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.

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From Medieval City to Medieval City

The last week or so has been incredibly busy as I’ve been ricocheting between medieval cities along with all my bags of stuff (I think) I need for uni.

Of course it’s all been terribly exciting, I spent the last few days before coming back to Norwich in York where my medievalist tendencies could really run wild. Then I made the great trek south again to finally move into my new room!

York and Norwich are similar in many ways, both medieval cities with beautiful cathedrals and quaint side streets, but York has somehow tapped into the potential of their history more with lots of exciting museums (well, exciting to some of us) and a real sense of pride in their heritage. Which isn’t of course to say that Norwich doesn’t have any of these things, I just think that perhaps we haven’t reached our full potential – but then again it’s nice living in a relatively quiet cathedral city.

Despite the fact that I have an awful lot of reading to do before class starts next week I spent a good deal of time trawling through second-hand book shops which York has in plenty, and buying books which have tenuous links to this years modules.

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This cafe had very dramatic lighting

I may also have stopped briefly to admire the York Medieval Studies centre, but only because I had to walk past it every day…

A girl can dream

A girl can dream

Besides being a weekend break it was also an opportunity to size the city up and start thinking about whether this was somewhere I could see myself living for postgrad study, to which the answer is definitely yes although admittedly it is still early days.

I’m now back in Norwich and properly in our new house which is both exciting and very odd. Having a living room is a strange luxury after halls and living so near to town means shopping is a lot easier, however it’s weird to come downstairs every morning to find your friends in the kitchen – it still feels a little like an extended sleep over, but I’m sure I’ll acclimatise soon.

My friends and I were walking across campus late at night recently, post start of year party, and my instinct was to head to the ziggurats rather than catch a bus into town. This got me wondering who was living in my old flat and wondering if they liked it. I remember that when I arrived the bare room seemed very austere and foreboding but it soon became my own, and I hope that whoever lives there now also falls in love with those strange buildings we call the terraces.

Fingers crossed this year is as good as the last!

The Minster is very grand, but I'm still a Salisbury lass at heart

I’ll admit the Minster is very grand, but I’m still a Salisbury (cathderal) lass at heart

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.

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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.

A Flying Visit to Norwich

I can barely believe it but it would appear that summer is beginning to draw to a close. This of course means that the new academic year is gearing up to kick off in September, bringing with it all the usual anxieties and excitements, but the biggest change this term (for second years like me) will be moving into our new homes.

Finally.

Considering we found the place over eight months ago it’s a relief to finally be moving in. I won’t be living there full time until September, but this past week I popped up to visit one of my new housemates and show my sister around the fine city of Norwich.

Having been home for the past few weeks, in my own small cathedral city, I’m even more aware of how great a place Norwich is (Not to dis’ Salisbury, but it lacks the cute independent shops and cafes of Norwich). I dragged my sister around some of the places I frequented during first year, but also discovered the Cathedral quarter, an area I hadn’t really explored before. It’s nice to know that there’s still so much more to see and do, especially as I now live within walking distance of the centre of town.

The discovery of another secondhand book stall is always a cause for excitement

The discovery of another secondhand book stall is always a cause for excitement

A trip to Biddy’s Tea Room was a necessity of course, and because my sister’s a keen baker we also stopped by Norwich’s macaroon shop (which, whilst a bit spenny, is amazing).

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Our new discoveries include a row of bric-a-brac and antiques shops in the previously unexplored area of town beyond the cathedral. A lot of the stuff was clutter but there were also some bargains for students looking to kit out a new house… including a globe drinks cabinet (according to my mother it’s very 70’s, but we like it).

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Drink responsibly kids

Before visiting this week I was a little worried that perhaps I had done most of the things that were worth doing in Norwich, but I’m pleased to see that I’ve barely scratched the surface.

(The blog has been a little quiet over the summer, but with the arrival of September and the new academic year things will pick up again. I promise)

Avoiding the dreaded ‘Summer Slump’

I realise that a lot of my recent posts have been fairly serious/ political in nature, and whilst they are an important part of my blog, I want to try and even that out with some of the more pleasant aspects of student life.

I don’t know about everyone else, but I find it impossible to get things done over the summer. All sense of schedule goes out of the window and I’m reading until four in the morning or not responding to emails for nearly a week. I call this, ‘The Summer Slump’.

This occurs because all those things you didn’t do during the term, e.g. the shows you didn’t watch, the books you didn’t read, the people you didn’t see, are suddenly no longer the forbidden fruit. You can shamelessly indulge in all of them and this simply overloads the system.

Consequently, nothing gets done.

Whilst there is no cure for this seasonal funk it is important that you attempt to fight it off, for if you don’t then by the time September rolls around your brain will have turned to mush. I speak from experience.

Unfortunately I can’t offer any full proof methods of keeping the slump at bay, but I can offer these tips-

  • See old friends. It sounds obvious but it’s like chicken soup for the soul, and it gets you out of the house – an important step in any attempt to combat the slump.
  • Have a reading/watch list. Undoubtedly there will have been a lot that you haven’t found time to check out during the term and crossing even a film title of the list can feel like an accomplishment after a month of no academic work.
  • Do something (a project for instance) that imposes some form of schedule on you. It’ll stop you feeling like you have wasted a day and will give you something to look back on by the summer’s end. Running a blog for instance…
  • Keep that brain ticking over. I know what gets to me most is the lack of classes to give me a mental workout. Like any muscle you need to keep flexing it if you want it to stay strong. Don’t lose all your hard work from the previous year by not touching your subject for three months. I download podcasts from iTunes and iTunes U to keep me thinking over topics I covered this year, and to prepare for next term.
  • Most importantly however, take a moment to enjoy the fact that for the next few weeks you aren’t reliant on your own cooking. Savour it (literally) whilst it lasts.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle for productivity over the summer is the internet. Why commit to doing something for a whole hour when you can just commit three minutes at a time to cat videos?

This is probably why most of my reading gets done when I’m somewhere without access to wifi.

Speaking of which, I am going to be in deepest, darkest Wales for the next two weeks so it may be a while before I can write another post.

Until then enjoy your summers and best of luck averting the Slump.

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What I’ve got through so far this summer (Ok technically I’m rereading The Song of Achilles for the dozenth time but still)

5 books to read when you should be studying:

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:

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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

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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

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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

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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.

One Day

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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.