Books and Authors Your Student Should Read
Before Going to College
By Dr. Whit Jones, author of Apologia’s American Literature course for high school.
Many homeschool parents wonder, Which books and authors should my high school student be reading to prepare for college? However, these same parents should also be asking another question that is at least as important: Which books and authors should my high school student be reading to prepare for life?
As far back as Aristotle’s Poetics, scholars and teachers have emphasized the importance of reading imaginative literature because of its ability to illustrate universal truths about human nature. And because all truth is God’s truth, the truths students learn from reading outstanding literature can help them to grow as believers. Many biblical truths become clearer and more deeply felt when experienced through the stories, characters, and themes of great literary works.
In addition, there are many advantages to being well read. Great plays, poems, novels, and nonfiction books and essays teach students about unfamiliar places and cultures and help them to empathize with other people made in God’s image. Being strong readers will also help students become better writers, enabling them to communicate their thoughts and ideas effectively in college, ministry, relationships, and the workplace. Students who have learned to understand and appreciate good literature are also well positioned to score higher than their contemporaries on SAT and ACT tests and to hit the ground running when it comes to college-level schoolwork.
Here then are some of the most important works your high school student should read before graduation. This is not an exhaustive list by any means, but in my experience teaching college English composition and literature for more than three decades, I have found these works to be among the most helpful in preparing young students for the rigors of both college and life.
Important early American works include William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation, the poems of Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor, and selected sermons by Jonathan Edwards. These works reveal the deep faith and courage of the Pilgrims and Puritans and both the righteous judgment and tender grace of God. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson are among the Founding Fathers whose autobiographical and political writings reveal their excellent intellects and the worldview assumptions about life and government that helped to form a young republic. The poetry of Phyllis Wheatley from this same period shows how faith, giftedness, and perseverance can enable a person to create high art from even the lowliest of circumstances.
The humor of Washington Irving, the legend of the frontier hero created by James Fenimore Cooper, the dark beauty and psychological insights of Edgar Allen Poe, and sensitivity to the spiritual meaning of nature in the works of transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were all important to the development of nineteenth-century American literature. Even when young Christian readers take the time to consider where and why they disagree with the transcendentalists, they are sharpening their understanding of their own faith. Every student should also read works by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville who, in different ways, critiqued some of the Romantic errors of Poe, Emerson, Thoreau. Also, no student should fail to experience Emily Dickinson’s poems of faith and doubt and the expansive philosophical statements made in the poetry of Walt Whitman.
As for American novels, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn provides a richly detailed picture of life on the river in nineteenth-century America and constitutes one of the most effective attacks on racial prejudice ever written. Seventy-five years later, Harper Lee powerfully dramatized two children’s encounter with racism in To Kill a Mockingbird, which manages to combine humor and entertainment with serious moral statement in a way that few works of fiction have.
The fiction of Stephen Crane asserts a naturalistic worldview yet captures with remarkable accuracy important aspects of human nature, including fear, courage, and the need for camaraderie. John Steinbeck’s short stories and novels capture important moments in the development of the American spirit, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby dramatizes the perversion of this spirit by materialism. In Ernest Hemingway’s novels and short stories, his code of manhood contains both fascinating truth and error.
Every student should also be familiar with William Faulkner, perhaps the greatest American writer of the twentieth century, and his fellow southerners Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty. O’Connor’s wild stories demonstrate a profound Christian faith, and Welty uses elaborate mythological allusions to highlight human nobility and depravity.
As for twentieth-century poetry, every student should read the incisive dramatization of insecurity caused by religious agnosticism in T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the lyrical exploration of man’s relationship with nature in the poetry of Robert Frost, and the whimsical verse of E. E. Cummings. And no student should miss the works of some of the finest African-American writers, including the poetry of Langston Hughes, the fiction of Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright, and the play A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry. Each of these authors highlights the unique trials and tragedies experienced by African Americans, as well as the longings, fears, and failings we all share.
One might expect British literature to be more sedate than American literature, but most studies of Old English literary works begin with Beowulf’s tearing the arm off the monster Grendel in a story that dramatizes the honor code of the Anglo-Saxons and its relation to Christian faith. Geoffrey Chaucer’s medieval observations of the highs and lows of human character as reflected in the religious pilgrims of his Canterbury Tales are subtle, funny, sometimes bawdy, and usually painfully accurate.
William Shakespeare is probably the greatest writer in the English language, and every high schooler should read (and view, preferably) a number of his plays, including works from among his major comedies, tragedies, and histories along with several of his most famous sonnets. It’s not just Shakespeare’s brilliance with words that makes him an incredible writer; it is his profound and often Christian insight into human beings and the values they live by.
Sonnets by Sir Phillip Sidney and Edmund Spenser and Spenser’s allegorical epic The Faerie Queeneround out a study of the sixteenth century nicely, and poems by John Donne and George Herbert are an important introduction to seventeenth-century literature. John Milton’s Paradise Lost, a brilliant Christian epic that tells the story of the fall of mankind and points to his ultimate redemption, is definitely required reading, as is John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.
From eighteenth-century British literature, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, one of the first novels and a story about Christian conversion, and Samuel Johnson’s prose and poetry are important stops. All students should read a couple of poems by each of the early nineteenth-century Romantic poets, including Robert Burns, William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats. Lord Tennyson and Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning are among the Victorian poets no one should miss, and Gerard Manley Hopkins is a challenging but wonderful Christian poet of the era.
Nineteenth-century novels worth exploring include Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Sense and Sensibility. Austen’s insight into the morality of how people treat each other in everyday relationships is remarkable. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is a Christian classic as well as a great novel, and her sister’s more pagan and Romantic novel Wuthering Heights is also worth reading. Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, George Eliot’s Silas Marner, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness round out the great nineteenth-century novels that a student should know. Some of the comical and unconventional poetry and prose of Lewis Carroll also make for fun reading.
From the twentieth century, students should read the poetry of A. E. Housman, W. B. Yeats, and Dylan Thomas. E. M. Forster’s novel A Passage to India, selected short stories from James Joyce’s Dubliners, and William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies are all works of fiction that a student should be familiar with. These works often present a darker view of life than earlier British literature, but such darkness is understandable given the movement of the twentieth-century worldview away from Christian faith toward naturalism.
From world literature, I recommend that students be acquainted with Greek and Roman mythology (Edith Hamilton is a very helpful guide) and the three great classical epics—Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey and Virgil’s The Aeneid. Greco-Roman myth sometimes contains remarkable psychological insight within its colorful tales, and it remains very influential on British and American literature. The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid are all about warriors living out the Greek and Roman honor codes, value systems that diverge in important ways from Christian morality but also contain elements in common with the Bible’s teachings.
Any student who has read and is familiar with the works and authors listed here not only has an important head start on college, but is prepared for a lifetime of enjoyable reading and of living fruitfully as a Christian man or woman.
Whit is a professor of English at Bryan College, where he was named 2017 Scholar of the Year for his work in writing Apologia’s American Literature course. Dr. Jones teaches literature courses in the Apologia Online Academy. He earned his Ph.D. in English literature from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Whit and his wife, Amy, homeschooled their daughter and three sons.