There is nothing wrong with reading pre-1950 literature. True, it is older language usually, and perhaps a style that is a bit unfamiliar, but the vocabulary is always top-notch. If you are reading Victorian literature and any literature close to that era--Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Mary Shelley, T.S. Eliot, Oscar Wilde....be sure you have a dictionary handy unless your context clues skills are superb. These books ARE college level which is why they are classics and why they are still read on the college level today, but unfortunately, too many of us do not read enough or work enough on the development of our vocabularies to be able to read one of these wonderful works without the aide of a good dictionary.
First, I always caution my students not to use Wikipedia as a source. There are too many variables that could lead to inaccurate information. The next thing I would suggest is to e-mail any one of your university’s English instructors, explain your desire, and ask them their opinion. They will know what the department recommends as “quality college level literature.”
I think that much depends on the course that is being taught. If it is a survey of literature course, it seems that the reading selection is driven by the instructor or the department. From this point on, individuals such as instructors have to be able to stand with their decision in being able to select literature that will engage students, allow for critical thinking and reflection, and provide a forum where individual thoughts can be advanced and directed. The lists below featured int he other posts might be able to guide. However, I would think that, especially if a course for first year students, it would be really interesting to take a sampling of books that should have been read in high school and ask students to reread them as a college student. How are their reactions to the text different? How have they changed? How have they remained constant? This might be an interesting task because the literature becomes almost secondary to the student reading it and it would allow them to examine the arc of maturation and development over a period of time.
Reading a variety of literature can be a fantastic way to expand one's vocabulary and understanding of complex grammar.
There are also literally hundreds of thousands of choices in what literature to read. It's important to choose books that not only provide exposure to the kind of rich reading experiences that college expects but also literature about topics and subject matter that catch your interest and will hold one's attention.
The first list below includes a short description of each work. Doing a little research before selecting what to read will certainly improve your reading experience!
Regarding reading: If you are a university student, go to the University Bookstore and browse the books on reading lists for English classes. Choose something of interest to you. I'd suggest if you're trying to develop your language skills, that you stick with more contemporary (post 1950) choices.
I think this is an interesting list from Time Magazine:
Regarding wikipedia - it is inaccurate, sometimes. However, students will go there regardless of the warnings - it is their nature. I have found that using wikipedia as a brainstorming source is a decent place to begin the research, study process. Then it is legitimized for the overview it can offer, but from there they must get into depth. This is true, too, of book synopsises. Regarding the wiki listing above, it is a fair list of canonized literature. But probably most of it will not assist the person develop their language skills since it is older language, not contemporary.
There are many College-level reading books of the Western world. Universities have what is called a "canon" a selection of many genres of literature that they deem significant to the students who attend their schools.
A list of can be found here:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Books_of_the_Western_World