Recommended Readings for Every English Major

a girl reading

A professor once told me that to be a great writer, you need to read, read and read. However, when looking at the great sea of writers, the amount of literature can seem very overwhelming. Everyone seems to have their own opinions on the best works to read and who their favorite writers are.


However, I have rounded up books that Grand Canyon University’s English department professors have recommended students read before, during and after their time at GCU. It’s important to read a multitude of works and this reading guide is one of the best ways to get started.



Dr. James Helfers highly recommends this early epic of English literature. It allows you to learn about a different culture while being immersed in an adventurous story. It is said to be one of the oldest surviving long stories in Old English and is undoubtedly one of the most important. While scholars cannot pinpoint a specific date that it was written, they agree that it was produced between 975 and 1025.

The Canterbury Tales

Another favorite of Dr. James Helfers, The Canterbury Tales is a collection of 24 stories written by Geoffrey Chaucer between 1387 and 1400. The poems are presented as part of a story-telling contest by a group of pilgrims as they travel together from London to Canterbury. This work is a great introduction to satiric comedy and irony, a slippery narrator, and is a loose narrative structure for A Knight’s Tale starring Heath Leger.

The Faerie Queene

This English epic poem is by Edmund Spencer and is notable for its form, known today as the Spenserian stanza. It is an allegory that follows several knights as a way to look at different virtues. Elizabeth I was a fan of the poem and the royal patronage helped boost the success and popularity of it. It is filled with adventure, romance, symbolism and allusion.

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson was an American poet who lived much of her life as a recluse. She produced great poems that can be separated into three periods, with each period having works with characters and traits in common. Her most creative period was during 1861 to 1865 where she constructed her themes of life and mortality.

Some great poems to start out with are:

  • “Success is Counted Sweetest”
  • “I’m Nobody! Who are You?”
  • “I Felt a Funeral, In My Brain”
  • “Because I Could Not Stop For Death”
  • “The Soul Selects Her Own Society”

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

This poem by T.S. Elliot puts you in the perspective of a man addressing a potential lover, not daring to approach her due to his feelings of inadequacy. An exemplification of a dramatic monologue, it is an important poem for its vividness of character and perfect commentary on the modernist era.

In a Station of the Metro

Ezra Pound, considered to be the poet who started and molded the modernist aesthetic within poetry, paints a striking picture of a moment in the underground metro station in Paris.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

It is likely that you have heard parts of this poem at some point in your life. This poem depicts the story of a man traveling through the woods on a dark night, with a deeper meaning that English students love to delve into. The poet, Robert Frost, a favorite of Dr. James Helfers.

Short Stories

The Horse Dealer’s Daughter

D.H. Lawrence writes a short story that explores human nature. Instead of the typical love story, he paints a picture of how the universal need to be loved can drive people’s actions. The story starts out when Mabel, a horse dealer’s daughter, meets the town’s doctor and emotions and expectations collide.

Babylon Revisited

While you have probably read The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, his other works are just as great, specifically, Babylon Revisited. The story takes place after the stock market crash of 1929 and magnifies the generation of partying, drinking, throwing money around and the consequences associated with them.

The Importance of Being Earnest

The Importance of Being Earnest is a play by Oscar Wilde in which the protagonists have a fictional persona that helps them escape certain social obligations. Its witty dialogue and laugh-out-loud moments boosted this comedy to its status as a must-read.


Pride and Prejudice

If you didn’t read this classic novel in high school then you should definitely read it in college. It is a romantic novel by Jane Austen about Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. They both learn the error of making judgments and to appreciate the differences among people. It is a story that has stood the test of time and a perfect introduction into Jane Austen’s works.

Other notable works by Austen include Emma, Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park.

Jane Eyre

You may recognize the name, Charlotte Bronte. She was the eldest of the three Bronte sisters whose novels all became classics. Charlotte wrote Jane Eyre, which is about a girl named Jane and her experiences through life and to adulthood. It is quoted as being ahead of its time because of the main character’s individualism and how the novel addresses class, religion and feminism.

The Scarlet Letter

This historical fiction novel written by Nathaniel Hawthorne tells the story of Hester Prynne, a woman who conceives a daughter after an affair and tries to live a life filled with dignity in a society that outcasts transgressors. Hawthorne explores the themes of legalism, sin and guilt and manages to embed many symbols in the book.


If you have ever heard the term “Big Brother,” this is the book that originated the phrase. 1984 is a dystopian novel by George Orwell. It takes place in Oceania which is ruled by the “Party,” who control the people and have “Thought Police,” who hunt down people who think independently. A major theme of this book is censorship, and it explores what society would be like in a world where photographs are modified and history is rewritten to favor the government.

It is very intriguing to see some of the commonalities between 1984 and today’s society and government. It displays what a totalitarian government looks like and warns against a world governed by propaganda, surveillance and censorship.

To learn more about how Grand Canyon University’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences provides students with cutting edge writing skills, visit our website or click the Request More Information Button on this page.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.

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