The Canterbury Tales: A Reading List, recommended by Marion Turner

Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales not only revolutionized English poetry—they’re also extremely funny and moving. Oxford Professor Marion Turner, who has written the first full-length biography of Chaucer in a generation, tells us about the extraordinary man who wrote them and why we should all read the Canterbury Tales. 

The Best George Orwell Books, recommended by D J Taylor

Seventy years on from its initial publication, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is just as resonant in today’s era of misinformation and fake news as it was in the incipient Cold War era. D J Taylor, author of a lauded biography of Orwell and a forthcoming biography of Nineteen Eighty-Four, takes us through the extraordinary impact of the author’s fiction and reportage.

Shakespeare’s Best Plays, recommended by Emma Smith

Shakespearean scholar Emma Smith picks her five favourite plays of the Bard, and controversially argues that not only are some of his plays just too long, but also that the most moving moments in Shakespeare’s oeuvre are where we might not expect them

The best books on Shakespeare’s Sonnets, recommended by Scott Newstok

The beauty of Shakespeare’s sonnets speaks to us down the centuries, their lines peaking out at us from the titles of famous books or enjoying outings at weddings or other romantic occasions. But they were not always regarded as perfectly-formed jewels, and the relationships they portray not as conventional as many of us presume. Here, Shakespeare scholar Scott Newstok talks us through books that help us learn more about Shakespeare’s sonnets, from the best introduction to the poems for students through to their afterlife and recent creative interpretations.

René Weis on The Best Plays of Shakespeare

In the second of a Five Books series marking the 400th year since the world’s most popular playwright’s death, eminent Shakespearean René Weis picks his five favourite plays, and explains why King Lear will change your life.

The Best Samuel Taylor Coleridge Books, recommended by Seamus Perry

The reputation of Romantic poet, critic and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge has long been overshadowed by William Wordsworth, his friend and Lyrical Ballads co-author. Oxford professor Seamus Perry talks us through the books that showcase Coleridge’s idiosyncratic brilliance.  

The Best Virginia Woolf Books, recommended by Hermione Lee

Virginia Woolf was long dismissed as a ‘minor modernist’ but now stands as one of the giants of 20th century literature. Her biographer, Hermione Lee, talks us through the best Virginia Woolf books, novels and essays, and diaries, of Virginia Woolf.

The Best Charles Dickens Books, recommended by Jenny Hartley

He was the most popular novelist of the Victorian era, a convivial family man who always championed the underdog. But he also harboured dark secrets that only came out after his death. Jenny Hartley recommends the best books by and about Charles Dickens and discusses Dickens the phenomenon, past and present.

Devoney Looser on The Alternative Jane Austen

Thanks to her ability to be many things to many people at once, Jane Austen is one of the vast minority of writers who manage to be both eternally popular and canonical. Here, Austen scholar Devoney ‘Stone Cold Jane’ Looser presents alternative Austens, from subversive youngster to video-game heroine

The best books on Ralph Waldo Emerson, recommended by James Marcus

Known to many of us as the American Transcendentalist champion of individualism and self-reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson is a much more soulful and sorrowful, brilliant but deeply contradictory thinker than we often give him credit for, says James Marcus, as he recommends the best books by – or about – Emerson.

The Best Iris Murdoch Books, recommended by Miles Leeson

Iris Murdoch gained fame as a novelist, a philosopher and, perhaps most prominently of all, for her public and rapid decline (and posthumous immortalization by her husband John Bayley) after an early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. But now, a hundred years on from her birth, the attention is returning back to her work: Miles Leeson, Director of the Iris Murdoch Centre at the University of Chichester, recommends what books to read from her canon of 27 novels.

The best books on Oscar Wilde, recommended by Sos Eltis

Oscar Wilde cultivated an image of himself as an idle genius, dashing off masterpieces with a lazy brilliance. But below the glittering linguistic surface of his works, suggests Sos Eltis, lies an anarchic politics and a phenomenal analysis of power.

Robert S Miola on Shakespeare’s Sources

William Shakespeare has a strong claim to be the most influential writer of all time. But whose works influenced him? And how? Robert S Miola discusses the breadth of Shakespeare’s reading, the vexed question of how we can reconstruct what he read, and the staggeringly innovative ways that Shakespeare shaped his sources

The best books on Dickens and Christmas, recommended by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

When it was published on December 19th, 1843, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol was an instant classic. As families settle in front of the fire to read it aloud on Christmas Eve, Oxford Professor of English Literature Robert Douglas-Fairhurst runs through the best of Dickens’s prolific writings about Christmas.

