English Literature in Eight Books

Non-English speakers wishing to improve their English can’t miss getting to know English literature. But what to start with? In this short review, I’ve chosen one notable and characteristic book from each historical period. Check your knowledge of the basics and fill in the gaps!

1. 20th century: «1984»

«1984» is a dystopian novel by George Orwell, named the most characteristic literature work of the 20th century. Spoiler: no happy endings.

For those already having read this book, here are a few more options:

  • «To the Lighthouse» by Virginia Woolf
  • «Ulysses» by James Joyce (don’t try this book unless you’re really good in English or read it in your mother tongue)

2. Victorian era: «Great Expectations»

Most critics agree that «Great Expectations» is Charles Dickens’s best book and one of the masterpieces of Victorian literature.

3. Romanticism: «Songs of Innocence»

«Songs of Innocence and of Experience» is an illustrated collection of poems written and illustrated by William Blake.

4. 18th century: «Gulliver’s Travels»

This book, written by Irish writer and clergyman Jonathan Swift, is a satire on human nature. It recounts the story of Lemuel Gulliver, a practical-minded Englishman who takes to the seas when his business fails and narrates the adventures that happen to him on these travels.

5. Restoration Age: «Paradise Lost»

An epic poem by John Milton, one of the greatest English poets of his time, considered to be his major work. The poem is based on the biblical story of the fall of man.

6. English Renaissance: «Hamlet»

A tragedy by William Shakespeare, considered among the most powerful and influential works of world literature. The role of Hamlet has been performed by numerous highly acclaimed actors in each successive century. «Hamlet» is also the world’s most filmed story, after «Cinderella».

7. Middle English: «The Canterbury Tales»

A collection of stories written by Geoffrey Chaucer. The tales (mostly written in verse, although some are in prose) are told by a group of pilgrims as they travel together from London to Canterbury. Chaucer uses the tales and descriptions of its characters to paint an ironic and critical portrait of English society at the time.

8. Old English: «Beowulf»

Probably the oldest surviving epic poem in Old English, narrated about a hero fighting monsters.

In Conclusion: A Few Hints

  • Switch between English and your native language to understand better the nuances and details.
  • Don’t start with old literature, it could be hard to digest. Start either with modern literature, or from both ends (my approach).
  • You can use the snowflake method: start with one book per period and then add more books.

And now, a question to you: what are your candidates for the best English book of the 21th century? Share in the comments section!

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