In the past, I've analyzed the selection of books that I was required to read in school, and I've expressed my frustrations with it--primarily with the lack of diversity in both the authors and the main characters. That led me to write this post, where I shared some classics I enjoyed that are by non-White-and-male authors.
Since then, I've had the chance to read many more classics on my own. So today, I thought I'd create my ideal list of classics for students to read while in school. The main rule for this list is that I'm not allowed to include any author more than once (not even Shakespeare!), because the lack of diversity in English literature curriculum is even worse when you consider how many of the authors are repeats. Books that I was required to read anytime from elementary school through my English BA are marked with an asterisk.
Let's get into it!
1) Hamlet by William Shakespeare.* This is my Shakespearean pick: a historical tragedy written in 1603 about an indecisive Danish prince who is told by his father's ghost that the uncle who married his mother and became the new king is, in fact, his father's murderer. This story's downward spiral into chaos and death fascinates me. (If I was allowed to also include a Shakespearean comedy, I'd pick Much Ado About Nothing, but that's against the rules, so. 🤷🏻♀️ )
2) Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.* I've enjoyed every Jane Austen book I've read, but this one is the most famous: a regency romance published in 1813 that tells the hate-to-love story of an intelligent and independent young woman and a rich, awkward, and aloof young man who each have pride and prejudice that adds strife to their relationship. Jane Austen's famous wit and feminist social commentary are well-displayed in this novel!
3) Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.* One cannot ignore the 1818 philosophical and gothic masterpiece said to be the first English science fiction. Mary Shelley was a teenage mother stuck inside because of bad weather when she wrote this famous story, about a doctorate student who decides to create life by stitching together pieces of corpses, only to run away in horror when faced with his innocent, lonely creation.
4) The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. This chaotic, ridiculous adventure novel from 1844 was written by a half-black Frenchman, and it is anything but boring. In it, three musketeers in the service of the King, plus a fourth newcomer, plunge into a complex personal-political drama that reveals the excess privilege of the aristocracy and the general existence of human folly. This book carries many hallmarks of the Romantic era, which is kinda my thing!
5) Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.* I wrote both my high school senior thesis and my English undergraduate thesis on this gothic novel from 1847, which tells you about my level of interest in it. The story follows two families with estates on the dark Yorkshire moors. They fall together in a horrific generational cycle of violent abuse and manipulation, centered around a ferociously passionate romance between adopted siblings. Both brutal and beautiful, this story combines important truth with hints of the supernatural.
6) The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne.* Nathaniel Hawthorne featured in my classes too many times compared to other authors, but I honestly love his writing. His most famous piece, a historical novel published in 1850, tells the story of a 17th century Puritan woman who experiences lifelong public shaming after becoming pregnant out of wedlock. The story dances beautifully on the line between fantasy and reality as it examines important American social issues revealed through the drama of many guilty parties.
7) Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Ann Jacobs.* American slave narratives are overemphasized compared to other stories by and about black people, but it's worth reading at least one of these autobiographical accounts. I recommend this slave narrative from 1861, which exposes harsh truths about morality and privilege. The intersection between blackness and femaleness is particularly notable. Harriet Ann Jacobs also suffered from chronic health issues due to her experience.
8) Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. Victor Hugo loved to go off on long tangential rants, but I admire his interest in exposing injustice. This historical novel published in 1862, which takes place just before the famously bloody French Revolution, may be his most well-known work. (I mean, there's a musical and everything.) It's an incredible read with high-quality character descriptions. The story follows a man on parole for stealing bread who escapes into hiding to protect a little girl after her mother dies because of poverty-induced prostitution.
9) Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky.* Russian literature has its place both in my heart and in the world of classics. This literary novel from 1866 is my favorite. It's about a young man who murders a pawnbroker and her innocent sister for money, thinking it justified by the "greater good," and who then descends into a complicated existence full of crime, injustice, and Christianity that eventually convinces him to repent. (Fyodor Dostoevsky had epilepsy, which means this book counts partly for disability representation too.)
10) The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. Wilkie Collins is an underrated favorite of mine. He was a surprisingly forward-thinking British author afflicted with a chronic form of arthritis called gout. This detective mystery novel from 1868, one of the first such stories in English, may be his best. It showcases his incredible skill with characterization through multiple perspectives, each possessing a unique voice. The story centers on the theft of an Indian diamond from a British household--a diamond that was first stolen from a shrine during the British occupation of India.