Troilus and Criseyde by Geoffrey Chaucer: A Reading List, recommended by Jenni Nuttall

Troilus and Criseyde has a centuries’ old backstory. Long before Renaissance dramas or realist novels, Chaucer wrote a love story set in a besieged city that was a deep psychological exploration of character and human relationships. Jenni Nuttall, author of Troilus and Criseyde: A Reader’s Guide, shares her reading recommendations after over a decade of teaching the poem to Oxford undergraduates.

Sylvia Plath Books, recommended by Tim Kendall

Though biographical sensation has often diverted attention from her work, Sylvia Plath remains one of the finest lyric poets of the twentieth century, argues Professor Tim Kendall, Academic Director of Arts and Culture at Exeter and author of Sylvia Plath: A Critical Study. Here, he recommends the best places to start (or return to) with Plath, from a fresh look at Ariel to illuminating an oft-overlooked, brilliant appendix in her unabridged journals.

The best books on D H Lawrence, recommended by Catherine Brown

Although less flamboyantly experimental than his contemporaries Joyce and Woolf, D H Lawrence was a modernist, says literary scholar Catherine Brown. Here, she selects five books that make the case for this most contradictory, and often divisive, of writers—a man whose fictions and ‘philosophicalish’ works were by turns brilliant and bewildering, sublime and ridiculous

The Best George Eliot Books, recommended by Philip Davis

George Eliot is all but synonymous with Victorian realism; for D H Lawrence, she was the first novelist to start ‘putting all the action inside.’ Here, Philip Davis, author of The Transferred Life of George Eliot, selects the best books by or about one of the greatest novelists of all time: ‘If you want to read literature that sets out to create a holding ground for raw human material—for human struggles, difficulties, and celebrations—read George Eliot’

The Best Anthony Trollope Books, recommended by Francesca Simon

Anthony Trollope compared being a writer to being a cobbler and wrote highly readable novels that nonetheless exposed all our human foibles. Bestselling children’s author and Trollope enthusiast Francesca Simon explains her fascination with Anthony Trollope and recommends some of her favourite books by the Victorian novelist.

The Best Cormac McCarthy Books, recommended by Stacey Peebles

From All The Pretty Horses to Blood Meridian to The Road, Cormac McCarthy has achieved deserved status as a living titan of literary fiction for his philosophical, violent, often deeply moving novels. Cormac McCarthy expert Stacey Peebles introduces us to the author’s oeuvre—and tells us that despite its apocalyptic bleakness, The Road is actually McCarthy’s “happiest book.”

The Best Agatha Christie Books, recommended by Mathew Prichard

Agatha Christie wrote some 80 mysteries and short story collections, nearly all designed to entertain and delight readers with their ingenious plot twists. Here, her only grandson, Mathew Prichard, who oversaw her literary estate for many decades, recommends books that give a good sense of the range of her work, from Miss Marple to Hercule Poirot to mysteries featuring neither, and including her best short story.  

The Best Books by Wilkie Collins, recommended by Jason Hall

Wilkie Collins, the sensationalist author and inventor of the detective novel, knew precisely how to “make ’em laugh, make ’em cry, make ’em wait”. Jason Hall, Victorian literature expert and editor of a new edition of Jezebel’s Daughter, chooses the five best books from Collins’s extensive oeuvre – and considers the voracious appetites and unorthodox lifestyle of this intriguing Englishman.

The Best H G Wells Books, recommended by Roger Luckhurst

Often described as the ‘father of science fiction’, H G Wells was a man of extraordinary charisma and vivid imagination. Yet he suffered terribly from class anxiety and subscribed to political beliefs we now find abhorrent, says the editor and author Roger Luckhurst. He recommends the best books to learn more about the life and work of the British writer H G Wells.

The Best Daphne du Maurier Books, recommended by Laura Varnam

Daphne du Maurier is one of the most overlooked writers of the twentieth century, says Oxford University’s Laura Varnam. As Rebecca celebrates its eightieth anniversary and du Maurier enjoys a critical renaissance, Varnam explores the books which highlight this novelist’s sheer range and brilliance—from biography and fiction to history and horror.

The Best Samuel Beckett Books, recommended by Mark Nixon

Samuel Beckett remains one of the most significant writers of the twentieth century. Ruthlessly experimental, his plays, novels, and poems represent a sustained attack on the realist tradition. Dr Mark Nixon looks at the mutating nature of Beckett’s literary style and explains why he didn’t choose Waiting for Godot.

