Most teenagers thinking about doing English at university are encouraged to be ‘widely read’. The trouble is, the kind of thing that you might imagine makes you widely read may be of no help at all. Reading the complete works of Terry Pratchett , for example, may be very enjoyable, but will not impress anyone later on.Actually, there are about 100 books which get referred to again and again in critical writings, in other books, and in discussions about literature. Reading just these books will make you ‘widely read’, whereas not reading them — no matter how ever many other books you’ve read, and no matter how eloquent you are in making a case for your favourite books — will not. Lists like these are always debateable, and I’m happy to have the debate.
I’ve put together an Amazon page of all these books, just in case you have any difficulties getting them.
The English Core
- Metamorphoses. Ovid’s Metamorphoses are stories of how one thing changed into another. Some seem quite trite, others are profound.
- Iliad. Considered by some (not me) to be the first novel, the Iliad formed the basis for the lamentable film Troy , and has impacted on pretty much every writer you could name.
- Odyssey. Homer’s sequel to the Iliad , the Odyssey introduces the anti-hero to literature. It’s probably a better read than the Iliad
- Lysistrata. Aristophanes wrote a large number of comic plays, including the Birds and the Frogs , but Lysistrata , which is about a sex-strike by women, is the one that gets mentioned most often
- Oresteia. At the other end of the scale, Aeschylus’s Oresteia is a magnificent mythological tragedy. Good to read, even better to see performed.
Key novels. Four novels stick out as key to the history of the novel
- Robinson Crusoe
Regarded by some as the first true novel, Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe is also one of the most referenced and cited books ever written — frequently by people who have never actually read it.
- Tristram Shandy
Laurence Sterne’s Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy is a very odd novel, which is the forerunner of many narrative and literary devices practiced later on. Samuel Johnson did not like it. Make up your own mind.
- Gulliver’s Travels
Another claim to be the first true novel is for Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels . Forget everything you thought you knew about Lilliput. This is not a children’s story, it is high political satire.
The most difficult novel in English is arguably James Joyce’s Ulysses . The other contenders for this prize are other novels written by the same author.
Philosophy and polemic. Some philosophical and polemic books have had a massive impact on later writers. They are mostly mercifully short, and good value to read, especially as they can be got for free on the internet.
- Il Principe
Machiavelli’s The Prince ( Il Principe) is nowhere near as Machiavellian as you might imagine.
- The Art of War
Sun Tzu’s Art of War is talked about a lot by very recent writers. It’s Chinese military strategy from a very long time ago.
Any of Plato’s accounts of his mentor Socrates is worth reading. Fascinating, engrossing, and as fresh as if were written yesterday.
- Republic or Utopia
Plato’s own ideas have had an enormous impact on everyone since. For the record, most of them were wrong, but that’s never dulled their popularity.
- Consolation of Philosophy
Massive in the Middle Ages, Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy was translated into English by Alfred the Great, Geoffrey Chaucer and Elizabeth the first. A modern translation may do you better. This was the most important work of philosophy to the medieval and Tudor world, although these days it would probably be considered to be ‘having a philosophical outlook on life’ rather than philosophy proper.
- The Wealth of Nations
Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations is considered to be the foundation of all modern economic thinking. Have the people who talk about it all actually read it? You decide.
- The Communist Manifesto
History has proved communism to be largely unworkable. Don’t let that put you off Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto , though, which is a literary masterpiece.
- The Origin of Species
Darwin’s Origin of Species will not give you the modern perspective on evolution-theory. Nonetheless, it’s influence on later thought is incalculable
- Aristotle – Poetics
Aristotle, the student of Plato, and teacher of Alexander the Great, set the agenda for most of the literary ideas that followed.
Genre fiction is a slightly unkind term for groups of books which are highly popular, but not really considered ‘literature’. These include detective novels, fantasy, science-fiction, historical novels, thrillers, and spy novels. Assessments of this kind deserve challenging, and some genres cross over into mainstream fiction.
- Lord of the Rings
Heading up the list as one of the most popular works of fiction ever, JRR Tolkien’s the Lord of the Rings is a great tale and an extraordinary work of imagination. It has flaws, though (especially the structure), so don’t ever tell anyone that you think it’s the best book ever written (even if you believe it is). This would mark you out as a lightweight.
