Self-Study English Literature: A 14-Book Reading Plan for Beginners

Looking to study English Literature on your own, outside of the classroom, but aren’t quite sure where to start?

I’ve been there. 

What past me needed was a plan — a reading plan, to be exact. 

This article aims to provide you with a reading program of 14 books, divided into four categories, that’ll help you systematically break into the study of English literature. 

Below are the four types of books included in the reading plan:

  • Instructive Books That Teach You How to Read Literature Deeply
  • Classic Novels That are Beginner-Friendly
  • Works of Literary Criticism Written for a Non-Specialist
  • Anthologies (poetry, essays, short stories)

I’ll go into the books shortly, and further explain the purpose of each category. First, I’d like to say a bit about reading order and how to use the program.

Reading Order Recommendations 

When it comes to reading order, I recommend starting with the classic novel that seems the most interesting to you. 

Fueled with passion, you can then start to work through the first three categories in a cyclical manner — reading 1 instructive book, 2 classic novels, 1 work of literary criticism, repeat.

For the anthologies, I recommend using the Ray Bradbury trio method — reading one poem, essay, and short story each night before bed. 

The books I recommend are ones that hold a special place in my heart and that I believe will be helpful and accessible to the beginner. 

That said, feel free to use this article as more of a template than a reading list. You can easily do your own research and exchange books for ones you want to read.  

Also, to really ramp up this self education, consider writing a book review or criticism of each one you read. Post it on Goodreads or a blog. That’ll force you to think deeply about the novels. 

Alright, now we can hop into the books for self-studying this life-depicting, and often life-changing, field of study. 

Books That Teach You to Read Literature Like a Scholar

These books are meant to help you become a more creative and critical reader who can: 

  • Spot literary devices, themes, and artistic influence. 
  • Analyze the structure of a work.
  • Make persuasive arguments about the author’s intentions or the work’s meaning
  • And just better understand the works you read. 

In essence, these books help you read more like a literary scholar or critic than like a hobbyist. 

Of course, it’s always okay, and often encouraged, to simply read for enjoyment. But it’s nice to have the intellectual tools to dig deeper into a text when you want to. 

Note that, like with any skill, reading critically can become slightly automatic with enough practice. 

Noticing deeper meaning and hidden design in literature will become second nature. You won’t have to say, “let’s find a motif today.” You’ll just see it when it occurs. 

How to Read Literature Like a Professor

“Education is mostly about institutions and getting tickets stamped; learning is what we do for ourselves. When we’re lucky, they go together. If I had to choose, I’d take learning.” — Thomas C. Foster

I read How to Read Literature Like a Professor a while back. It’s a basic guide to reading between the lines of literature like a Literature scholar. 

In it, Professor Thomas Foster teaches you about key literary devices and symbols that show up again and again in literature, and what they usually mean. 

For example, there’s a chapter on vampires where he argues that vampires typically symbolize the predatory theft of a young girl’s innocence. 

Another explores weather in fiction. Rain, for instance, often means a whole lot more than things were wet that day. 

In Forster’s words, his goal with this book is the following: 

“What I hope to do, in the coming pages, is what I do in class: give readers a view of what goes on when professional students of literature do their thing, a broad introduction to the codes and patterns that inform our readings.” — Thomas C. Foster

Overall, he does a pretty good job of it. 

Really, books like this one are most helpful not for their interpretations of the great works they use as examples, but for their ability to give you some things to look for when reading alone.  

The book also provides you with literature background knowledge and vocabulary (verisimilitude is one you’ll see a lot) that help you make your own interpretations and argue them persuasively. 

Keep in mind that some chapters might be more interesting to you than others. You have my permission — not that you need it — to skip or skim them if they bore you. I passed over a few. 

The real meat and potatoes, after all, are the novels, plays, poems, short stories, and essays in the next category. 

How to Read & Why

“Read deeply, not to believe, not to accept, not to contradict, but to learn to share in that one nature that writes and reads.” — Harold Bloom

Written by Harold Bloom, a critic whose intimidatingly well-read, How to Read and Why is a classic work of literary criticism that sets out to explain the cardinal value of reading great literature — that is, to explore and cultivate the self.

It’s less practical than the previous book, but far more inspiring, reading like a love letter to the act of reading fiction. 

I’ve included it in this category instead of the criticism one because one of the best ways to learn to do something is by watching and imitating a master doing it, and when it comes to reading literature, Harold Bloom is certainly that. 

Throughout the book he references and analyzes parts of classic works and in doing so gives you a masterclass on how to read a book deeply. 

It shows you a future reading ability that, if you take this endeavor seriously, you may one day achieve. 

