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Top Ten Texts Every Lit Major Should Read

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I’ve been a lit major for nigh on six years now, and so I thought it only fair that I use this week’s Top Ten Tuesday ‘Back to School’ theme to share some of the wisdom I’ve managed to gain. So I’ve decided to share ten texts I think every new lit major should try and read at some point in their university careers. Don’t be alarmed if these texts at first seem unnecessarily confusing, pointless, and/or completely and utterly useless. That’s more or less precisely how they’re supposed to be.

Top Ten Texts Every Lit Major Should Read


Any or all of the following: the Odyssey, the Iliad, or the Aeneid – since most authors up until about the mid-twentieth century tended to have an almost excessive reverence for the famous works of classical Greece and Rome, knowing a little bit about any (or all) of these texts is pretty useful. Also, if you’re planning on doing any psychoanalytic work, reading Sophocles’ Oedipus plays might also come in handy, if only so you can poke holes in Freud’s logic. (‘Electra Complex’. Honestly.)

At least one Shakespeare play. If you come from a country whose approach to education tends to be fairly laissez-faire, as I did, you may have gone through twelve or so years of schooling without once setting eyes on a Shakespeare play. If that’s the case, then you may want to brush up on your Bard ASAP, because as with the ancient Greeks and Romans, later writers couldn’t get enough of old Billy Shakespeare. Popular choices include: Hamlet (murder and ghosts), Macbeth (murder, ghosts, and infanticide), and Romeo and Juliet (murder, suicide, and whiny teenagers).

For those of you interested in pursuing British fiction, I’d suggest at least one Austen and one Dickens novel. Tell everyone about reading the Dickens novel – tell nobody about the Austen, especially if you enjoyed it.

Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time). Among literary types, the mention of his name tends to prompt immediate and uncontrollable bouts of salivation, and is hence useful for distinguishing the really pretentious people that you may wish to avoid. Or join, if that’s your scene.

A contemporary classic. Even if you’re planning on studying something very obscure and/or archaic, like medieval French romance or the history of bathtubs in nineteenth and early twentieth-century literature, it’s always good to have a handy contemporary novel you can whip out, either to make you seem well-rounded and cultured, or that you can roundly abuse in order to point out why All Contemporary Literature Is A Perversion of Mankind’s Greatest Art.

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Criticism and Theory

‘The Death of the Author’, by Roland Barthes (in Image, Music, Text). Barthes’ ‘Death of the Author’ is essential for every post-1960s lit student out there. You may not agree with his views on the unimportance of the author, but his focus on the way that meaning is made (by the reader) makes this a classic text which contributed to the development of postmodernist thinking.

Orientalism, by Edward Said. Seen by some as the founding text of postcolonial criticism, Said’s book is a fascinating look at the way that the ‘West’ has traditionally envisoned the ‘East’, positioning it as backward, violent, and sexualised, in order to create a myth about ‘Western’ superiority. It’s a text which becomes more and more relevant with every new day.

Gender Trouble, by Judith Butler. Butler’s theory of gender perfomativity is an example of the development of feminist thought over the past century. It shows the way we’ve come to think about gender: as a performance of a socially-determined role, rather than an innate, biologically-determined fact.

‘Word, Dialogue and the Novel’, by Julia Kristeva. Kristeva’s one of those scholars that you desperately want to like, but her writing style is so terrifyingly complex that you’ll feel pleased if you come away understanding even two per cent of what she’s saying on your first reading. Nevertheless, this is an important essay in which Kristeva first coins the term ‘intertextuality’ to describe the way that texts relate to one another. It’s a great way of coming to grips with the fact that texts never emerge in a vacuum, and that there is a complex interplay between old and new, present and past.

Dr Who Clever One
This is basically how reading just about any piece of literary criticism will make you feel. (Image Source)

‘The Uncanny’, by Sigmund Freud. Yes, there’s lots you could read from the father of psychoanalysis, and while Freud’s theories have become more and more unfashionable in the psychological community, literary scholars still grin from ear to ear when confronted with the prospect of a little Freud (and don’t even get me started on Jacques Lacan). But of all his work, ‘The Uncanny’ is perhaps the most interesting and fun to study. It’s a great complement to Gothic and horror fiction, from Ann Radcliffe to Edgar Allen Poe, detailing the psychological motivations behind our instinctive sense of unease in the face of uncanny situations.

Do you have an recommendations for texts that you think all new lit students should read?