- Tinker, tailor, soldier, spy
There’s nothing lightweight about John LeCarré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy , which, with its sequels the Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People , probably represents the pinnacle of espionage fiction, both in terms of its realism, and the purity of its art.
My tutor AOJ Cockshutt once told me that he had, very early in his career, been at a dinner with the philosopher Bertrand Russell. Russell asked him “what is the worst book ever written”. “Anything by Sir Walter Scott”, Cockshutt replied. He did point out to me that he no longer supported this view. Walter Scott produced a huge collection of books, massively popular in his own day, and still regarded as ‘classics’. You could read Rob Roy , but Ivanhoe is probably still the best known and most cited.
- Hound of the Baskervilles
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle put the detective story on the map, and the Hound of the Baskervilles is probably his greatest work. Ever detective writer since has had to live in the shadow of Mr Sherlock Holmes.
Rudyard Kipling’s Kim is an espionage story set in the British Raj in India. There’s really nothing else like it, even in Kipling’s own Indian tales.
- Murder must advertise
Dorothy L Sayers’s detective Lord Peter Wimsey reached his pinnacle in Murder must Advertise .
- Tiger in the Smoke
Margery Allingham began as very much a second-string player behind the queens of crime Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers. But this thriller lifted her into new territory.
- Murder on the Orient Express
If you are going to read anything by Agatha Christie, you might as well read the one that everyone knows the name of. Don’t get sucked into to reading endless Christies, though.
- The Left Hand of Darkness
In terms of science-fiction, Ursula LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness is about as perfect and perfectly challenging as you can get.
- Fahrenheit 451
Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is another science-fiction work that has had a huge audience outside of SF readers, and has become a symbol of many things to many people.
- The Third Man
Graham Greene’s The Third Man is a novella he wrote to help prepare for the screenplay of the film of the same name, a classic of serious espionage writing.
- Brighton Rock
Another Graham Greene which gets referred to again and again. Greene’s reputation as a master storyteller is sealed by the very first line. Go on, read it.
Much cited texts
Some books get referenced an awful lot, even when they are minor, or unpleasant, or flawed, or simply not the best the author wrote.
- Heart of Darkness
Joseph Conrad’s short novel Heart of Darkness is a compelling journey into dissolution and evil. The title captured the imagination, even though Conrad himself wrote greater novels later.
- 1066 and all that
The classic work of daft-history, Sellers and Yeatman’s 1066 and all that is unlikely to help you much with your historical knowledge. Nonetheless, it’s one of those books that gets referenced a lot.
- The 39 Steps
John Buchan wrote a lot of books, many of them better than The 39 Steps . For some reason, this particular thriller caught the imagination. If you enjoy it, read the sequels Greenmantle and Mr Standfast , which are better and more complete novels.
Grim and nasty, I thoroughly did not enjoy reading George Orwell’s 1984 , and I never intend to read it again. It has lots of flaws, including the whole-sale printing of political tracts among the pages. Nonetheless, this is one of the most talked about and referenced books of all time. Big brother, double-think, newspeak, and lots of other concepts began here.
- Animal Farm
Almost as nasty, but mercifully shorter, Orwell’s allegory of Communist Russia Animal Farm has also given rise to a whole vocabulary of common terms.
- Romeo and Juliet
One of Shakespeare’s lesser plays, Romeo and Juliet is easily one of his two most famous. It set the agenda (perhaps regrettably) for every romantic tragedy since.
British readers tend to avoid foreign books. But there are some authors and books you really should not avoid.
- The Name of the Rose
Umberto Eco’s luminous and illuminating novel is one of the most enjoyable books of the last fifty years. It’s hugely erudite, massively informative, and warmly recommended.
- Outlaws of the Marsh
This classic Chinese novel is hard to come by. It doesn’t get talked about much, but is considered to be one of the four greatest works in Chinese.
- The Count of Monte Cristo
Alexander Dumas had a whole team working for him researching his historical novels. The Count of Monte Cristo has probably got the best plot, and certainly gets referenced a lot.
