleasant veneer of civilized society, are humans intrinsically evil? Heart of Darkness is a haunting reminder of the self-imposed ignorance that leads to racism and hegemony. The last words of Kurtz will be ringing in your ears long after you’re finished reading.
Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein when she was only eighteen years old. That deserves a brief moment of silence…The story follows an insatiably ambitious college student named Victor Frankenstein. After Victor reaches the top of his class, he decides to surpass all of his predecessors by creating life. As you’re probably aware, the experiment goes horribly wrong. Victor is incredulous as he witnesses the vile creature he’s created come to life. After a stunned Victor rushes out of his apartment, his creation wanders the earth in search of him. The novel questions our subjugation over nature; more specifically, it highlights our role in turning nature’s innocence into evil. Like most Romantic era novels, Frankenstein will be overly sentimental to the modern reader. But if you’re able to disregard the melodrama, there’s no denying its literary status.
3. A Picture of Dorian Gray
A Picture of Dorian Gray details a young man’s descent into debauchery. The novel begins with a conversation between Basil and Lord Henry. Lord Henry is a wealthy, dissipated man and Basil is a talented painter less facile and superficial than the former. Basil has made a picture of a beautiful young man named Dorian Gray. After Dorian arrives and interposes the conversation, Lord Henry persuades him to exploit his beauty while he still has it. They both gaze at the portrait and Dorian becomes increasingly envious of it. Why should it stay ripe while he withers? What follows is a pernicious descent into decadence. A Picture of Dorian Gray is a criticism of aestheticism and over indulgence. It’s a classic that has inspired many pastiches.
The David Wyllie translation of this classic doesn’t contain elevated diction or inverted syntax. Still, not all high school students will grasp the subject matter. Admittedly, I read this book in high school, and it was only until college that I understood it. Metamorphosis encompasses the callousness that results from a greedy, capitalistic society. The characters are cruel, exploitative ingrates, and the main character, Gregory, is the piteous, depressive result of this environment. The only character with a morsel of decency is Gregory’s sister, but she too falls prey to her environment. The novella poignantly reminds us of the self-absorption that inheres in capitalism.
5. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
This novella may not seem particularly groundbreaking today, but the idea that human nature is dichotomous was never presented so literally. At its core, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a mystery. It is only towards the end of the novella that Jekyll is revealed to be Hyde. The descriptions of the odious, diminutive Hyde will genuinely terrify, and the ending would have shocked the Victorians.
6. A Tale of Two Cities
This is an incredibly dense novel full of historical context. I tried to tackle it in high school and hardly comprehended any of it. Now, I talk with many English majors in college who find it abstruse. Far from the vernacular in Great Expectations, this novel takes time and context to read. Truthfully, all I can recall is the first few timeless words: “it was the best of times. It was the worst of times.”
This novel takes place between the division of three totalitarian states. In a grimly uniform world stripped of individuality, propaganda and censorship rule. One man, Winston Smith, dares to break through the despotism and clandestinely destroy the government. You’ll have to read the novel to find out whether he succeeds. 1984 is a titular work of dystopian literature that continues to resemble attempts at censorship today. It’s no secret as to why it’s inspired numerous pastiches.
Ulysses is a stream of consciousness novel. That is, it was written with feigned spontaneity. Many stream of consciousness writers worked sedulously to make their work seem as though it was made spontaneously. This style results in many unnecessary descriptions that would never be permitted in any creative writing class. But, because of Joyce’s immense talent, we’ll excuse the verbosity. In truth, I’m not a fan of this novel. I think it’s painfully boring. In my humble opinion, the amalgam of stories, Dubliners, is Joyce at his best.
9. The Elements of Style
Digressing to books outside of fiction, it would be a terrible injustice to not list the most well-known book on style, The Elements of Style. This laconic king of style books has been read by college and high school students for around a century. In spite of all the arbitrary rules, the rule to omit needless words is why The Elements of Style holds a prominent place in the realm of English style. The seventy page book certainly isn’t comprehensive, but it is undeniably memorable for its emphasis on brevity.
10. The Bible
You may not actually be assigned texts from the Bible, but there are many allusions to the old and new testaments throughout British and American canons. In other instances, you’ll read about doctrinal disputes and wars that were predicated on the Bible. Regardless of your beliefs, it is an undisputed fact that the Bible has had a profound impact on literature as a whole.