21 replies on “Top Ten Texts Every Lit Major Should Read”

I’m a latecomer to all things literary — at least in a serious sense — so I’m in no position to recommend anything. All I can think of to add to your well-considered list are a couple of categories rather than texts:

1. Popular genres. It’s possible that some serious students will look down the nose at genre writing as infra dig but, to misquote (I think) Kipling, what do they of literary fiction know who only literary fiction know? (He said it of England.) In other words, you can’t know Great Literature until you’ve sampled thrillers, steampunk, Mills & Boon, teenage vampire, Westerns,penny dreadfuls or urban weird. (I’m still working my way through, by the way.)

2. Literature other than the Western canonical.
I’m well aware if a gaping hole in my reading, having restricted myself to Ancient Classics, many modern classics and everything in between — so long as it was from Europe, North America or other countries using European languages. My aim in 2017 is to try to redress that balance by reading books in translation from other cultures and continents.

I’m a former lit major but I’ve managed not to read any of your suggestions for criticism — I hope that doesn’t mean I have to give back my degree. I might look into “Orientalism,” but I’m going to give Kristeva a miss. I think too many of my brain cells have died already to understand her.

Haha, yes, there’s so many mountains of criticism that it would be impossible to cover them all. I just picked the ones I liked the most. :D Orientalism is definitely a fascinating read, and even though it looks at texts from the 17th to 19th centuries, it’s still incredibly relevant to contemporary discourse.

I don’t think it’s common anymore for undergrads to read literary theory. Some schools are more theory-based than others, but it’s definitely not uncommon to graduate with little or no theory.

I’ve read some of Said’s book and I couldn’t agree more that it increases in relevance with each day. I’ve two more of his books to read as well, ‘Covering Islam’, which is about how the media portrays Islam, and ‘Culture & Imperialism’, which looks at the culture of the West. I think both are going to be incredibly interesting (if I ever get to them).
What books would you recommend on the contemporary classic front?

I haven’t read Said’s other books, but they sound really interesting!

The contemporary classics front is tricky, because there’s something out there for just about everybody. Personally, I’m a big fan of postmodernism, so I like texts that are a bit more experimental, like Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller. Orhan Pamuk’s novels are a little bit closer to the form of a nineteenth century novel, particularly The Museum of Innocence, which is probably my favourite Pamuk novel. Then there’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who is also amazing. Another recommendation is Dubravka Ugrešić, a Croatian writer whose books have been translated into English. I’d particularly recommend The Museum of Unconditional Surrender and the novella Steffie Speck in the Jaws of Life. It really depends what you like to read, though! :)

This is a nice list. I haven’t read the Proust or the Kristeva, but I’m good on most of the others. (Meaning, fine, I haven’t read any Austen, but I think I know enough about Austen I could fake it if it were some weird life or death situation where literary knowledge mattered. ;) )

Haha, yeah, I’m that way with so many authors (including, if I’m honest, Proust. I rather hypocritically included him even though I haven’t technically read him myself. It just goes to show a Lit major’s work is never done :D).

I heartily agree with 1-3 and 5, but you sort of lost me with the rest. Which is not all to imply they are bold choices, but rather that there were some holes in my college education (but I wasn’t a lit major). Slowly filling those holes.

“Tell everyone about reading the Dickens novel – tell nobody about the Austen, especially if you enjoyed it.” Hilarious! Love it.

Oh, I wish I was studying literature, but alas, work and money have claimed me.

I cannot imagine a place where Shakespeare isn’t taught. It’s like some sort of rite of passage in American high schools to read R&J and most colleges still require a Shakespeare course, as if your credentials for being an English major will be in doubt if you haven’t had one. Shakespeare is, for better of for worse, the ultimate sign of culture.

Yes! As a Comparative Literature and French major, I have had my fair share of Barthes! My favorite from him is S/Z and I personally found The Death of the Author, along with Michel Foucault’s essay on the same subject extremely useful in writing my senior thesis. Kristeva’s theory on intertextuality has also helped me a lot in my approach to writing and thinking about the possibilities of pulling a character from one story and thinking about them in the context of another work! AWESOME post ! :)

Thanks! Yeah, I definitely found ‘The Death of the Author’ extremely interesting. It took me a little longer to get into Kristeva and Foucault, but I also found them really useful for thinking about how I wanted to approach texts.

[…] looking at you, Jacques Lacan, you bastard). I’ve already written a list of top 10 books I think every lit major should read, and this week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic was a great chance to revisit my university days once […]

[…] looking at you, Jacques Lacan, you bastard). I’ve already written a list of top 10 books I think every lit major should read, and this week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic was a great chance to revisit my university days once […]

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