11) The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.* Irish writer Oscar Wilde, who was famously and flamboyantly gay, authored many clever stories. My favorite is this horror novel from 1890. It follows a young man who remains forever beautiful even as he falls into corruption, while his painted portrait takes on the burden of his true ugliness. It's simple and strange, and I love it.
12) Trifles by Susan Glaspell.* This was a required read in one of my classes every single year I was in college, and it is absolutely worth the one-time read proposed by this list. Whether you choose the prose or the play version, this American feminist murder mystery from 1916 presents a brilliant look at the question of "justice" for marginalized people.
13) The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.* A true American classic in which both dreams and facades die, this literary novel from 1925 shows the darkness that underlay much of the elaborate decadence of the 1920s. I love Jay Gatsby, even though he's a actually metaphor for the failures of my own romantic idealism, and the tragic nature of this story really appeals to me. So on this list it goes!
14) Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie. Agatha Christie is considered the English queen of crime, and I think her most inspired idea was making a gossipy elderly woman the "detective" in a series. This mystery novel, published in 1930, is the first Miss Marple mystery, where the old spinster solves the murder of a thoroughly despised town magistrate. It's great stuff!
15) To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.* This may be the most unoriginal selection on this list, since most Americans consider it to be a great classic. Nevertheless, I insist upon including this historical fiction novel, published in 1960, which examines a variety of marginalized and privileged identities through the eyes of a white girl growing up in 1930s Alabama. The book inspires so much thought that I wrote a whole blog post analyzing it.
16) A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle.* This middle grade speculative fiction novel, published in 1962, has already inspired and bolstered many women and girls in their academic and scientific aspirations. It tells the story of an awkward preteen girl who goes on an intergalactic journey, along with her genius little brother and a likable preteen boy, to save her missing father from a terrible evil. This book is a classic in sci-fi/fantasy, well worth reading.
17) The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. Sylvia Plath's struggle with depression, which eventually led to an early death by suicide, inspired this semi-autobiographical novel from 1963 about a college-age woman's mental breakdown. I was stunned by how fascinating and relatable I found this book when I first read it, and I desperately wish it had been included in my school curriculum.
18) Roots: The Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley. This stunningly vivid creative nonfiction volume from 1976 brings to life the family history of Alex Haley, a black man who was able to trace his roots back to Africa. I have an interest in family history, and I recognize tat there's particular difficulty in such research for descendants of American slaves. To me, this book is a true triumph, and it ought to be read by everyone.
19) Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. This isn't my favorite of Octavia Butler's books, but it is the most well-known and likely the most accessible for secondary education students. The prescient science fiction novel, published in 1993, presents a 2026 dystopian America in the midst of which a young black woman with hyperempathy starts an entire new religion. It's an interesting story, and the sequel is even better. It also opens up a pathway for readers into all the works of Octavia Butler and, further, into speculative fiction by and about black women in general!
Those nineteen books are my top selections, but I'd welcome these options too:
Medea by Euripedes*
The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon
Paradise Lost by John Milton*
North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
Benito Cereno by Herman Melville*
Our Nig by Harriet E. Wilson
The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen*
A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle
Tess of the D'Ubervilles by Thomas Hardy
Dracula by Bram Stoker*
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf*
Miss Buncle's Book by D.E. Stevenson
Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell*
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck*
The Hobbit by J.R.R Tolkien
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
The Crucible by Arthur Miller
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster*
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
Counter-Clock World by Philip K. Dick
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the America West by Dee Brown
Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya
Carrie by Stephen King
Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Giver by Lois Lowry
Frindle by Andrew Clements*
Books that have not yet reached "classic" status (including those published since 2000) also have a place in English curriculum, and I have many recommendations for those throughout my blog! My picks for a YA sci-fi 101 class are one such example.
These books, of course, were selected by my own personal preference and without the many limitations placed on teachers when creating their classes. (It also doesn't include short stories or poems.) However, I think it does show how a little more diversity might be possible within English literature education.
What classics have you enjoyed that you think should be in the curriculum? I especially welcome more diverse picks that I'm not yet aware of!
Please stay safe, everyone, and practice social distancing. There are a lot of lives at stake with the new coronavirus pandemic. I'll see you again next week!
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