If you want to become well-read in a subject or two, check out my guide on how to become well-read in three years

Bonus Literary History Book: If you want to learn a bit about the history of literature and its most important writers and movements, dating back to ancient Greek Mesopotamia, consider reading John Sutherland’s A Little History of Literature as well. 

Beginner-Friendly Classic Novels

I chose novels because they’re today’s most popular literary form (mine as well) and because for most beginners they’re easier to read and enjoy than an epic poem or a play. 

I suppose I could’ve included a Shakespeare play in here but I’ll let you do that on your own when you’re ready. 

Below are some of my favorite novels of all time, spanning from the romantic period with Jane Austen all the way to Orwell’s 1984, published in 1949. 

I tried to include a titular work from each major era of the novel — romantic, victorian, modern — as well as some American works. 

I also chose novels that a beginner can easily finish. Therefore, Moby Dick, Great Expectations, Middlemarch, Wuthering Heights, and everything by Faulkner, do not make an appearance. 

Feel free to trade any of these books out for another one you really want to read. 

What matters most when studying literature is that you read a lot of books, and reading what you love is the best way to make sure that happens. 

Pride and Prejudice

“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.” — Jane Austen

A classic romance drama, Pride and Prejudice is one of Jane Austen’s most beloved novels. 

Her keen sense of irony and powers of social critique are all on full display in this masterpiece of early 19th English literature. 

Despite its wide ranging and elevated vocabulary, Pride and Prejudice is still a great novel for beginners. It’ll keep you hooked from start to finish and make you laugh throughout. 

It’s hard to get through one of Mr Collins long-winded, self-satisfied speeches without rolling your eyes and grinning madly. 

As someone with little patience for romances in any fictional form I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed spending time with The Bennetts, Mr Darcy, and the rest of the well-drawn and often satirical characters. 

The lessons I took from it were priceless.  

A Christmas Carol

“Reflect upon your present blessings—of which every man has many—not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.” — Charles Dickens

A Christmas Carol is a novella by Charles Dickens about the transformation of a miserly old moneylender into a generous, redeemed soul. 

There are very few changes of hearts so extraordinary and touching as that of Ebenezer Scrooge. He crosses from one end of the kindness spectrum to the other in just one Christmas eve. 

Perhaps that’s why the novella has been adapted for the screen 40+ times. 

 Every Christmas Eve my family — well, the ones who aren’t in a wine-induced coma — watches Scrooge (1970), the best adaptation, in my opinion, especially if you like musicals. 

It’s the one with the famous song “Thank You Very Much”: 

I always cry at one specific scene — in fact, I’m getting chills right now thinking about it — where the older Scrooge watches, in agony, his younger self dancing joyfully with his former love, whom he’s since let slip away in the pursuit of money and career. 

Aside from the pleasing effects of tradition, there’s another reason why families watch this movie every Christmas. 

Its lessons are worth revisiting. 

The story reminds us of what’s important in life — family, love, community — and what should be avoided — greed, isolation, coldness.

If you’ve seen the movies, I highly recommend reading the novella. It’s a great gateway to Dickens, who’ll move you with his charming writing and his bouncy, lyrical prose. 

The Picture of Dorian Gray

“I like persons better than principles, and I like persons with no principles better than anything else in the world.” — Oscar Wilde

The Picture of Dorian Gray is a gothic novel by Oscar Wilde that portrays the moral corruption of an especially attractive and suggestible young man named Dorian Gray. 

If you like pithy writing and a character with a sharp tongue, this is the novel for you. Lord Henry will dazzle you with his dangerous, hedonistic ideas that he so convincingly expresses to young Dorian. 

I can’t help but imagine what it would be like to hang out with Oscar Wilde, who was supposedly more witty in verbal speech than in his writing. 

Quick Philosophy Note: There’s a lot of philosophy going on in this book — if you like that, consider checking out my 9-book philosophy reading plan for beginners. It follows a similar structure as this one and will help you gain a footing in the discipline.  

The Lord of the Rings

“Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.” — J.R.R Tolkien

The fantasy series that started it all. 

The Lord of the Rings is an adventure trilogy about, in my opinion, friendship’s ability to overcome even the darkest of times, and the most formidable of enemies. 

I wouldn’t say it’s the greatest piece of literature ever written —though one could make the argument — but I will say with assured confidence that it’s one of the top five greatest stories ever told in the English language. It’s also remarkably literary for its genre. 

What other story represents the ultimate theme of good vs evil on such an epic scale. What fictional quests are as heroic and important as that of the hobbits? And how many literary characters are as tragic and complicated as Gollum?

Source: St Thomas 

This is getting into question-based rant territory so let me get back on track.  

