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5 books a prospective English lit degree student should read and have an opinion on...

(77 Posts)
shoppingbagsundereyes Mon 12-Mar-12 06:46:58

My niece is choosing her a level options. She loves English and says she wants to do an English degree. Other than her set texts she doesn't read though. I have an English degree and at her age read obsessively, working my way through Hardy, Lawrenc, Austen etc. every book I offer dn she says is boring.
So some suggestions please so that I can make her a book list.

WyrdMother Mon 12-Mar-12 06:58:45

Don't have an English degree, so my mind goes straight to the obvious Shakespeare and Chaucer, but wondering about reading around the sort of texts that would turn up on a set text list, but that have some quality to their writing e.g. P.G Woodehouse and Dorothy L Sayers? There's some historical context to get to grips with and parts of the writing that are socially unacceptable now, is that something she needs to consider?

LadyWidmerpool Mon 12-Mar-12 07:06:27

I did two years of English literature and gave up because of the theoretical side, e.g. Propp, which I couldn't get my head round.
. I would advise her to read up on what's involved before committing to a course.

I wouldn't read Lawrence or Hardy for fun if you paid me. You can't do better than the master IMHO, does she enjoy Shakespeare? At the other end of the spectrum have you suggested contemporary fiction? I'm not very up on it but she might find it more relevant.

She could consider the literature of a different country, e.g. the USA or Ireland, or France or Russia if studying the translations is an option.

If her enjoyment of English comes from studying set texts I would say she might be better suited to an English A level/ degree than someone who chooses to do them because they love reading generally as it's such a different kind of reading.

HardCheese Mon 12-Mar-12 07:07:17

I'm an academic in English Lit. and, whatever about her A-levels, if she doesn't read outside her school set texts at this stage, she shouldn't even be considering doing a degree in English! If you are having to coax her by 'offering' her books, she's not a reader, and the courseload for a degree will crush her. Get her to go on the webpage of a degree course she might considering applying to, and to look at the primary and secondary texts for the modules to have some idea.

WyrdMother Mon 12-Mar-12 07:08:25

Okay, it's early and I suck, I didn't catch the five books bit.

So bearing in mind my thoughts above:

The Nine Tailors - Dorothy L Sayers
P G Woodehouse - The Adventures of Sally
A Civil Contract - Georgette Heyer (How a writer of the 50's saw the Austen Period)
I Captured the Castle - Dodie Smith
Precious Bane - Mary Webb

Mrsrobertduvall Mon 12-Mar-12 07:10:01

I have a degree in English and managed to get it without ever reading Austen,Lawrence and other "classic" authors. Only ever read 3 Shakespeare plays and 2 Dickens.
What about Evelyn Waugh, American authors such as William Faulkner, Theodore Dreiser, Edith Wharton, Henry James.

Bucharest Mon 12-Mar-12 07:14:33

I didn't do either an English degree or English A'level....but by the I was choosing A levels I was working my way through everyone and everything.

I'd say if your niece doesn't read beyond set texts, then she doesn't love English as much as she thinks she does.

But possibly: Graham Green, John Le Carre, Simone de Beauvoir (I know not English!) Lynn Reid Banks, Vera Brittain. (trying to think beyond set texts)

But I would,in allhonesty, be finding out whether she really does "love English". I lived with a girl who was doing a lit degree, and she was having to get through about 10 heavyweight lumps of books a month. In depth.

PeelingmyselfofftheCeiling Mon 12-Mar-12 07:16:12

I would say you should have read, and know reasonably well: a shakepeare tragedy (Lear, hamlet, Anthony & cleo, othello, prob not Macbeth), an Austen, a big Victorian novel (dickens this year makes sense), a Lawrence or em Forster, maybe George Orwell. You should definitely have tried a few poetry collections, and ideally some plays. You should be regularly reading good modern fiction. If you don't read regularly ( not just during exams/ coursework) I would steer well clear!

Quattrocento Mon 12-Mar-12 07:19:42

I second the poster who said if she ain't a reader, she shouldn't do English.

Also, why do her a book list in the abstract? Much better to find out which of her set texts she liked and find out from her what she liked about them. Then you could perhaps pick out books of a similar vein and build from that.

I'd also suggest you gave her one or two books rather than gave her a book list. At that age, I know fine well what I'd have done with a book list. Be it so ever provided with the best of intentions.

