It’s the day after results day. Hungover, covered in unidentifiable bruises and somebody else’s vomit, you trudge downstairs and, to your delight, discover that the elves of Oxford have already delivered your Freshers’ pack (by owl?!) to your doorstep. Filled with naive excitement, you read everything from electrical regulations to stupid second-year in-jokes with equal attention. But beneath the pieces of brightly coloured paper and jolly pictures lurks something badly photocopied, shoddily formatted, and not fun to read. Your First Reading List.
If, holidaying in Europe or hiding under the stairs, you have not yet confronted this document, let me enlighten you. The list will, like all the worst things in this world, be long, difficult, time-consuming, and potentially very expensive. Even English students, supposedly safe in the knowledge that they will spend their degrees reading ‘stories’, will baulk at the fact that most of these ‘stories’ are written in a fake-sounding combination of Anglo-Saxon and French and the rest are set in a time when nobody had sex and authors were obsessively preoccupied with the goings-on of old people in provincial towns.
But fear not. For while there are few tricks to get round this scary institution of Oxford life, what tricks there are I have laid out below.
1. NO MATTER WHAT YOU DO, when you arrive in October there will be people who have read more than you, and people who have read less. There will be people who say they have read everything Tolstoy ever wrote, but who have in fact spent the summer reading ‘One Day’ over and over again, sobbing convulsively into their pillows. There will also be people who don’t appear to know how to read at all and who only got in because they are magic. Don’t let any of these people put you off. Ignore them.
2. IF YOU ARE A SCIENTIST, a quick glance at the list- or the fact that you don’t have one at all- will show you how lucky you are. Anything that says ‘may benefit from reading’ or ‘we suggest for those who are interested’ means you don’t have to read it. Enjoy it while it lasts- once term starts, you will be spending four hundred hours a week doing stupid experiments while arts students are asleep, drunk, or watching boxsets of Peep Show. Second years I’ve spoken to do say it’s a good idea to refresh your misty memories of the chemistry/maths you’re already supposed to know to prevent embarrassment when you’re asked to draw a line with a ruler in first week and can’t remember what a line is.
3. IF YOU ARE AN ARTS STUDENT, the bad news is that you are going to have to read something. But that’s what you signed up for, right? The unfortunate truth is that during term time, you don’t have a lot of time for reading- with an essay a week on up to three primary texts, you don’t have time to read both primary and background material in just a few days alongside your hectic schedule of iPlayer and clubbing. A good rule of thumb for the summer is to try and tackle your novels/plays/poetry for Languages, cases for Law, and background reading for History subjects. The idea is that, on seeing your topic for that week’s essay, you don’t have to Wikipedia it on Monday for a tutorial on Friday. Having the background knowledge beforehand helps enormously.
4. DON’T rush out and buy everything on the list. Using the criteria above, work out what you actually need to have copies of yourself- usually, primary texts/novels, and maybe one background/overview book. Look on Abebooks and Amazon marketplace, because believe me, nobody wants to hold onto these things when they’ve finished studying them and secondhand copies are cheap. As an added bonus, these volumes will probably be studded with inane annotations in the margins, such as ‘I agree!’ or ‘THIS IS BOLLOCKS’. A lot of stuff is also available online: check googlebooks, and have a look at the Oxford library system’s ebooks and journals. And don’t forget that in the Oxford libraries, they have all the books in the world. Even Twilight.
5. CHECK whether the list is for first term or the whole year. We have crazily long holidays because of the emphasis on holiday preparation- so don’t bother reading anything for second or third term this summer, as you’ll have loads of time in December before everyone else gets back from normal universities, and you’ll have forgotten it all by April anyway.
6. BE SENSIBLE. I know Oxford Admissions don’t exactly focus on taking people full of common sense- the cleverest person in college is always that girl who doesn’t know how to make a slice of bread or how to brush her own hair – but by reading the list carefully, it is usually quite obvious what you need to have read. Look at the major topic for each week and give yourself enough grounding to know roughly what the title of the essay means. Beyond that, you can bluff and waffle yourself through most tutorials.
Just don’t be that guy who asks why George Eliot is in drag in his portrait, or the girl who interrupts a first-week Law lecture to ask what those numbers next to the books on her summer reading list were (they’re page numbers, buddy). Because in front of your world-renowned tutor, or three hundred undergrads braying for blood, the last thing you want to look like is stupid.