English literature is a vast territory of written work. One of the most diverse bodies of literature in the world, English literature features everything from realist to speculative literature, every form from the novella to the short story, and hosts a tremendous array of different authors from all backgrounds. While there are thousands of books in the English canon of literature worth reading (from both the American and British English canons), below are a few of some of the best books in English literature that feature a broad variety of styles, genres, and authors.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
A classic in the American and African American canons, Their Eyes Were Watching God is a realist novel depicting a young African American woman named Janie Crawford, whose litany of experience details her struggles with love and marriage between herself and three different men. Set against the backdrop of the American south, the novel’s background includes the racial struggle of African Americans under Jim Crow laws; the terrible working conditions that sharecroppers, almost exclusively black, faced; and the hate crimes and lynchings that hallmarked this era at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan. Their Eyes Were Watching God is also a vivid exploration of the themes of feminism and the value – and abuse of – women by men. Hurston’s novel is the recipient of several literary awards, and is frequently taught in classes on English and American literature.
The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury
A brilliant introduction to the science fiction and fantasy genres, Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man features eighteen short stories exploring the relationship between psyche and technology. In it, the main character – the illustrated man – is covered with tattoos done by a blind female time traveler, whose inks write stories into his very skin. Each tattoo tells a different story, and at night, while he sleeps, the tattoos come alive to spin their tales. Bradbury’s collection has won a number of literary awards, and is an excellent introduction to speculative fiction.
Collected Works by William Blake
William Blake is one of the most famous poets of English literature. Blake’s poetry provides an excellent introduction to Romantic poetry, and his poems are widely taught in English literature courses, particularly those on poetry. Blake explores a wide variety of themes in his poetry, including politics, divinity, innocence, love, and death. His collected works are a must-read for any English major, particularly for those intent on specializing in poetry.
School Days of an Indian Girl by Zitkala-Sa
A turn-of-the-century memoir by Zitkala-Sa, School Days of an Indian Girl describes the Sioux Native American author’s experience with the indoctrination of Native American children in white schools in the United States. An important work in the American and Native American canons of literature, the work not only details Zitkala’s own experience with assimilation, but with the erasure of Native American heritage, culture, and language from the American sociocultural landscape. Zitkala-Sa’s work provided a basis for Native American rights movements in the United States.
Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian
Penned by Nobel-prize winning novelist Gao Xingjian, Soul Mountain is the story of a traveler who, after receiving a diagnosis of lung cancer (later to be proven false) undertakes a journey deep into the wilds of China to travel to the legendary mountain Lingshan. Soul Mountain, partly autobiographical, serves as introduction to realist literature, and features themes of exploration, self-transformation, eroticism, and loneliness.
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While this is a brief introductory list to an ocean of worthy texts, these books provide a sampling of themes and styles found in English literature, and present a diverse array of authors that English majors will no doubt find to be highly worthy of study.