Is your reading up to the mark?

toptentuesdayThis week’s prompt for Top Ten Tuesday is Back To School. School in the UK means something rather different than the American experience where school also denotes ‘university’ so I’m taking advantage of this liberal interpretation.

This is the season when thousands of young people in the UK get ready for their first experience of university life. It won’t take long for them to discover that academic expectations at university are a whole lot higher than in school – the biggest shock of all is the volume of reading they’ll be expected to do if they plan to follow a literature degree programme. Fortunately some universities provide helpful guides on how to use the summer to prepare for the first year of the course with a reading list and especially what they expect their new students to have already read by the time they begin the course.

A lot of these reading lists are available on line and I imagine will a) be completely ignored by most students until the last moment in the excitement of knowing you got a place and organising all those music festival hangouts or holidays or b) will strike such fear into the heart of the new recruit when confronted with that they’ll instantly air brush if from their memory. Pity the student going to Kings College Cambridge, who gets told to read among other things:  The Canterbury Tales, Metamorphoses, The Iliad, The Odyssey,  The Aeneid plus as many Shakespeare plays as possible and all the sonnets. (this is an abbreviated list by the way). Balliol in Oxford has 21 texts on its list – plus at least as many again that are ‘recommended’ but not required.

Sheffield University’s recommendations seem a little  more manageable. Instead of a prescribed list their students are given a set of categories and advised them to read at least one text from each. So how would I do if I were heading off to Sheffield this autumn? i’e given myself one point for each that I’ve achieved.

  1. Read the following set texts for Autumn term : The Moonstone, By Wilkie Collins, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison and A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift. I was tempted to give myself half a point for me having read The Moonstone (many times over) but it was a stretch so nil points unfortunately.
  2. Read a classical epic in translation e.g. Homer, The Odyssey. Null points here
  1. Read a work of classical mythology e.g. Ovid, Metamorphoses   Can I get any points for reading bits of Homer? No? Oh that’s mean….
  1. Read a work of classical tragedy   e.g. Sophocles, Oedipus Rex. Phew, I get a point having read two plays by Eurpides;  Medea and Electra  (links are to my reviews).
  1. Read one or more books from the King James Bible e.g. The Book of Genesis, or Song of Solomon. Thanks to the forced attendance at Sunday School when I was a child I can scrape one point for having read Genesis.
  2. Read an Anglo-Saxon poem in translation e.g. Beowulf . Yikes, that would be a challenge. So null points here for me again
  1. Read a medieval romance (if necessary, in translation) e.g. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight A total blank here.
  1. Read (and/or see) a Shakespeare play not covered at your school or college Easy peasy… lots of options here for me from Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 and 2 and Anthony and Cleopatra to Hamlet, Macbeth and Measure for Measure. Still a lot of the plays I’ve yet to read or see but some of them don’t get staged that often.   
  2. Read a novel in the European tradition (if necessary, in translation) e.g. François Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel; Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote Another point here, Though I haven’t read any of the listed works I’ve read a few Zola novels and Old Goriot by Balzac in recent years, plus, going further back a lot more of the classics like Le Rouge et le Noir by Stendhal, L’Etranger by Camus; and (from my dalliance with existentialism when I was 16) Jean Paul Sartre.
  1. Read a major work from each of the following centuries: I’m awarding myself four points here!
    1. 17th century:  For example: Paradise Lost by John Milton or Pseudodoxia Epidemica by Thomas Browne. One point to me as a reward for all those hours pouring over Paradise Lost in my little bedroom at University. We did book 9 for A level and I found it stunning. Some of the other sections – I can’t remember which book it is now but it’s the one that features Satan’s fall from grace – are equally brilliant. But there is an awful lot of so-so stuff in between.
    2. 18th century: For example: Tom Jones by Henry Fielding; A Sentimental Journey by Laurence Sterne;  A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift. One point again since I read Tom Jones though it was many years ago now.
    3.  19th century: For example: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, Moby Dick by Herman Melville,  Oh this is so simple – Jane Eyre tick, plus many of the other Victorian greats like Eliot and Gaskell. Melville I have no interest in reading.
    4. 20th century: for example: Ulysses  by James Joyce,  Samuel Beckett. Another point here for having read Waiting for Godot and seen two stage versions (one featuring my husband as Estragon)


So my total out of a possible 12 is 8. Fairly respectable but it’s evident that I have large gaps in some of the oldest of genres. I think I’m going to have to live with that – as I said in a recent post, about some of those ‘great classics’ that are lingering on my bookshelves because they are just not my cup of tea. So how would you fare if you were heading off to college this autumn? Feeling smug cos you’ve read all the list or in a panic because you’ve barely scrapped the surface??


