What are the Best English Novels I Should Read?

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Answered by: JP, An Expert in the Literature and Book Basics Category
English language novels have a long history. Though some might argue that Cervantes' Don Quixote is the first novel ever, most scholars agree that the novel as we know it actually began in England sometime in the early eighteenth century. Furthermore, given England's imperial past and America's powerful present, English today is a global language. That means that the English language novel is not just an Anglo-American tradition but one that spreads across continents including African and Asia. So when asking what are the best English novels I should read, you are choosing from a rich and varied tradition. Your choices should reflect that.

To begin with a reader might be interested in exploring some of the earliest examples of the novel from the seventeenth and eighteenth century. To begin with, an interested reader might explore Aphra Behn's "Oroonoko," a "pre" novel about the middle passage and slavery. The eponymous hero is an African prince captured and sold into slavery. The short novel follows his exploits during his enslavement.

Sometimes considered the first "American" novel, "Oroonoko" looks at issues that will be central both to England's colonial experience and America's peculiar institution. It might then be worthwhile to peruse Daniel Defoe's famous tale of survival "Robinson Crusoe," which offers a less critical account of English experience overseas. Defoe was an indefatigable writer and one of the most important developers of the novel form in England. Robinson Crusoe, of course, tells the story of a man shipwrecked in the Americas, who must build a new home.

Although it breaks from the New World themes of the previous two works, a reader interested in what the best English novels to read are should certainly at least pick up one or both of Samuel Richardson's massive tomes "Pamela" and "Clarissa." The publication of "Pamela" in the middle of the eighteenth century literally provoked a media storm. Some readers might find the novels slow going today, but fans of Jane Austen's fiction will recognize premonitions of Elizabeth Bennet and Fanny Price in Pamela's strong character.

Speaking of Austen, "divine Jane" is the next logical step in our survey of some of the best English novels. "Mansfield Park" will provide a nice comparison to "Pamela," and indeed if you have made it through Richardson's doorstop of a book you'll only appreciate Austen more. But more importantly, the Betrams' sinister West Indian fortune brings you back to the global themes that had preoccupied the earlier selections. Skipping from Austen to Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre" to Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" will help you quickly round out the nineteenth century with some classic works.

At some point, you will want to explore the breadth and depth of American novels. Twain is a good place to start. "Huckleberry Finn" remains perhaps the classic American novel. Huck's casual slangy narration crafted a uniquely American idiom for fiction. Even if you read it in high school and didn't like it, read it again. It only gets better with each reread. The same goes for the "Great Gatsby." Rereading Fitzgerald's novel about Jazz age America with a little more experience and wisdom under your belt and you will realize that the story is not all about a little green light or those vacant eyes on the billboard.

Finally, to round out your whirlwind tour through the best English novels, you should explore writers from India, the Caribbean, and Africa. Rushdie's "Satanic Verses," the novel that literally sent the author into hiding, is probably one of the most controversial books published in the twentieth century. "Things Fall Apart" by Chinua Achebe remains the standard introduction the English language African literature. In many ways it will provide an interesting look back.

Although by no means comprehensive, this short list of the best English novels should get you started.

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