The original title of this document was “10 books which changed my life.” It was rapidly clear that I would not be able to cut down my selection so easily.
I made this list as a parting gift to my year 11 class. Having only taught them for one year, I am racked with the guilt of having done little more than push them through two courses, re-do coursework, and rehearse exam technique; throwing only a handful of reading lists at them along the way. Each student in my year 11 class deserves more from their education in English, and I will always regret this lack.
I have utterly loved teaching them: I’ve never bonded with a class so quickly, which is absolutely down to their warmth, energy and boundless personality. They accepted me, and trusted me; in return I put them in the best position I could to pick up a few GCSEs. I’ll also, strangely perhaps, miss their parents: the support and encouragement and gratitude I’ve heard down the phone on my Thursday evening quests for contact have made a huge difference in my students’ commitment and effort this year.
Huge regrets. If any of them go on to study English at A-level, which a surprising number have hinted they might, I hope they find more inspiration and love of literature there.
A number of students came to see me and have the list, but the year group was granted surprise study leave at the final hour, and so not obliged to come into school yesterday. In the unlikely event that one of my most dear children ever stumbles over this post, I’ve pasted the entire list below as I would have given it to them on Friday. Year 11: you are truly amazing humans. Here you go.
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With very few exceptions, each of these was read between the age of 16 and 19. I think those three years are formative, and what you read then will leave an indelible mark on you. I encourage you to read, read, read now – as much as you can.
J.D Salinger: The Catcher in the Rye
This short novel seems to me to epitomize everything it means to be a teenager. It is the rallying cry of disaffected youth.
Oscar Wilde: The Picture of Dorian Gray
This story is part horror, part humour; wholly Gothic in setting and yet eerily familiar. The ending will never leave you.
J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter
This writer reminded me that the best books to read aren’t always the ones being taught at school or university. Pure pleasure reading!
Samuel Beckett: Waiting for Godot
This play made me think more than any book I had ever read before. What is it all for? Why are we here? What are we waiting for?
Arthur Miller: Death of a Salesman
I’ve never cried so much before or since because of a book. This play explores a truly human tragedy; one we can all relate to.
Ted Hughes: Birthday Letters
This was the first book of poems I had read cover to cover, and it seems to tell the story of a once bright love crumbling, leaving only remorse.
Jane Austen: Emma
I dreaded studying Austen – I thought it would be hard, and boring. It is, in fact, hilarious and touching.
This is my favourite play. Not only one which explores ideas of prejudice, but also one which reveals how we tick, and how we can be ingeniously manipulated.
John Steinbeck: East of Eden
More than Of Mice and Men, this epic tome brings the suffering and hope of the 1930s West Coast of America into sharp focus.
F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby
An epic tragedy. Love, regret, carelessness and humanity, along with some of the most gorgeously expressed prose imaginable.
E.M. Forster: Maurice
My favourite book by one of my all-time favourite authors. A beautiful romance, told beautifully and feelingly.
George Eliot: Middlemarch
The whole of human life is contained in this novel: through the microcosm of a Victorian village, we see into the minds and souls of humans.
Thomas Hardy: Jude the Obscure
This book was the first which brought home to me the tragic inequality of society. For all his sins, Jude is a man doomed from the outset by an accident of birth.
Vera Brittain: Testament of Youth
An autobiography of a nurse in the First World War; no war book I have read has come close to creating the emotions and experiences of that time.
William Faulkner: As I Lay Dying
Experimental and modernist, this text is raw with suffering and emotion. Told by one family about a dead body being transported to her final resting place.
Virginia Woolf: Orlando
All of history and gendered experience told through a single character who seems to live every life.
John Milton: Paradise Lost
A poem which retells the Old Testament. Especially powerful on the fall of Satan from Heaven, and luxuriously worded.
Patrick Marber: Closer
A play which seemed to me to reveal what relationships were really all about. Also quite tragic.
Leo Tolstoy: War and Peace
All of the characters are immaculately drawn individuals, believable and perfectly recognizable.
Nancy Mitford: The Blessing
Although pessimistic, I felt at the time of reading this novel that I understood what makes marriages work. I’m no longer sure of this assertion!
Alex Garland: The Beach
The first book I loved. A group of individuals founds a “perfect” commune away from the “real” world. And yet, the real world cannot be escaped…
Daphne du Maurier: Rebecca
The gift of this novel is the way the narrator hooks you in. It is only after you finish that you begin to wonder if there is an alternative version of reality hiding in the pages.
Haruki Murakami: Norwegian Wood
Murakami makes real for me a country I have never been to, and in an other-worldly unfolding of events also reveals true, human emotion.