With the academic year reaching its end, I was thinking about where I was this time last year. I had just finished the last of my A Levels, revelling in the prospect of a glorious three-month-span of nothing, and brimming with nerves and excitement at the thought of starting university in September. Studying English would involve a lot of reading (unsurprisingly), and I’d decided that I wanted to dedicate some of my Summer break to expanding my literary knowledge. I’d finally tackle some of those books collecting dust on my shelf, and I would get ahead of the module and seminar reading awaiting me in the Autumn. However, I reached a foil in my plan when I found that the seminar novels wouldn’t be announced until September – what could I do, in the meantime, to prepare?
It was then that I started to muse on my own ‘Canon of Literature’: a selection of books, poems and plays which would assist with any books that I might come across later. I hope that this list of literature will help you to understand references which pop up in other texts, allow you to gain some practice analysing texts, and expand your wider reading experience, whether you are studying English or not!
The Aeneid by Virgil
(‘The Earliest Recorded Fanfiction’)
Telling the story of Aeneas and his journey to found the Roman people, the Aeneid provides an invaluable introduction to Greek and Roman mythology, which is often referenced throughout later literature, such as Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy. Written between 29 and 19 BC, it’s a foundational piece of literature, forming the basis for works which followed it. You may also be interested in the epic poem which actually inspired the Aeneid: the Iliad by Homer, describing the Trojan war and its events.
Paradise Lost by John Milton
(‘A Different Biblical P.O.V’)
This is another epic poem, but it was written much further ahead in time, in 1667 – it chronicles the biblical account of the Fall of Man, from when Lucifer disobeys God, to Adam and Eve being banished from Eden. Paradise Lost is a great way to dip your toe into the pool of Renaissance literature; like the Aeneid, it develops a basic layer of biblical knowledge which will frequently crop up in later novels, poems and plays.
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
(‘London is Kinda Horrible, By Dickens’)
Only his second novel, and published monthly from 1837 until 1839, Oliver Twist is a classic novel which is extremely enjoyable and pleasant to read. Although the language is challenging, it tests your understanding of the text alongside an interesting plot. Dickens is widely considered one of the greatest writers of all time, due to his immense popularity and successful novel after successful novel; Oliver Twist is perhaps the crowning jewel of them all, with dozens of adaptations both on screen and on stage.
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
(‘Orwell’s The End is Nigh Leaflet’)
To see how society and its developments inspire literature, look no further than Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – a novel which condemns the rise of fascist regimes growing at the time (1948) and theorises how technological advances might not be a good thing. This book is the ‘Big Brother’ of dystopian novels, far ahead of its time and even proving relevant to our society today. It’s a great example of good story-telling, with its integrated, made-up terminology, such as ‘newspeak’ and ‘double thought’, which allows for useful language analysis, and inspiration from a creative writing point of view. Another excellent example of dystopian literature is A Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
(‘Racism: Nature or Nurture?’)
This was the first piece of ‘classic’ literature which I was truly enraptured by. My first experience of a fictional commentary on social issues – specifically racism – was Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. But I personally found it difficult to connect with this book, and I didn’t get much farther than the first few chapters. However, contrastingly, Lee’s novel from 1960 astounded me with its subtly woven-in difficult themes (racism, discrimination, sexual abuse) and it created a commentary on modern history which society can still learn from today.
So, this Summer, please take the time to check out some of these books, and let me know if you agree with my choices for the Canon! Which other books should have been included? Which ones definitely shouldn’t be included? Leave a comment down below!