A Reading List for English Majors

A few years ago one of my students asked the faculty in our department to compile Top Ten reading lists for our majors. There were no specific criteria, just books that meant something to us and we hoped our students would read at some point in their lives. Of course, I couldn’t stop at 10, but here’s what I turned in, and I would emphasize that these are in no particular order. Every book on the list has had a profound impact on me at some point in my life. Happily, this list will continue to grow every year. I’d be happy to share more about any of these books:

  1. Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (A novel about an ill-prepared fundamentalist Christian missionary family attempt to spread the gospel in 1960s Congo)
  2. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (A dying congregationalist minister writes a letter to his 6 year old son–an exploration of grace)
  3. Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey (nonfiction–a season in the wilderness of Arches National Monument, now Arches National Park, arguing for the preservation of wilderness)
  4. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (A collection of linked short stories exploring the Viet Nam War and the problem of how to tell a “true” war story)
  5. Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner (An exploration of family history, the juxtaposition of American East and American West, as well as the conflicting values of the Victorian Age versus the 1960s)
  6. A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler (Written from the  POV of Vietnamese men and women dealing with the aftermath of the Viet Namese war, often as expatriates living in the United States)
  7. Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich (interlinked short stories set on an Objibwe reservation in North Dakota–the titular story helped me navigate the greif following the death of my father)
  8. A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean (A meditation on religion, family, and flyfishing in 1920s Montana)
  9. Little Big Man by Thomas Berger (A postmodern look at the history of the wild west, and in particular, the adventures of Jack Crab, lone white survivor of the Battle of the Little Big Horn; the story of a person raised in two cultures, belonging to neither)
  10. 10.True Grit by Charles Portis (A reflection on revenge and justice in post civil war Oklahoma Indian territory)
  11. No County for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy (An examination of change on the 1970s Texas Border–the nature of evil and chaos)
  12. Raymond Carver’s Cathedral (A collection of existential short stories showing the lives of people on the margins of society)
  13. Flannery O’Connor’s Everything That Rises Must Converge (A short story collection that could easily serve as the text for a regular Bible Study. Everyone should be able to recognize himself in one of O’Connor’s Spiritual Grotesques)
  14. Jim Harrison’s Legends of the Fall (Three novellas that explore the nature of revenge (“Revenge”), fate (“Legends of the Fall”), and loss and remaking (“The Man Who Gave up his Name”)
  15. Catch 22 by Joseph Heller (A portrayal of bureaucracy of war, or war as American Industry)
  16. Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (The Lost Generation searches for meaning as expatriates following WWII and home of possibly the best final lines ever written: “Oh Jake,” Brett said. “We could have had such a damned good time together.” “Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so.”
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3 thoughts on “A Reading List for English Majors

  1. It’s interesting looking for commonalities in your book selections. They all seem very Engel-ish; a lot of reflection on religion and a lot of outdoors. Also, a handful of these have been adapted into movies (two being 90s Brad Pitt flicks–always a good sign). I would guess that reflects the dynamic and engaging tendencies of your taste.
    Your blurbs on the books I haven’t read sound intriguing, so I’ll have to add these to my reading list. Pass on my thanks to the student who suggested making the list.

  2. Reading lists are always interesting to look at. I see plenty of books on yours that I’d like to give a whirl. To mention a few books that would be on my list: On The Road (Jack Kerouac), Sabbath’s Theater (Philip Roth), and The Sea Around Us (Rachel Carson).

  3. Interesting choices. I enjoyed On the Road, and I very nearly picked up the Lindbergh in a used bookshop a few weeks ago. Several Roth novels are on my list. I’ll start with Sabbath’s Theater. Thanks for the comment.

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