The ever persistent problem of being a literature student is that you have gone to university because you love books, but consequently have no time to read books you actually want to read (not that I haven’t enjoyed the set texts, but there is something particularly enticing about reading a non-curricular book when you know there are set texts waiting to be got through).
Consequently, reading for pleasure becomes illicit, something talked about in hushed tones. Or else it becomes the treat and motivator when a particularly dense piece of theory needs to be got through, read a chapter of Judith Butler then you can read fifty pages of (insert frivolous reading material).
Bearing in mind the necessity of reading all your set texts, it’s important to keep reading things you like on the side, or else you are in danger of forgetting that there is a world outside of academia, in which people read a book and their only comment on it will be if they liked it or not – not a breath shall be breathed about how it interacts with the theory of literary realism etc.
On which note, I have compiled a short list of books that I think should be read whilst a student.
Note that I did not say, should be read by every student, such prescriptive lists often serve only to stroke the ego of the compiler, rather my list is of books which I think have a particular resonance when read as a student. These are of course only my opinions, and I would love to hear what other people would put on their list.
The Bell Jar:
The Bell Jar is the only novel by the American poet Sylvia Plath, and whilst it is a work of fiction much of it is autobiographical. Primarily it is a novel about college student Esther Greenwood’s battle with depression, but beneath the surface it is a tale of anxieties, of feeling that you don’t ‘feel’ like you should, and of that gap between our abilities and our achievements. What most struck a chord with me was Esther’s fear of her own indecision, her desire to do and be many things but feeling she can only have one. The Bell Jar isn’t a cheerful book, but it will stay with you for a very long time.
“I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”
A Room of One’s Own
Semi-fact and semi-fiction, Virginia Woolf’s essay on the place of women in literature is one of the key feminist texts. It discusses the historical exclusion of women from formal education and examines the reasons for the absence of writing by women. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is about this text which makes me love it, but it sits on my bookshelf over my bed, and when an essay is proving particularly trying it’s a reminder of how relatively recently women have been able to go to university (Cambridge only began letting women graduate in 1948), and helps puts things into perspective.
The Secret History
This books kind of makes me glad we don’t have any classicists at UEA. It’s the story of a young college student, Richard Papen, who befriends a close knit group of five other classics students, but their dedication to their subject takes a dark turn, and the novel closely resembles a Greek tragedy. University is an environment in which almost everyone desperately wants to fit in, even when that sometimes compromises their morals, read The Secret History and try to resist the seduction of its characters, and take it as a sobering reminder of the dangers of the herd mentality.
This Side of Paradise
By all accounts F. Scott Fitzgerald was an unpleasant person to know, especially if you were a woman. But that doesn’t stop his debut novel from having the kind of resonance which sticks with students. It’s about adolescence, great expectations, and ultimately what to do when you don’t seem to be meeting them. Particularly helpful to read if exams don’t go as well as you hope.
More than anything this novel is terrifying. It is a brutal look at life after university, which will dash the dreams of literature students everywhere and leave you either sobbing into a pillow or staring listlessly into the distance. One reviewer described it as portraying, ‘the tragic gap between youthful aspiration and the compromises that we end up tolerating. Not for nothing has Nicholls said that it was inspired by Thomas Hardy.” …. Even after all that, I still think you should read it.