I have based my list of to-read books on my own college curriculum. Then I have added some of my own suggestions, discarded a few, and updated it as much as necessary to fit in the last decade or more years.
*Shakespeare and Marlowe are not included since they would need an article of their own.
I don't think it's any surprise to start with Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. My preferred publisher (for usually all my classics in English) is Penguin. Their books usually have a serious and accessible introduction with historical background, plus nice print size and flexible and neat paperbacks. We did not read Beowulf, so I leave it up to you to do it or not. I, personally, don't feel any urgency to read it. The tales are very interesting and fun to read, very much like Boccacio's Decameron from Italy. The most interesting thing to study about this book, though, is the life and travels of its author, of which I don't have any book, only my professor's notes.
We did not read Milton's "Paradise Lost" either. So, by now, you must be asking yourself, what the heck did we read! Well, other books. This one, we discussed it, though. And it seemed in advance a pretty tough steak to chew.
We did read, and enjoy very much, Jonathan Swift's classic story Gulliver's Travels (Penguin Classics), and Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (Penguin Classics). By Defoe we had to read also Moll Flanders (Signet Classics) but we eventually did not. The lectures on Moll Flanders were, however, very attentively listened to. I was amazed to tind that there was so many issues and topics that we could talk about during the study of these two books. You should never miss the historical and (in particular) national context of the book's composition.
By Samuel Richardson we had to read Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded (Oxford World's Classics) and by Henry Fielding Joseph Andrews and Shamela (Oxford World's Classics). We read the second only. I liked it very much, though it is not yet Dicken's style at all. Also, Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield (Oxford World's Classics), of which I don't remember anything, only that it is short.
The following one probably won't be included in any college course on English literature, but not out of lack of quality or importance, but because it's a biography. But what a biography, and of what a character! You must read, if only for your self-gratification, James Boswell's Life of Johnson (Oxford World's Classics). And buy the most unabridged, expensive edition you can, because you will always want to have this book close to you, almost as much as the KJV of the Bible. Its wit, intelligence, common sense, wisdom, description of daily routines and conversations is undescribably delicious. It's more than 15 hundred pages but you'll wish it never, ever, ended.
I know that we had to read more than one book by Charles Dickens, but I only remember one, Hard Times (Signet Classics), and which is the onle I like least of all. Then I read by my own will other novels that I like much better, Oliver Twist (Penguin Classics) (I think this is my favorite of the 6 or 8 I read), David Copperfield (Penguin Classics), which I read in Spanish -so impatient was I to read Disckens' books faster. I felt "David Copperfield" was a little melodramatic, too soap-operish, but great anyhow. And above all, the best, the greatest novel I've ever read in the English language, The Pickwick Papers (Penguin Classics). It was a sin that they did not include it in college. I read it by my own choice. Yes, Dickens can make a whole course by himself.
Another author that I loved was William M. Thackeray. His Vanity Fair (Penguin Classics) is absolutely magnific, and long. He is one of those authors that write so well that by page fifty you may not even care anymore what really is going on in the story (though you do), you just want to keep imagining, and reading... Stanley Kubrick made a film, actually his best film, out of another Thackeray classic: "Barry Lyndon". I still have not read this book, an imperfection that I must correct urgently.
Jane Austen was, and is still, very popular. If so, it must be for the wrong reason. I say so because she was really an excellent writer, very exquisite. I liked her style very much. The only thing that I quite didn't like was the subject of her stories. I think I read three or four of her books. The best ones are Pride and Prejudice (Penguin Classics) and Sense and Sensibility (Penguin Classics).
The climax of romantic novels in English is unarguably Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights (Penguin Classics). I must admit that this book is a one-of-a-kind book. Truly a masterpiece. And I am not a fan of this kind of stories, but I have to say that this one is something else. Just read it for yourself, completely mandatory.
Thomas Hardy is another great author worthy of this course. His best work is Jude The Obscure. This book is one of my favorites, any time. It left an unshakeable impression on me long ago; and today it still makes me shiver when I think about it. There is a very personal, intimist, tragic side to this man. If you catch it you will sure love it. Then I read "Tess", which I did not like, so I have read no more by Hardy. Roman Polanski made a movie of this book, a very bad one, sadly, though it included Natasha Kinski in the cast.
George Elot's (pseudonym) Middlemarch (Penguin Classics) is as great a book as it is long. I can't praise enough this book that I enjoyed so much. With "The Pickwick Papers", they are my all time favorites in English. The rest of her books never reach the superb quality of this one, although there a re indeed good ones.
A lot could be studied about the romantic era and the great british poets that proliferated almost simultaneously. However, I don't consider their poetry that important (contrary to the academic belief). What I do consider important is understanding the big picture of what goes on politically in the world at the time, which is not part of this course (it would be of a related course). But as an example of one of the great poets of this time, I recommend reading Lord Alfred Tennyson's Tennyson: Selected Poems (Penguin Classics).
Oscar Wilde must be in this list. My teacher did not include it though, I can't figure out why. He may not be the James Joyce of his time, but he was indeed a beloved author of the people, of any time. He wrote from the heart to the heart, for the people, not for the professors. Everybody loves Oscar Wilde. I have his complete works in a beautiful single volume in Spanish. But here, in English, I want to recommend just two books: his masterful The Picture of Dorian Gray and his fairy tales, The Complete Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde. There's no reason why all erading should be high-brow.
Now we are getting into the XXth century and here are the leading authors:
James Joyce, of course, with two books. First his short stories collected in Dubliners (Oxford World's Classics). John Huston made an excellent movie out of it, but it's not edited in DVD yet. Then A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Penguin Classics), and finally (but all of them are absolutely mandatory) his absolute masterpiece Ulysses. His "Finnegans Wake" would be asking you too much, but go ahead, challenge yourself (and then tell me what it is really about). There are a couple of very important and well written biographies, one about Joyce himself, James Joyce (Oxford Lives), and another of his beloved wife Nora Barnacle, Nora: The Real Life of Molly Bloom.
By Virginia Woof I have chosen two of her works. First and favorite is To the Lighthouse (Annotated) and Mrs. Dalloway. The stream-of-consciousness style should not be an impediment to appreciate the marvelous low of language; read slow, stop if need be, then continue.
In poetry I would basically focus on T. S. Eliot, specially his poem "The Wasteland". Read his T. S. Eliot: Collected Poems, 1909-1962 (The Centenary Edition). William Butler Yeats and Ezra Pound should be the next candidates in your list.
I have ommitted E. M. Forster's books. I just don't see the need to include him. But he certainly provides a different perspective on things British.
Finally, I'd like to close by mentioning a few relevant authors of the XXth century whose works, although not at the level of their predecessors, play a significant role in this course due to the way they capture the "feel" of their contemporary world, they transmit the mood of a society, etc. These are Noel Coward's plays, Blithe Spirit, Hay Fever, Private Lives: Three Plays; George Orwell's two important works: Animal Farm and 1984; William Golding's Lord of the Flies (50th Anniversary Edition); Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory (Penguin Classics) and Our Man in Havana: An Entertainment (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin); Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day; and Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin), which although it is a travel book, has the best English prose written by anybody in the twentieth century.
Of course I have left out Robert Louis Stevenson. But he is so obvious a choice for anybody to read! Even if I told you not to read him, it should come out of you to read him, regardless; just like in the case of Oscar Wilde. In the end never mind what you read, just read and enjoy doing it.