Reading ‘the right stuff’

Hello All!

Goodness, August has been a busy month. I’ve been the literal length and breadth of the country over the last two weeks and am now quite exhausted.

However, during that time I have received a few interesting emails from readers (all soon to be Literature students) asking about how best to prepare for uni. One question that particularly struck me was from a UEA fresher who was worried that they hadn’t read ‘the right sorts of books’ before coming to uni.

This question particularly stayed with me because it made me realise that before coming to university I was one of those people who might be perceived to have not read, ‘the right sorts of books’. It had never really occurred to me before that that was something I could have been potentially worried about when I arrived as a fresher.

It’s probably worth outlining now what people usually think of as the right kind of books for literature students to be reading; Classics such as those of Dickens, Eliot, the Bronte sisters… you get the gist.

Now, I have always been a book worm. As a child my teachers used to complain to my parents that I read too much and wasn’t playing with other children enough. I used to get in trouble for staying up past my bed time reading, and right up until sixth form I was happily getting through at least one book a week (then A-Levels and being able to go out at weekends began to take up my time a lot more). But at no point during that did I worry I was reading the right stuff.

Since I was very little I knew that I wanted to study English Literature at uni and so I always supposed that I would get around to reading the classics then, when I was older, wiser, and would understand them better. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t read classics when you’re young, just that you shouldn’t feel like you must or that otherwise you’ll not be qualified to be a literature student.

I read handful of classics before starting uni but they were all ones I was interested in. Other than that I read what I liked, and I am pleased to say that it has not hindered me at university at all.

We study literature at university because we enjoy it and because it interests us, so there’s no point slogging through something in your free time just because you feel you have to.

Every literature student arrives at uni with a different reading history behind them and it is meeting all these different people who have been exposed to different kinds of books (don’t even get me started on how a lot of the books we’re told we’re supposed to have read were written by dead white men) that makes it an exciting and interesting environment to be in.

Long story short, read what you want and enjoy it to the max.

Summer 2016 Plans

Hello Everyone,

Apologies that it’s been a little while but I’ve been out of the country for a bit (Florida to be precise) but now I am back, complete with sunburned feet.

Today’s blog is just to give you a little context for what I will be doing with my summer holiday, my FINAL summer holiday (!!!) before I head back to Norwich this September to start third year.

As I have opted to do a literature dissertation this autumn term I am currently surrounded by piles of books which require reading. I’ll try and keep giving updates about how my dissertation is progressing, both to give some context and advice for any other students reading but also to document for myself how it developed.

I won’t go into the details too much right now, but essentially I have had a think about what it was that I really enjoyed studying this last year, to which the answer is Medieval Writing and Romanticism. I was also advised by Karen Schaller, the Convenor of the English Literature BA, to look around at modules that I would like to have taken but can’t for whatever reason. This inspired to me have a root around the websites of other universities and see what final year modules they offer which I would have been interested in. The long and the short of it is that I’ve decided to research Medievalism, specifically Romantic Medievalism which is the 18th century reimagining of what the Middle Ages were like.

Looking back I realise that later interpretations of medieval life have always fascinated me. Even as a child my favourite books were historical fiction (I read The Other Boleyn Girl when I was 10 which on reflection was definitely too young!).

dissertation reading 1

The very beginnings of the dissertation research

On top of all this reading I also have an interview lined up at my local museum to see whether I can do some work experience with their admin team for a few weeks. As I think I have previously mentioned, I really enjoy doing the behind the scenes work for UEA Drama Society, but looking ahead to the future I think that I might be interested in doing similar work in the heritage sector. Fingers crossed they take me on, if nothing else it will keep my CV up to date and diverse.

And last but by no means least, I will of course be heading up to Edinburgh in August to take the show which I am producing (‘Death and the Data Processor’) to the Fringe Festival. More on that later!

As we are approaching A Level exam results I am aware that a lot of students will be anxiously waiting and worrying about life at uni. As always, if you have any question please feel free to comment on this post or email me at h.armstrong@uea.ac.uk

Best of luck!

‘Reading Matters’ Conference 2016

One of the many benefits of being an English literature student at UEA is the absence of end of year exams. By the end of second semester all of our essays are handed in and summer stretches ahead of you – however, this does leave the question of how you can go about filling the final few weeks of the academic year.

Well for the first year literature students this conundrum is answered in the form of the ‘Reading Matters’ Conference, a few weeks long project in which small groups of students research and write a presentation on why their book should be on next year’s first year syllabus. At the end there is a vote and the winner is added to either the Literature in History or the Reading Texts modules.

