Ten Books I was Assigned to Read as an Undergrad that Actually Didn’t Suck

By: Amanda McCarthy

It happens every semester. You arrive on the first day of class, sit down, and pour over the list of assigned texts that you will need to trudge through over the coming months. You remember something your tenth grade English teacher said about the classics being important and every time a professor stands in front of you, practically crossing themselves at the mention of the literary canon, you wonder why any of us should care.

Occasionally, amongst the noise of all the work that college shoves down your throat, something catches your eye. A book lifts itself up from the rest and speaks to you in a way more akin to symphonies than static. Finally, a book that is a feast for the mind and the heart, rather than just a lecture slide. Here are ten books that I read as an undergraduate that actually contributed to my relationship with literature.

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“Reading” By: Timothy Baldwin (Creative Commons/ Flickr)


  1. Annihilation – Jeff Vandermeer

Sometimes, I worry that I read so much that I will become desensitized to powerful literature and great books will no longer have the ability to make my heart burst. Annihilation confirms that I still have the emotional energy to become completely invested in a novel. This book takes ecology and scientific exploration and wraps it up into an arrow directed at the heartstrings of the reader. This book will make you think about life, humanity, the unknown, and our fundamental understanding of ourselves.

  1. Twelfth Night – William Shakespeare

We’ve all been forced to read a play by Shakespeare. The classics are important, I have been told several times, but Twelfth Night has had a more lasting impact than the rest of Shakespeare’s work. Here, the playwright mocks comedy and demonstrates the limitations of art, including the potential unreliability of writing in general. For me, this work demonstrates the lingering significance of Shakespeare. I almost understand now why I have been forced to read his work throughout most of my English education.

  1. Women in Love – D.H. Lawrence

Warning: this book is dense. The plot follows the stories of two sisters, exploring the human element of love and relationships in puzzling and nuanced ways.  Through complicated love interests and outside influences, both characters end up in completely different situations and each is left to contemplate how she arrived at her particular conclusion. Ultimately, Women in Love is a story interested in why certain things happen to certain people.

  1. Break it Down – Lydia Davis

Ever read flash fiction about a woman possibly masturbating with an oboe? Here’s your chance. Davis takes zaniness to an extreme level in her micro-fiction collection, taking her stories and her readers to the very edge of the human imagination. Nothing I’ve read for a class has ever made me laugh harder.

  1. The Reluctant Fundamentalist – Mohsin Hamid

There is nothing more accessible to a college student than a story about trying to find oneself in the capitalist power struggle with the U.S.A. Hamid’s story is one of strife and searching for philosophical answers in contemporary society, inside oneself and through interactions with one’s environment. The many dimensions of this work makes it one of the best books I’ve ever read.

  1. Light in August – William Faulkner

Faulkner is one of those authors whose name is met with a chorus of groans. Even so, this man’s ability to move between pages is amazing. Faulkner crafts some of the most realistic, multifaceted characters I’ve ever read. His protagonist, Joe Christmas, is easy to love and hate and love over and over again. Light in August is a great source reference for anyone struggling to make their characters as human as possible.

  1. Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood

Here, Atwood depicts the potential future of humanity. I love books that make me think, and there is no way to ignore the blatant questions that this author is asking in her post-modern setting. Depicted through the perspective of a survivor after humanity is almost wiped out, this book’s plot confronts us with questions to which we have no answer: What is human? What isn’t? And who are we to say?

  1. Baltics – Tomas Tranströmer

Baltics is a book length poem divided into six parts that has been translated into English. Reading this piece changed the way I write and read almost immediately. While I love all the books on the list, Baltics is one of the few I can’t help but come back to repeatedly. The family history twisted into this character’s love of the sea leaves a haunting impression even after a first read. If I were to ever teach creative writing, this would be on my syllabus.

  1. Pale Fire – Vladimir Nabokov

I read Pale Fire in a room of mostly sophomores just beginning their English careers who were totally underwhelmed by all the reading on our syllabus. By the time that we picked up this book at the end of the semester, most of my classmates were completely over the work load. However, I couldn’t help but be intrigued by my professor’s love for such a dense, difficult to understand novel. There is something so satisfying and simultaneously dissatisfying about a book that provides no real answers for the questions that it possesses. Here, there is no train of thought to follow through to the end.

  1. Watchmen – Alan Moore

How can one explain Watchmen? Easily the most influential book I’ve ever read. If you’ve never picked up a graphic novel, you should. If you’ve never picked up this graphic novel, you should. There’s a shocking realism to this story considering that it’s set in a version of America where Nixon is still president in 1985. Through these heroes, Moore questions his readers about how far someone should be willing to go for what they think is right and how vastly different those ethical perspectives can be.

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