Many of you readers will no doubt be starting, or returning to, university in September. Those of you undertaking an English degree are certainly in for a treat when it comes to your reading list. You’ll be introduced to some truly fantastic classics, along with some abysmal works. Amongst some of my worst literature in my three years studying English Language and Literature I read ‘Twilight’, ‘The Lamentable Tragedy of Titus Andronicus’ and ‘Moll Flanders’. If you’re like me, you probably won’t even bother to read some of them. I was told in one of my very first lectures that you can’t get through an English degree without reading ‘Pride and Prejudice’. I still haven’t read it.
And then there are the texts which will completely blow you away and make you question everything. Those texts which will make you want to change the world, or at the very least influence it in some shape. In anticipation of your induction or return to further education, I take you through a whistle-stop tour of the tomes I loved.
Utopia – Thomas More (1516)
Often regarded as a critique of More’s society, ‘Utopia’ depicts the ideal society to live in, one in which every detail of somebody’s life is mapped out for them. Within this fictionalised society a strict discipline is enacted, and it begs the question whether this really is utopia, or whether the utopian society is dystopian beneath the surface. ‘Utopia’ is still highly influential, and a tale told countless times since. It makes the reader question exactly what was wrong with More’s society.
Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift (1726)
A satirical look at Swift’s society sees the titular character travel to several far and remote countries – from the tiny people of Lilliput and the Brobdingnagian Brobdingnag’s to the scientifically advanced people of Laputa and finally to the warring country of the Houyhnhnms. Swift ridicules his society, in particular the state of the government and the differences between religions. It’s a thought-provoking text and one which shouldn’t be dismissed.
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)
This novella explores the notion of a split personality in which dual minds share a body. Dr Jekyll is renowned and well-liked, while his counterpart Mr Hyde is mysterious and violent. Like many texts at the time, the exact nature of Hyde’s night-time excursions are left ambiguous and open to interpretation, but ‘Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ can be read as an exploration of the human mind and the varying levels of morality that exist in each individual.
The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde (1891)
Widely recognised as the first English-language “gay” novel, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ details the story of the titular character escaping the shackles of Victorian society to live out his desires and wishes. Throughout the novel Dorian retains his youthful looks whilst a caricature of him slowly morphs into a monstrous form of his former self. ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ is a classic in its own right, even more so if you look at the harrowing fate that befell its author. It’s gothic literature at its finest, and a novel which will encapsulate you from its opening right through to the final, tear-inducing close.
Dracula – Bram Stoker (1897)
The classic gothic novel, ‘Dracula’ strikes up thoughts of women’s roles in Victorian society, colonialism, sexual conventions and immigration. Count Dracula voyages to London and enacts evil upon several friends and comrades before finally meeting his ultimate death. Controversial upon its release, ‘Dracula’ is told through recanting diary extracts and newspaper scraps. This is the vampire novel to which all others will undoubtedly be compared, and rightfully so. ‘Dracula’ is in a word sublime.
The Secret Agent – Joseph Conrad (1907)
Detailing espionage, anarchism and terrorism, ‘The Secret Agent’ gives a chilling insight into the mind of a terrorist and specifics the secret carefully ordered steps they undertake to enact their evil. Influenced by the Greenwich Bombing of 1894, ‘The Secret Agent’ is broad in scope, detailing Cesare Lombroso’s theory on the degenerate along with the notion of exploitation of the disabled. ‘The Secret Agent’ is Conrad’s greatest text.
Maurice – E. M. Forster (1913-14; published posthumously in 1971)
‘Maurice’ is gay literature at its best. Written under the shadow of the Wilde Trials of 1895, ‘Maurice’ remained unpublished during Forster’s lifetime for fear of what society would do to him. The titular Maurice discovers his sexuality through his time at university and begins a relationship with Clive Durham which is doomed to fail. The novel explores the so-called “gay-cure” along with themes of darkness, secrecy and the greenwood as sanctuary. Its publication history is almost as thought-provoking as its gorgeous story.
Salem’s Lot – Stephen King (1975)
‘Salem’s Lot’ explores the horrors that befall the nominal town when two age-old vampires move into a haunted house. Slowly the town is taken over and it’s left to a rag band group of misfits to save the town before Barlow’s power encapsulates all. Slightly confusing in parts, and hard to follow in others, ‘Salem’s Lot’ is nevertheless brilliant. It is often seen as a comment upon homosexuality, with both the vampires and the homosexual regarded as the peripheral “other”.
The Hours – Michael Cunningham (1998)
Known as a contemporary uptake on Virginia Woolf’s classic ‘Mrs Dalloway’, ‘The Hours’ details the story of three individual women from three distinct time periods and questions the hold that their society has upon them. Each woman can be read as lesbian, but because of the society in which they live two of the three cannot be their true selves. Cunningham won the Pulitzer Prize for this novel, and its entirely justified. Expertly written, meticulously detailed, ‘The Hours’ is a worthy follow-up to ‘Mrs Dalloway’.
Trumpet – Jackie Kay (1998)
Influenced by the real-life story of Billy Tipton, ‘Trumpet’ sees Millie and Coleman’s lives shatter around them when their father and husband dies. Upon Joss Moody’s death it is revealed that he was biologically female, and had lived a double-life for the majority of his life. The transgender themes become secondary however and ‘Trumpet’ details the harrowing story of how different people deal with grief. For a debut novel it’s stunning and one filled with so much hope, despite the bleak tones.