Tolkien’s masterpiece is also highly readable. I find myself escaping into Middle Earth during a variety of occasions — chilly autumn evenings, hungover Sunday mornings. 

When I’m gloomy and the whole world seems to conspire against me, Gandalf’s wise words never fail to restore in me a sense of comfort and hope.

On another note, despite being a fantasy series, this work happens to be widely respected by even the snobbiest of scholars and critics. 

The story comes with the added benefit of giving you fictional heroes, characters with drive and courage who you can look up to — Aragorn, Sam, Gandalf, Eowyn, just to name a few.

If you liked the movies, do yourself a favor and read the books. If you read them as a child, consider doing it again as an adult. Matured, you’ll see the world and the characters in a new light. 

The Great Gatsby

“I’ve been drunk for about a week now, and I thought it might sober me up to sit in a library.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald

When the topic of conversation turns to books we were made to read in high school, which happens with an odd frequency, people often cite The Great Gatsby as their favorite. 

I think that’s because, along with its enhancing language and insights into the American dream, a lot of big stuff actually happens in this classic — stuff I won’t share in case you don’t already know the story. 

Anyway, I should probably give this a reread. Many claim that it’s the best American novel ever written. And, according to this masterlist of the 50 greatest novels of all time, it clocks in at number 5. 

Black Boy

“It was on reputedly disreputable Beale Street in Memphis that I had met the warmest, friendliest person I had ever known, that I discovered that all human beings were not mean.” — Richard Wright

Black Boy, by Richard Wright, is technically an autobiography. 

But Yale’s free Course The American Novel Since 1945 includes it on the syllabus, so I’m doing the same. 

I would go ahead and recommend Native Son, Wright’s novel, but I haven’t read it yet, and I just love this one so much. If you want to read that one instead, go ahead. 

Regardless of your choice, Richard Wright will amaze you with the clarity and beauty of his prose (if you’re into that sort of thing) and the horrors of his confrontations with racism, violence, and social injustice of various sorts. 

Black Boy is a coming of age story about Richard Wright, portraying his formative years in the Jim Crow South to his early career as a writer in Chicago. 

By reading this work you’ll get a clear vision into the post-reconstruction American south, with all its insecurity, hatred, and fear. 

I found this book very hard to put down. 

Like Studying US History? If so, I recommend visiting my American History self-education roadmap, where you’ll find some great ways to teach yourself the subject and become a US history buff. 


“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”  — George Orwell

1984 was one of the first serious works of fiction I read on my own volition. 

The story, the writing, the implications — all these elements worked together to light a fire of passion in me that has only gained intensity over the years with each book that I’ve tossed into its greedy flames. 

1984 is dystopian political fiction meant to criticize totalitarianism in all its forms. 

It warns us of the danger and loneliness of living in a surveillance state, where history has been rewritten to serve the aims of a few and where free expression is no longer permitted if it contradicts the doctrine of the state. 

This novel is a masterpiece and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. 

More Modern Books? If you want some recommendations for post-WW2 American novels, check out this free Open Yale Course The American Novel Since 1945 — The Human Stain is on the syllabus and one of my favorites of all time. 

Beginner-Friendly Books of Literary Criticism 

These books analyze, interpret, judge, and comment upon aspects of literature. 

Sometimes an entire novel, a whole literary movement’s body of work, or an author. And sometimes just a single sentence or word. 

In the two books I’ve recommended, it’s mostly the author riffing on passages from well-known works of literature, then discussing how the findings of their close reading support whatever claims they’re making about literature as a whole. 

The purpose of reading a few books of literary criticism early in your studies is to acquaint yourself with the field and help you better understand how literature works. 

An added benefit of reading criticism is that you’ll become a closer reader yourself. This is true , even if you haven’t already read the novel being analyzed. 

You’ll also become better able to write and speak about the works of fiction you do choose to read. You’ll have the basics of the language. 

How Fiction Works

“Literature differs from life in that life is amorphously full of detail, and rarely directs us toward it, whereas literature teaches us to notice. Literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practice on life itself; which in turn makes us better readers of detail in literature; which in turn makes us better readers of life.” — James Wood

How Fiction Works is a short and easy-to-read analysis of the key components of fiction — character, detail, metaphor, realism, etc. 

It’s my favorite on the subject. 

In the book, James Wood, English literary critic, asks questions like:

  • Why are some details interesting and others not?
  • How do writers make us feel like we’re in the minds of their characters?
  • When did the tradition of the realistic novel really begin?

By reading this book, you’ll also gain some grounding in the history of literature. You’ll learn about some of the biggest names and their contributions to literature, like Jane Austen’s free indirect style.  