PeelingmyselfofftheCeiling Mon 12-Mar-12 07:20:12

Oh and depends what she says her hobbies and interests are; of she's travelling in her gap year then travelogues wrc

shoppingbagsundereyes Mon 12-Mar-12 07:24:42

Totally agree that an English degree is unlikely to be the right choice for her but I suspect she will either work that out for herself next year or get into reading. I would just like to support her current dream with some suggestions. I have only suggested 'classics' so far and wonder if she may enjoy modern fiction more. Thanks for suggestions

Shanghaidiva Mon 12-Mar-12 07:35:45

Agree with the others, she is not a reader. I have a degree in English and around her age was reading the following:
Jane Austen
George Eliot
George Orwell
Aldous Huxley
Kingsley Amis
Agatha Christie
David Lodge
Douglas Adams
Lynn Reid Banks

I am the librarian at my dc's school - the following are popular with the older children:
Blood Red Road - Costa winner
Hunger Games
Meg Rosoff
Charlie Higson - the Enemy
Personally, I really like Mal Peet.

wildfig Mon 12-Mar-12 08:08:27

Does she like English literature, or the language side of it? Could she look at English Language courses, which are much more about linguistics/language development? It's much more technical though.

I did my final year dissertation on Sensation Novels of the 1860/70s - ME Braddon, Wilkie Collins, Charles Reade - which are extremely 'readable' even now. They were a way into Dickens for me, a writer I'd always found off-puttingly stodgy after doing AToTC for GCSE with a teacher who clearly loathed him. (Might that be a factor?) Has she read any Kate Atkinson? Some of her earlier books play with literary convention in an interesting way - it could be a way in to other writers.

I'm the most voracious bookworm going, but to be fair to your niece, during my A-levels, my reading matter outside my thirty-odd set texts was pretty much exclusively Company and Q...

bringbacksideburns Mon 12-Mar-12 08:14:44

Why does she want to do English Lit when she doesn't even read for pleasure? She needs to start doing that now and find authors she likes or do something else.

How about George Orwell, Anthony Burgess, Iris Murdoch. I remember we did a lot of people like Kingsley Amis, John Braine, Alan Sillitoe in the first year.

There must be more but i have a memory like a sieve.

tabulahrasa Mon 12-Mar-12 08:21:07

I've just finished an English degree without having read many classics beforehand, I can't say it would have made that much difference to have been familiar with them already really - I am a reader though, I don't know how you'd do it if you aren't tbh.

What I did notice though was that people with no familiarity with the bible, Greek mythology and English history really did miss a lot when we were doing the authors mentioned already.

balia Mon 12-Mar-12 08:25:08

My DD doesn't read (sob) but loves her English Language A-level. Could she look into that? She might enjoy the creativity of it...

HugADalek Mon 12-Mar-12 09:13:38

From memory (so I may miss some), I was reading in preparation for University during my Access Course:

A Passage To India - E M Forster
One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest - Ken Kesey
The God Of Small Things - Arundhati Roy
Trumpet - Jackie Kay

Romeo and Juliet - William Shakespeare
I think we looked at the script for One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest too.

I Shall Wear Purple - Jenny Joseph
Digging - Seamus Heaney
Still I Rise - Maya Angelou
The Road Not Taken - Robert Frost
Hurricane Hits England - Grace Nichols
Presents From My Aunt In Pakistan - Moniza Alvi
If - Rudyard Kipling
I Shall Paint My Nails Red - Carole Satyamurti
On the Death of Anne Bronte - Charlotte Bronte

Short Stories
The Hitchhiker - Roald Dahl
A Man Named Horse - Dorothy M Johnson
A Vendetta - Guy De Maupassant
Country Lovers - Nadine Gordimer

We were encouraged to read around all of these texts, examined things like:

Mental health care in the 50s as compared to now.
Feminism, first wave, second wave, third wave.
History from around the times of the books being written, so we looked at the 50s/60s and back at the 1800s and at a wide variety of things like what it was like to live then, to Chartism, the forming of unions, what it was like to be a woman, womans rights movements, suffragettes and suffragists, erm, right to own property, go to university, right to vote etc.
We learned about apartheid in South Africa.
We did a lot of research on Shakespeare, his history and other works.
We researched Jazz and it's origins.