The Best American Poetry, recommended by Elisa New

With the help of a good anthology and a heaping dose of American classics, anyone can be converted to being a lover of poetry. Elisa New, Harvard scholar and host of the new PBS series Poetry in America, recommends her favorite American poets, from Emily Dickinson to Elizabeth Bishop.

The Best African American Literature, recommended by Farah Jasmine Griffin

An ever-growing body of authors are writing about the reality of what it means to be black in America, says Farah Jasmine Griffin, director of the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University. Here she recommends five works of African American literature, from greats like Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison to lesser-known gems by Ann Petry.

The best books on Personality Types, recommended by Merve Emre

Since its birth in the early twentieth century, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) has become the most popular personality test in the world. Here, Merve Emre, author of the new book The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing, recommends five books that reveal how the language of ‘type’ has seeped into the marrow of American civic institutions and social life—from Fortune 500 companies to Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

The best books on Witches and Witchcraft, recommended by Diane Purkiss

For centuries, the witch has been an index not only of what we fear most in others, but also what we cannot cope with—the powerfully abnormal, strange and often irrational elements—in ourselves. And the best way to understand the history of witches and witchcraft is to first understand the supernatural, according to Diane Purkiss, Professor at Keble College, Oxford and author of the lauded book The Witch in History.

The best books on The Gothic, recommended by Nick Groom

‘The Gothic’ can refer to ecclesiastical architecture, supernatural fiction, cult horror films and a recent subculture. Here, Nick Groom—who is professor in English at the University of Exeter and is also known as the ‘Prof. of Goth’—recommends five of the best books on the Gothic, showing how this term remains central to the way we think of our identities today.

David Russell on The Victorian Essay

With the advent of the Victorian age, polite maxims of eighteenth-century essays in the Spectator were replaced by a new generation of writers who thought deeply—and playfully—about social relationships, moral responsibility, education and culture. Here, Oxford literary critic David Russell explores the distinct qualities that define the Victorian essay and recommends five of its greatest practitioners.

The best books on Sex in Victorian Literature, recommended by Claire Jarvis

We often assume the Victorians had puritanical attitudes to sex, but this was far from the reality. From familiar classics to neglected gems, Claire Jarvis—Stanford academic and author of Exquisite Masochism: Sex, Marriage and the Novel Form—selects the best books on sex in Victorian literature.

The best books on Adam and Eve, recommended by Stephen Greenblatt

Who were Adam and Eve, really? Over many centuries, the origin story has undergone countless transformations. The Pulitzer Prize-winner and Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt chooses five books that explore the history of Adam and Eve, and tells us why the world isn’t ready to leave the narrative of Eden behind

Katie Kitamura on Marriage (and Divorce) in Literature

Love and marriage may go together like a horse and carriage, but what happens when the horses are spooked and the whole procession is run off the road? Katie Kitamura, whose new novel A Separation charts the disastrous—and tragic—failure of a marriage, considers some of literature’s most heartfelt accounts of relationship failure

The Greatest Romantic Poems, recommended by Gillen D'Arcy Wood

Freud said he owed them everything and even people who have never read a poem in their lives speak their language today. Gillen D’Arcy Wood, Professor of Environmental Humanities and English at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, explains who the Romantic poets were and recommends five of the greatest Romantic poems.

The Best Victorian Novels, recommended by John Sutherland

The Victorian era was a golden age for fiction, says Victorian literature specialist John Sutherland, Emeritus Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London. He talks us through the some of the best novels written during the Victorian period, and what they reveal about the people who wrote them.

The best books on Modernism, recommended by Alexandra Harris

Modernism is about form more than content, says literary scholar and critic Alexandra Harris, author of Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper. She tells us about the history of the modernist movement, and picks five books that exemplify or explain it.

The Best American Stories, recommended by Simon Winchester

Modern America is a story of expanding frontiers, says bestselling author Simon Winchester. He tells us about five novels that shed light on the social history of his adopted homeland, from the late 19th century to the Great Depression.

Essential New York Novels, recommended by Jay McInerney

The author of Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerney, tells us what changed after 9/11 and which books best capture the ambition, romance and creativity of New York. He chooses his list of  “essential New York novels”

Fran Lebowitz on New York Writers

‘The authors of these five books are people who came to New York for freedom – not so they could get rich, but so they could be free to pursue their interests and live their lives the way they wanted.’ New Yorker par excellence Fran Lebowitz recommends the writers who best capture her immutably mutable city.