- War and Peace
Enormous and enormously good, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace might seem a mountain when you first start it. Very hard to put down, though, and very, very important.
- Le Petit Prince
Antoine de Saint Exupery’s whimsical and slightly surreal story is a must-read. For some reason, people give you loads of credit for reading it. It’s very short, and very strange.
- Le deuxième sexe
Want to understand feminism? Did Simone de Beauvoir understand it? More questions than answers in this seminal book. If you can actually read it in French, people will think you are a real intellectual. Otherwise, read it as The Second Sex in English.
- A hero of our time
Lermontov’s A hero of our time puts the anti-hero at the heart of everything. Whatever you do, don’t try to be like the main character Pechorin.
- Divine Comedy and Inferno
Dante’s Divine Comedy and Inferno are two of the greatest books ever written. That’s it really. And they influenced pretty much everything written since.
Children’s literature is taken a lot more seriously these days than it once was.
- Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass
Bizarre, surreal, and full of mathematical puzzles, there’s a real case for saying that Lewis Carroll’s books are not for children at all. In any case, they have given rise to a whole series of cultural references, and should not be missed.
- Five Children and It
E Nesbitt’s Five Children and It , on the other hand, is one of the archetypal children’s books, and set the agenda for most of what followed.
- Peter Pan
J M Barrie wrote and published dozens of versions of Peter Pan . Something going on there. Any version will do.
- Tale of Mrs Tiggywinkle
Beatrix Potter is taken very seriously by people who know.
- The Wind in the Willows
Kenneth Grahame created a remarkable world which is taken remarkably seriously by serious academics.
- Winnie the Pooh
Odd stuff A A Milne. Very important for cultural references, but is he laughing with the children, or at them?
- The Box of Delights
John Masefield’s delightfully simple and yet bizarrely complex seequel to The Midnight Folk
- The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
CS Lewis’s masterpiece is quite possibly one of the best books ever written. Worth reading the entire series, although the second, Prince Caspian , probably isn’t quite as good as the others.
- The Hobbit
Another masterpiece which can claim massive importance, the Hobbit is virtually flawless, and is certainly a better work of literature than JRR Tollkien’s Lord of the Rings , although it is slighter in its themes.
- The Sword in the Stone
TH White’s first novel in The Once and Future King is delightful. The sequels are darker and more adult: prepare for a shock if you decide to read the entire cycle.
- Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Everyone is talking about Harry Potter. It will be years before people really come to a conclusion about how good it really was. The Goblet of Fire , though, which is the turning point in the series, gets my vote as the most satisfying and complete.
Many of the other books on this list have elements of humour, but these books are predominantly humourous.
- Three men in a boat
Jerome K Jerome’s warm and self-revealing novel is one of the funniest things ever written, and never equalled in its own genre, even by Jerome himself — the sequel, Three men on the bummel , is nowhere near as good.
- The complete Saki
Hector Hugh Munro wrote as Saki . His style is darkly ironic. Is it humour? Maybe not, in some cases. But almost all of his short stories are superb.
- The inimitable Jeeves
PG Wodehouse’s unflappable butler Jeeves , paired with the idiotic but loveable Wooster , is one of the key comic characters of modern writing. Again, don’t get sucked into reading the entire series — they get rather samey once you’ve read a few of them.
- Cold Comfort Farm
Stella Gibbons devastatingly satirised an entire genre with Cold Comfort Farm . It’s still funny, even if you have only the barest notion of what she is satirising.
- Under Milk Wood
Dylan Thomas’s radio play Under Milk Wood is one of the most sustained feats of poetic language ever to make it onto the airwaves.
Everyone’s talking about
There are books which people fall in love with when they read them, and can’t stop talking about. Not everyone likes them, but people who do can be quite fanatical.
- Wuthering Heights
Elemental love on the Yorkshire moors, as Cathy and Heathcliffe establish themselves as the anti-Romeo and Juliet for modern times.
- Wordsworth Preludes
Do you like Wordsworth? Personally I’m not a fan, but people who do like him absolutely love him. The Preludes always confused me, because they are complete poems, not preludes to anything else.