Understanding the wider context of the writing was a massive focus, so it was encouraged that we looked at the issues in each book and then read around it as much as we were able to, especially reading other texts by the author. So it's not just about reading the texts that will really help you in an English degree, it's having a general understanding of history, and key authors, and definitely noticed a very strong focus on feminism and history surrounding slavery/apartheid/sexualism/racism. That might have been my English teacher, but she was amazing and she really opened up my mind to how vast and all-encompassing a subject like literature is. It is my biggest regret that I never made it to university last year, I would have loved to have been able to continue my education.

HugADalek Mon 12-Mar-12 09:16:18

Just because it was one of my favourites. wink

Still I Rise

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin' in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history's shame
I rise
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.
Maya Angelou

HugADalek Mon 12-Mar-12 09:21:02

And posting on this thread has inspired me to look at Open University, so thanks.

bringbacksideburns Mon 12-Mar-12 09:21:49

It was a hundred years ago when i was a student (Thatcher years) but we did do Alice Walker The Colour Purple and The Bell Jar/Sylvia Plath. She might enjoy them.

Plus The Virgin Suicides - probably not on the 'list' but a wonderful book.

Salteena Mon 12-Mar-12 09:46:38

Hmmm. Well, I'd agree with everyone who's pointed out that someone considering an English degree really ought to be mad about books and reading, and in fact discovering all these wonderful novels for themselves without this level of outside prompting.

I didn't do an English degree but I've read voraciously for pleasure all my life, and still (more years later than I'd like to admit) really love nothing better than exploring writers and books new to me. In fact being caught somewhere without a book to read makes me quite panicky grin

Fair enough if your dn doesn't have quite this level of mania passion but it doesn't sound as if she's choosing the right course.

BabeRuthless Mon 12-Mar-12 10:52:31

I did an English lit degree and did a module on detective novels. We did "Devil in the Blue Dress" and watched Blade Runner alongside it. Also did a module on James Joyce.

Would worry too much about the classics as long as you have a working knowledge of them. One of my lecturers said the last thing they wanted to read was yet another essay on feminism and Thomas Hardy. I ended up doing my dissertation on Edgar Allen Poe,

Hope this helps, it was a very long time ago!

HardCheese Mon 12-Mar-12 11:33:07

The thing is, though, that an English Literature degree is unlikely to consist largely of Books a Teenager Is Likely To Find Obviously Appealing, even though she'll probably have some opportunity to specialise in her own areas of interest as she gets towards her final year. In my department, for instance, while there's a lot of optionality, there's also a strong chronological structure, meaning students spend the first two years studying periods and topics like medieval mystery plays, Old English epic, Chaucer and his contemporaries, Jacobean tragedy, Tudor court drama and poetry, 17th c religious poetry, early American literature, 18thc conduct literature and the novel, Romanticism etc, with compulsory modules in literary theory and the history of literary criticism - only in the final year do they do post-1800 literature.

Some degrees will allow a greater focus on more modern writing, but she's unlikely to be able to escape the older parts of the canon entirely, or to focus on the novel at the expense of poetry, drama, literary theory etc!

That's why it rings alarm bells for me that your niece doesn't read for herself by her mid-teens, and hasn't at least discovered her own favourite authors at this point. If, as I assume, what you have been trying to tempt her with is the reading you were doing at her age - Hardy, Lawrence etc. novels from the last century written in modern English - and she finds that 'boring', I doubt she'd find reading Milton or Bowwulf enjoyable!

HardCheese Mon 12-Mar-12 11:51:19

BEOWULF, I mean.blush

Bue Tue 13-Mar-12 17:12:06

I have an English degree. The last time I read a classic for 'fun' I was probably 17 and struggling through Jane Eyre (which I abandoned part way through). Doesn't mean I didn't enjoy my degree, though. For instance, I particularly adored studying the poetry of Marvell, Donne etc. but I don't ever think, 'Why, I simply must crack open my volume of the metaphysical poets before bed!" So I don't think it's a worry that she doesn't want to read classics, but it is slightly odd that she doesn't seem to enjoy reading at all.

Could you encourage her to read some modern novels? What about a current 'book club' classic? I don't think literature needs to be 50+ years old for it to have value.

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