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Last week I started the final year of my English Literature degree, which is very exciting! This event has got me reflecting on the much-detested concept of required reading. Being forced to read a book can make us resent the author before we’ve even opened the first page!
It’s not all bad, however – required reading can push us out of our comfort zone, open our eyes to new authors and genres, and create first encounters with favourites that will stick with us long after we finish the course. With that in mind, here are my recommendations of required reading books that I actually enjoyed!
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Synopsis: Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. One of the few remaining fertile women after radiation poisoning, she is ‘gifted’ to one of the high-ranking Commanders of the regime. Subject to an uber-controlling, militarised rule, she fights to survive without forsaking her free will and capacity for passion – in a world where love has become surplus to function.
Why I Enjoyed It: This deliciously subversive feminist novel made me realise how political books and reading can be. It also introduced me to Margaret Atwood, who has become one of my favourite authors.
Regeneration by Pat Barker
Regeneration is set in the Craiglockhart hospital that treated shell-shocked men of all backgrounds during the war. Barker interweaves the lives of actual historical figures, including Dr Rivers and the famous poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, with fictional imaginings to bring to life the trauma that shattered an entire generation.
Why I Enjoyed It: I adored studying the First World War poetry by writers such as Owen and Sassoon, so I doubted that a modern novel could do these figures justice. Yet Barker’s visceral and uncompromising tone is perfectly suited to overturning the heroic narratives of war.
Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare
Synopsis: Isabella is a woman of deep religious belief, who is soon to enter a convent where she will begin her devout life as a nun. Shortly before she embarks, she is informed that her beloved brother Claudio has been arrested by Lord Angelo. His sentence is death.
Isabella meets with Lord Angelo to plead for her brother’s life and he strikes a deal: her virginity in return for a pardon. Torn between a sister’s love and her unwavering religious faith, Isabella’s struggle dramatises the public and private battles for power that have raged for centuries…
Why I Enjoyed It: Measure for Measure, of all the Shakespeare plays I’ve read and studied, seems to be the most relevant to the modern world. The parallels between Isabella’s plight and the #MeToo movement aren’t difficult to miss.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Synopsis: Kathy, Ruth and Tommy lead an idyllic life at Hailsham, their boarding school. Under the kind guidance of its teachers, they are encouraged to strive for excellence and express their creativity.
However, as their time at Havisham comes to an end, they are entirely unprepared for the dystopian world awaiting them outside its gates. Behind their education lies a dark purpose that threatens to tear the trio of friends apart.
Why I Enjoyed It: Ishiguro’s subtly chilling story about how cloning technology might shape our future world was the beginning of my dystopia addiction!
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
Synopsis: When Catherine Morland accompanies family friends on a visit to Bath, she is hoping for more than just a partner in the ballroom. Her mind is full of the adventures that may await her, just like the heroines in the novels she loves to read. However, the high society of Bath can prove difficult to navigate, especially for a naïve young woman with an over-active imagination.
Why I Enjoyed It: Northanger Abbey is Jane Austen at her finest – examining social issues without ever taking itself too seriously. The book even includes an impassioned defence of reading!
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Synopsis: Sethe is free. Her days as a slave at the horrific Sweet Home Farm are behind her. However, the past continues to haunt Sethe and her family in the home they have made at number 124. Then, with the arrival of a mysterious girl at 124, the unspeakable history Sethe has struggled to suppress begins to seem even more inescapable.
Why I Enjoyed It: ‘Enjoy’ seems the wrong word here, as Morrison’s novel is absolutely harrowing. Beloved is the most powerful, disturbing depiction of the trade in enslaved people – and the resulting legacy of unimaginable trauma – that I have ever read.
Paradise Lost by John Milton
Synopsis: First published in the seventeenth century, John Milton’s epic poem – retelling the biblical story of Adam & Eve’s creation and eventual expulsion from Eden – continues to beguile readers today.
Why I Enjoyed It: Poetry and I have a bit of a love/hate relationship. A lot of the time my issue is that – well, nothing really happens?!? This critique certainly can’t be made of Paradise Lost, which boasts epic battles, shocking betrayals and otherworldly locations – all told in such a dramatic and engaging way.
The History of Mary Prince
Synopsis: Mary Prince became the first black woman to be published in Britain, with her History. It details the hardships of her life from being separated from her family and sold, to the sequence of cruel owners she worked for, ending with the Wood family in London.
In London, Prince escapes and approaches the Anti-Slavery Society with her story. Her life history challenges the passivity romanticised in novels such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, not only in the active role Prince plays in seeking her freedom but in her defiant refusal to be silenced.
Why I Enjoyed It: In my Questioning the Canon post, I note that, in contrast with much abolitionist writing, The History of Mary Prince creates space for the voice of a formerly enslaved woman to be heard in a way that makes the novel feel less uncomfortably dated for the modern reader.
The Talented Mr Ripley
“Did the world always mete out just deserts?”
Tom Ripley is struggling to make his way in New York City, chasing the elusive American Dream while treading the edges of illegality. When the father of an old acquaintance approaches Tom in the hope that he can persuade his son, Dickie Greenleaf, to come home from Europe and take on the family business, Tom leaps at the chance.
However, from the first, it becomes clear that Dickie has no intention of obliging his father. His life in the Italian village of Mongibello is everything Tom has ever dreamed of: wealth, status, a luxurious lifestyle. Tom will have to return empty-handed to his sordid life in New York – unless he takes measures increasingly more extreme.
Why I Enjoyed It: Patricia Highsmith’s unsettling masterpiece was the icing on the cake of my Crime Fiction module, which I loved! Her skill at manipulating readers proves that crime writing certainly deserves a place in the literary canon.
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
Synopsis: In Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys images a prequel to Jane Eyre, centred on one of the novel’s marginal characters: Bertha Mason. Set in the sensuously beautiful islands of the West Indies, the story follows Bertha from her traumatic childhood to her ill-fated marriage. Who is Bertha Mason? What made her mad? And is there more to her story than Rochester reveals?
Why I Enjoyed It: In this dark and incendiary re-imagining of Bertha Mason’s story, Rhys plunges readers into the murky history of colonial Britain and forces us to consider how far Rochester – and even Jane herself – are implicated in racial oppression.
What are your thoughts on required reading? Do you have recommendations for books read at school that you loved? Let me know in the comments – I would love to hear from you!