- Jane Eyre
Charlotte Brontë’s mad-woman-in-the-attic novel inspired an entire century of feminist critique. Slightly more arty than her sister’s Wuthering Heights , but less passionate.
- Browning: My last Duchess
I never really cared for Browning until I actually read some. This stuff is brilliant, but read it carefully, because it may not be saying what you think it says.
- Tennyson Idylls of the King
Tennyson is often packaged with Browning, but the two are really not the same at all. Browning is dramatic, ironic, sardonic. Tennyson is romantic, idealistic, sensual.
- Tess of the D’Urbervilles
Is this a good book or not? Thomas Hardy’s most famous novel is arguably Tess of the D’Urbervilles . Make up your own mind, but do ask yourself “is this really credible” at key moments.
Often mentioned (seldom read?)
Some books seem to be referenced an awful lot by people who don’t appear to have much actual knowledge of the text.
- Dr Faustus
Marlowe’s Dr Faustus is well worth reading. It’s a play, so quite short, has some great lines, and is quite scary even as print rather than performance.
Sir Philip Sydney is a bright renaissance figure who gets mentioned a lot more than he actually gets read. Arcadia is his best known work, and probably also his best.
- The Art of Courtly Love
Anyone writing about the middle-ages is likely to reference Andreas Capellanus’s classic work. Read it once, and you will become one of the select group who actually have.
- The Romance of the Rose
The greatest medieval European romance. Endlessly referenced by later medieval writers. Largely unread today. Read a bit and see if you like it.
- The Picture of Dorian Gray
The Picture of Dorian Gray is almost as famous as its creator Oscar Wilde. Like the picture, which was best left unregarded , you may decide the actual book is best left unread. Read it anyway, and you will be one step ahead of all the people who reference it but haven’t read it.
- Morte D’Arthur
Oh, this is tedious. Well, some of the time. Thomas Mallory collected everything he could find to put into this bumper King Arthur collection. He quite obviously did not understand all of his material. However, the actual death of Arthur section is very good indeed. Perhaps read that bit, and then decide if you want to read any more.
- Seven Pillars of Wisdom
Lawrence of Arabia’s bizarre and baffling account of his adventures. Fiction, fact, or myth? Who can say. Well worth reading, though.
The twentieth century was the century of modernism, which set out to challenge the past, or, quite often, simply deny it ever existed. Want to ‘get’ modernism? Just read these three books.
- The Waste Land
TS Eliot’s The Waste Land is deliberately difficult (a key characteristic of modernism), despairing (another characteristic), heavily faked (yes, that too), and a masterpiece of language, feeling and poetry.
- To the Lighthouse
Virginia Woolf. I have to say I’m not a fan, but my old tutor Julia Briggs, among others, considered her to be hugely important, and largely persuaded the rest of the literary world that this was the case. Virginia Woolf is now firmly ensconced in the modern canon, and you ignore her at your peril.
- Lord of the Flies
This is a really, really nasty story. William Golding turned the comfortable Victorianism of The Coral Island on its head with this modernist retake. Actually I’m a big fan of Golding , but I do not like this book. Nonetheless, it is a must-read.
A lot of literature references mythology. Unfortunately, mythology is quite hard to come by in easily packaged forms. Roger Lancelyn Green, though, made a series of collections, and these are an ideal way in.
- Tales of Greek Heroes
Roger Lancelyn Green’s retelling of pretty much all of Greek mythology. Written for children, but researched for adults.
- Myths of Norsemen
The same treatment for Norse mythology. Superb.
- Tales of Ancient Egypt
And again for ancient Egypt. Actually I’m not as well-up on Egyptian mythology as on the Greeks and the Norse, so I’m assuming this is as good as the others.
- Tales of King Arthur
And the same again for King Arthur. This one really is very, very good.
- The Mabinogion
Welsh folk-tales in their own words. You don’t need a retelling for this, just a modern translation. Powerful stuff.
The earliest English epic. You need to get this in translation, as you will not be able to bluff your way in Anglo-Saxon as can sometimes be done with Middle English.