by Hannah Wilkes
As English majors, there is one thing we can always count on being handed at the start of each new semester: a syllabus listing all of the books, poems, and/or plays to be read for the class. While finishing college provides a relief from all that school work, it also means the end of those syllabi with all their promise of exciting new reading discoveries. Luckily, this blog post offers graduating seniors (and anyone else looking for book ideas) one last chance! Below is a list of books that UP English professors think students absolutely must read. While graduating seniors may now be experiencing sadness (or perhaps joy) at the fact that they might never again be handed another school syllabus, here is one final “post graduate” syllabus they can take advantage of.
1. Shakespeare’ King Lear has to be on the list.
2. I think Thoreau’s Walden is one of the best books ever. It’s the only book-length piece of prose that’s pure poetry.
3. A sleeper, but a wonderful longer poem, is Alexander Pope’s To Arbuthnot, his “apology” for his life.
4. My favorite novel is Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.
5. If I were honest, I would have to include Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s A Hundred Years of Solitude, which may be the best huge novel I’ve ever read.
6. And one more would be Joseph Heller’s satirical novel Catch-22–which is both post-modern and Shakespearean at the same time, as well as infinitely hilarious.
In addition to the greatest hits from my various courses (Forster’s Howards End, Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Ford’s The Good Soldier, Friel’s Translations, Stoppard’s Arcadia, Greene’s The End of the Affair, Barker’s Regeneration, Lively’s Moon Tiger, Levy’s Small Island, Austen’s Persuasion, Bronte’s Villette, Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight, Smith’s On Beauty, and Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Roy’s The God of Small Things, and Cunningham’s The Hours), I would recommend books that I first encountered in my early twenties, either in courses or on my own, that broke my heart and made me think in equal measure, and ones I can’t wait to revisit as an older (but certainly not wiser) reader:
1. Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure: about aspiring to a better life and fate crushing those aspirations (5 handkerchiefs out of 5)
2. George Eliot’s Middlemarch: about pretty much everything, so just read it (3 handkerchiefs out of 5)
3. Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence: about letting what really matters slip through your fingers (the ending alone: 10 handkerchiefs out of 5)
4. Laclos’ Dangerous Liaisons: about power, desire, and the darkest recesses of the human soul (no handkerchief, but plenty of food for thought)
5. West’s The Day of the Locust: about wasting your life chasing dreams you will never realize (no handkerchief, but major wake-up call)
1. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The novel you think you know but will surely be surprised by. It’s lachrymose in places, but acerbic in others, and foundational in American culture.
2. Richard Wright, Native Son. Written in part as a response to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, this 1940 novel serves as a painful companion piece to Stowe’s work. It’s amazing, though—at least one student has told me it changed her life.
3. Toni Morrison, Beloved (or Song of Solomon). Read this one next—Morrison’s 1970s-80s perspective on similar issues connects back to Stowe and Wright but goes also in its own lyrical, beautiful direction.
4. George Eliot, Daniel Deronda. One of my two favorite books from college.
5. Jonathan Franzen, Freedom. Here’s a book that’s truly best savored “post-graduate”—like maybe 10-20 years post-graduation. You’ll still enjoy it now, but plan to return to this saga of middle-class, middle-aged life in America again later.
1. A subscription to the NewYorker (a must-have post-graduation weekly text to ensure you continue learning; it’s a post-university university)
And then four American epics:
2. Jeffrey Eugenides Middlesex
3. Tony Kushner Angels in America
4. Ralph Ellison Invisible Man
5. Colum McCann Let the Great World Spin
Top Five Desert Island Books as of 4/22/14:
1. Moby Dick, Herman Melville
2. Cloudsplitter, Russell Banks
3. Complete Poems, Emily Dickinson
4. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, Lydia Davis
5. Hologram for the King, Dave Eggers
1. Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert. One of the most beautifully written books I’ve ever read. I can only begin to imagine how great it must be in French.
2. Portrait of a Lady, Henry James. Another one about a woman trying to understand her place in society. I almost cried when I finished it because I didn’t want it to end.
3. Moby-Dick. Herman Melville. I know, I know. Don’t give up on it. It’s a bunch of different narratives and narrative points of view all thrown together. When Melville is on, it’s some of the best writing you’ll ever read.
4. Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner. This is a book you reread because the first time through you are simply trying to figure out what is going on. I have read it a dozen times and never grow tired of it.
5. Absalom, Absalom!, William Faulkner. If you get through S & F and want more, try this one on. This might be the single greatest novel written by an American.
6. Underworld, Don DeLillo. I had to have something from the Don God. White Noise is more accessible, but this might be his greatest single work. It’s Melvillian in its scope and uncertainty.