How to be widely read

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

  • There are just a handful of authors who make up the ‘core’ of English writing.
  • Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and MacbethEveryone needs to read some Shakespeare — or, better, see it in the theatre or at least on video. The quartet of ‘Great Tragedies’ are these four. All of them are instantly gripping, and represent some of the finest writing in English. They are also referred to incessantly by later writers.
  • Paradise LostMilton’s Paradise Lost is reckoned to be the greatest epic poem in English. It’s the inspiration behind Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, and has been pilfered for quotations which have become the titles of other books.
  • General Prologue to the Canterbury TalesThe oldest thing which most later authors refer to is Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The General Prologue is the introduction, and fascinating and entertaining stuff it is. Try it in the original language — it really is not that difficult. Try also at least one of the tales in a modern translation. People talk incessantly about he Miller’s Tale, but the Wife of Bath’s Tale may do more for you.
  • Pride and PrejudiceEndlessly refilmed for television, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is much, much more than a costume drama. This beautifully observed and exquisitely paced novel manages to be thrilling while living in a world where action is rare.
  • MiddlemarchGeorge Eliot’s Middlemarch (George Eliot was the pseudonym of Mary Anne Evans) is probably the greatest Victorian novel.
  • Sons and LoversI personally don’t like D H Lawrence, but no-one can deny how influential he has been. Sons and Lovers is grim, gritty, and brings a realism to the novel which simply did not exist before Lawrence.
  • Great ExpectationsCharles Dickens is England’s greatest novelist, and Great Expectations , as well as being mercifully short, is probably his most perfect novel. It’s been regrettably mined for critical appreciation pieces in English lessons, but don’t let that put you off.
  • The Mayor of Casterbridge. Does Thomas Hardy really deserve a place on the English core list? Probably not, but, if he does, it is for the Mayor of Casterbridge , which brings all of his best qualities and none of his failings.
  • Nostromo. Joseph Conrad was a Pole who — after a racy life as a seaman — chose to write in English. Nostromo gets my vote as his greatest novel, and one of the greatest novels in the language. ;

  • Classical 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.
    • Ulysses
      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.
    • Protagoras
      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
      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.
    • Ivanhoe
      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.
    • Kim
      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.
    • 1984
      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
      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.
    • Arcadia
      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.
    • Beowulf
      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.

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