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On Reading Lists

Reading lists are springboards, not prescriptions

Around the 4th of September last year, I received an email from my soon-to-be tutor. ‘Make sure you’ve read Villette, Middlemarch, Our Mutual Friend, and Bleak House before we start in October’ it said, and little else. All of those books range between 600-1,000 pages in the average paperback copy, and I had read none of them. We’d been told to try and read 30 books from a reading list over the summer, and I had got a good way through them, but apparently these were the all-important four, dropped on us at the last moment.

I never used any of these books in my essays. Other than now being able to pretend I know about about Chartists and pocket-boroughs from Middlemarch, and having the reading behind me to freely complain about Dickens’ structural and political flaws to other English students, my degree itself didn’t gain from me storming through those four bricks, each in only a couple of days.

Equally, the longer reading list instructed us to read ‘any three major modernist novels’, and after spending some time researching the options, I chose first to read D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. It came to be the novel that would shape my world-view and academic course more than any other. Having read all of Lawrence’s novels now, I know that if I’d been told ‘read Lady Chatterley’s Lover’, I probably wouldn’t have bothered with the rest.

What I think I’m trying to highlight here is the importance that choice plays in vacation reading. Applying to Brasenose, I knew that our tutors’ attitudes were going to be that of allowing us to have intellectual freedom to pursue what we wished, but I didn’t know how far that would extend until I arrived at Oxford. I have written essays on books that not only weren’t on the reading list, but were so obscure that they’d never had essays written on them before – by anyone!

The best hint you could get towards tackling summer reading is to find out what your tutors’ individual approaches to teaching are. Maybe they’ll teach on an author-by-author basis, in a chronological style, in a thematic style, or maybe they’ll let you have totally free choice on your topics. Sending them a quick email to ask how the overall teaching in the term will be structured in terms of content could save you pursuing topics that aren’t particularly personal to you, or won’t come up for certain. You’re more likely to engage with something that you’ve chosen, and the close attention that the tutorial system allows means that tutors are capable of letting you pursue your own interests, if you show enough drive and enthusiasm to pursue a particular avenue. Ask older students whether such ultimatums as ‘you must read X’ are to be taken with a pinch of salt or taken as law, and enthuse about what really matters to you to your tutors.

The reading lists we receive on a weekly basis are purposefully impossible to complete, and part of the skill of the degree is selectively finding what is both the most interesting and the most useful. You’ll be happier, grow more as a person, and be more attentive in your work if you are able to pursue what you care about, and very often in the humanities your tutors want to see these qualities in you, and will enjoy giving you recommendations that go beyond the more canonical choices.

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