‘But Hannah, you’re not a first year!’ I hear you cry. Sadly this is true, however, having had a great time working with my team and our tutors last year I was delighted to be asked back to help out as part of a student run social media team.

Niamh and Dougie, the wonderful duo who I worked with on this, did fantastic work creating graphics and setting up a twitter account for the event. This meant that on the day we largely spent our time tweeting coverage of the event and making memes to share with the participating students and tutors – the twitter battles are one of the best parts of the conference.

155vjc

The books being put forward this year were:

  • The poetry of Sappho
  • Antigone by Sophocles
  • Paradise by Toni Morrison
  • Metamorphoses by Ovid
  • Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
  • Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf
  • Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe
  • The Play Boy of the Western World by John Synge
  • Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

All of the teams gave well-argued reasons for why their book should be chosen, and the choice was very hard indeed, but ultimately ‘Citizen’ won.

citizen

It’s not a book I have read yet but I will certainly now make an effort to track down a copy and I’m delighted that we are gradually seeing a diversification from the usual white male writers who take up so much room on our syllabuses.

I hope this year’s first years enjoyed the conference as much as I did, I hope they made new friends and got to know their tutors at least a little bit more, and if nothing else I hope they enjoyed the free wine and nibbles at the after party.

Staying in Love With Literature

September is finally here, bringing alone with it that strange mix of cold grey mornings and hot midday suns. But more importantly the first notices of the books you need to buy and the articles you need to read are appearing on Blackboard (the UEA intranet that allows your tutors to set work and post recommended reading lists, etc.)

All summer I’ve been champing at the bit to get started on this autumn’s modules (Medieval Lit, 17th Century Lit, and Writing Journalism) but reading the module outlines has suddenly made it all very real. Laid out carefully before you is all the knowledge they expect you to accumulate and all the assessments that you will need to pass by Christmas, and knowing that these grades are going to count towards your overall degree it suddenly feels a lot more daunting.

Over the summer I have deliberately avoided reading anything that I didn’t enjoy. It didn’t matter if it was high-brow or trashy, the only requirement was that I enjoyed it. I wanted to spend my summer reading things without constantly checking the page number, without worrying about finishing it before a deadline – in short, I wanted a summer of not reading like a literature student.

I love studying English, but it does have a way of taking over your reading habits. After a long day of studying books it’s hard to get excited by the prospect of spending all your leisure time doing the same. This leads to the list of Netflix shows you’ve been meaning to watch growing shorter, but the stack of books you want to read growing ever higher.

I miss the days when I would whip through two books in a week and not think anything of it, when books gripped me late into the night because they were exciting not because there was an essay due next week.

So this summer I have truly indulged. I’ve found a new favourite author in Mary Renault (who incidentally turns out to have lived on the same road in London as me, although not at the same time and to be fair it is a very long road…), a historical fiction writer who was studying in Oxford when Sir Arthur Evans was making his breath taking discoveries on Crete and shipping them back to Oxford’s Ashmolean museum.

Evans discovered the remains of the palace of Knossos, a Minoan palace that is thought to have been destroyed by an earth quake over two thousand years ago. What captured Renault’s imagination however was the Minoan depictions of bull leapers, and it was these frescos she used as inspiration for her retelling of the myths of Theseus, the legendary founder of Athens and slayer of the Minotaur.

ViviLnk

After finishing my A-Levels I went to Greece for a week, specifically to Athens and Crete, the two main locations for her novels. The pleasure of reading them was heightened by the fact that I recognised the landscapes she was describing and had seen the frescos she referenced (I could write a whole heap more on literary landscapes but I shall spare you).

My favourite of the frescos - 'The Ladies in Blue'

My favourite of the frescos – ‘The Ladies in Blue’

Renault has been largely forgotten these past few years, but there is a concerted effort being made to revive this wonderful writer. Her books have been republished by Virago and many well-known writers and academics have said that her work inspired them (Bettany Hughes, Hilary Mantel, and Emma Donoghue to name a few), hopefully this attention will allow her work to go on and inspire another generation of readers.

On a separate note, I read this poem by Walt Whitman for the first time recently. I’ve had a soft spot for Walt ever since I watched Dead Poets Society, but this poem particularly appealed to me because I think it captures something of what it is to study the subject you love.

Walt Whitman

There is much we can learn from the rigorous examination of literature, but sometimes we need to wander off by ourselves, enjoy it simply for what it is, and read it in that perfect silence.