5 Great Books for English Majors

There is no doubt that English majors read a lot, but what are some great books for English majors? Usually, a good way to figure out what English majors should read is by looking at the current literary canon within the realms of both fiction and non-fiction. With this said, here are five great books for English majors!

1. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain

This 1885 novel is one of Mark Twain’s (real name Samuel Clemens) most well-known novels. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, tells the story of a young boy named Huckleberry who sets off down the Mississippi River with his enslaved friend Jim and learns the innate dignity inside of all humans, regardless of race. This novel not only tells a great story, but it also gives an incredible snapshot of what life was like for African-Americans prior to the Civil War. With Twain’s quick wit and unforgettable characters, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not only a great book for English majors, but also a good book for all readers.

2. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The subject of the relatively recent 2013 film starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Fitzgerald’s enormously success 1925 novel follows protagonist Nic Carraway and his experiences with a variety of Jazz Age characters including Jay Gatsby, the novel’s namesake. The Great Gatsby is a story about excess in the early 20th century in America and the dichotomy between Jay Gatsby’s present identity and his past. As it is a pillar of 20th century American modernism, it is considered one of the best novels of all time by many, including Time Magazine who put it in their list of the 100 greatest novels since 1923.

3. The Norton Shakespeare, by William Shakespeare

It is almost impossible to talk about the literary canon without mentioning William Shakespeare. The Norton Shakespeare collects all of Shakespeare’s main works including his tragedies, comedies, histories and sonnets. The sole fact that it collects all of Shakespeare’s canonical works alone makes it one of the many great books for English majors to have on their shelves. Norton’s edition of Shakespeare’s collected works also includes incredibly introductions that are incredibly useful when trying to understand the works’ historical contexts and subject matter. These introductions are written by several different scholars, but most notably is the General Introduction written by the text’s editor and foremost Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt. As an English major, you will almost certainly have to buy or rent The Norton Shakespeare at some point in your college career, so you might as well get a head-start.

4. The Iliad, by Homer

The Iliad, by Homer, dates back to the 9th century B.C., far before the development of the modern English language. Regardless of this, Homer’s epic of the Trojan War is considered to be one of the best examples of both ancient Greek storytelling and storytelling in general. While there are dozens of published translations of The Illiad, The New Yorker recommends the translations of Richmond Lattimore, Robert Fagles or Stephen Mitchell, as they are the translations that are most commonly accepted by literary scholars. While the The Iliad is long, winding and full of mischief by various Greek gods, it is still a must-read for those that care about story-telling.

5. The Elements of Style, by E.B. White and William Strunk Jr.

As stated before, there is no arguing that English majors read a lot, but they do a lot of writing as well. With this said, no writing guide has been accepted by academia for as long as White and Strunk’s The Elements of Style has. This short guide attempts to inform the reader of a prescriptive writing style that includes elements of composition as well as misused and misspelled words. One of the most useful parts of the book is the section on active voice, as many writers sometimes use the dreaded passive-voice rather than the accepted and more direct active-voice. So, if you are an English major and are in the market for a style guide, pick this one up.

Related Resource: 5 Great Books for Theater Majors

With the previously mentioned books, English majors will be on their way to a better understanding of American literature, British literature and composition. While this is not the definitive list of all the books that English majors should own, it is a list of great books for English majors to own and be familiar with.