The Art of Fiction

“This is a book for people who prefer to take their Lit. Crit. in small doses, a book to browse in, and dip into…” — David Lodge

David Lodges’ The Art of Fiction is a great one to read every morning because each chapter is about 3-4 pages long and focuses on just one aspect of the novel.

Aspects covered include POV, the intrusive narrator, beginnings, internal monologue, defamiliarization, and over 50 others. 

Each chapter follows the same structure:

  • Title: The name of the literary device or technique.
  • Passages: One or two short extracts from novels that illustrate the device.
  • Introduction: Explanation of the literary device or technique and its effects. 
  • Commentary: Discussion of how the authors use the device successfully. 

Much like How to Read Literature Like a Professor, this book will give you plenty of stuff to notice and think about while you’re reading fiction. 

Additional Book on Theory: If you want to learn about literary theory, consider Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction, which will teach you the basics of the field. 


Anthologies are collections, usually of one literary genre. I recommend grabbing three — one of poetry, one of essays, and one of short stories. 

Keep these on your bedside table and read one from each every night. After a year of doing this you’ll have read 365 poems, short stories, and essays — quite the impressive feat. 

As for which anthologies to get, that depends on your interests, but I’ll give you some ideas in the sections below. 

Poetry Anthologies / Collections

I’m currently reading from a Robert Frost collection

But there are all types of anthologies out there. You can find ones for specific authors and literary movements, and even larger ones that span all of English Literature.

Here are some anthologies to consider buying:

  • John Keats Anthology: A brilliant romantic poet, also one of the easiest to read as a beginner. 
  • Norton Anthology of Poetry: This one is a standard in college poetry classes. It contains some of the best English poems of all time, from the medieval period to the present. 
  • English Romantic Poetry: Here you’ll find poems from Blake, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, and Lord Byron. 
  • 101 Great American Poems: I’ve been reading this one randomly and have enjoyed the selection so far. Who knew Henry Longfellow was so entertaining. 

If you want to better understand the poetry you’re reading, I highly recommend this YouTube channel: 

Now let’s go over short stories. 

Short Story Anthologies

Short stories are an especially wonderful literary form to read right before bed. In just a few pages they transport you to a new world and take you on an emotional journey. 

Below are my four favorite short story anthologies:

  • Ray Bradbury’s Short Stories: These are the100 short stories that Bradbury considered his best. This is one of my most cherished books. Prepare to laugh, cry, and wonder. 
  • Ghost Stories – Chosen by Roald Dahl: I came across this one in The Strand in NYC. It’s a bunch of spooky and chilling ghost stories hand picked by Roald Dahl, the master of creepiness.  
  • The Best Short Stories of 2022: If you like contemporary fiction, grab this one. My aunt gifted it to me for Christmas and I have yet to open it but I’m excited to read it soon. 
  • Norton Anthology of Short Fiction: This contains some of the best short stories ever written. Teachers of literature often have their students buy a copy. 

If you have a favorite author, it’s likely they’ve written some short stories as well, and they might be up online. 

Next up, essays.

Essay Anthologies / Collections

I love essays. I’m always left feeling intellectually nourished and challenged after a good one. 

I’m currently working my way through The Glorious American Essay collection as a way to learn about American history. 

Here are some of the best essay anthologies to include in this program: 

  • The Glorious American Essay: Written in chronological order by date published, this anthology contains some of the best essays ever written in America, from Ben Franklin and Emerson to David Foster Wallace and Zadie Smith. 
  • The Art of the Personal Essay: Created by the same anthologizer and essayist as the last one, this book contains some of the best personal essays of all time.
  • The Norton Reader: This one has some great range. The essays span politics, philosophy, history, criticism, and other genres. It’s a standard in many classrooms. 

An essay collection is a great way to gain intellectual range as well as insights into fields that may be unfamiliar to you. 

Stay Motivated & Keep Reading

To summarize, you can give yourself a pretty solid foundation in English Literature by reading some introductory books, some beginner-friendly classic novels, a few books of criticism, and three anthologies. 

For motivation, consider buying these books before you start studying. Put them in a stack on one side of a table. 

Then, whenever you finish a book, move it from the tall stack to a second stack of read books. Watching your progress will inspire you to keep reading. 

If English Literature seems like a subject in which you’d like to gain some serious depth, check out my article on how to self-learn English literature, where you’ll find a step-by-step roadmap for studying the subject for the long haul.

The guide includes recommended online courses, YouTube videos, books, and other learning materials and strategies, as well as a learning path. 

Regardless, I hope your journey through this wonderful tradition of imaginative literature is an inspiring and enjoyable one!  

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