About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on August 30, 2016, in Book Reviews. Bookmark the permalink. 45 Comments.

  1. OK, I felt very smug at the first point since I have read The Moonstone and The Bluest Eye. But apart from the Shakespeare, everything else was totally downhill from there.

    Looks like the whole of the first year, they are only going to be reading classics. Yikes!

  2. Wow, that’s quite the reading list for before the course even starts. I think mine was about six books long.

    I can tick off nine of the 12 and, like you, it’s the older stuff I fall down on. The old stuff that I have read, besides some Shakespeare, was all for my degree. I do have a copy of the Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf that I’ve been meaning to read for 15 years. One day.

  3. No smugness here, even though I’m a literature graduate. I’ve read a lot in some areas and not much in others because my course allowed that. I have read a few Greek playwrights (Sophocles and Aeschylus in particular), The Canterbury tales, some books of the Bible, some European tradition … But I’m not going to play because I needed to get this at the beginning of the holidays not just as I’m about to start! That’s not fair! What kind of examiner are you!!

  4. My high school reading was such garbage. It was always romance because I was so desperately lonely. In school, I had a JOLLY TIME reading about dead white men, like A Separate Peace and Romeo & Juliet and Plato.

    I’m going to thump myself on the back here: I have or will have almost all of the incoming freshmen for a comp class. They will all read Jonathan Kozol, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Malcolm X. Diversity, a look at poverty, poor housing, schooling, etc. The workload is about 40 pages per class plus a journal reflecting on a specific question about the reading. Boo-ya, grandma: and that’s how you get everyone reading/writing more than they want to 😀

  5. What an antiquated list. Thank goodness I did my English degree in South Africa which included a few of the ancient stuff, like Beowulf and one Canterbury Tales, Paradise Lost, and Middlemarch but lots of 20th century stuff too. Interesting post

  6. That is a good analysis. Though I do read across different genres, i am sure I will fail this test if I took it. Glad you have a decent score. 🙂

  7. Full of smug, me.

    The nice thing about the Oxford reading lists is that you only read for one paper (roughly meaning “time period”) at a time. The summer before my first term, for instance, I got the reading list for Mods Paper 3, which was more or less Victorian literature. (I was at Exeter College, not Balliol, but 21 texts is more or less right. Fortunately, as each term is only 8 weeks long, it’s not hard to pick and choose – you can’t cover all of them anyway.) We had some preliminary reading to do for Old English, as well (taught in the same term), but not nearly as many as 21 texts!

    • How interesting to hear from someone who’s been down this path Elle. I always envisaged Oxford/Cambs students confronted with mega lists per module. Still 21 is rather a lot

      • Mostly what happened was you were presented with a list of authors and instructed to read all of their work. With the Victorians, there was some limitation, because of beasts like Dickens and Hardy churning out a dozen books – the tutors were keener for us to focus on one or two really important ones – but we were definitely encouraged to read all of Eliot, all of Charlotte Bronte, as much as we could stomach of Tennyson, etc.

        • that makes sense because if you know the body of their work you can see the trends emerging but my gosh that means reading some fat novels

        • Yeah! I spent my summers reading FRANTICALLY. I don’t think I’ve ever read that much in such a short span of time since then. To prep for the Shakespeare paper, we were instructed to read all of his plays, so I did. In a month. I ended up dreaming in blank verse.

        • im exhausted just thinking about that

        • I’m not sure how we did it – I’m guessing the boundless energy of youth?

  8. I’m also basking in smugness of an English graduate – but then, literature (especially English Literature) was my escape in a period when so many books were banned. Just made it all the more enticing. The Bible, for instance, was not available, and we skipped directly from Beowulf to Shakespeare and then to Jane Austen (avoiding all those medieval and metaphysical poets), so of course I had to read them all the more. Maybe reverse psychology is required: tell future students that UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES are they to read from those categories…

  9. Smug as here! Full marks. But then I am an English Literature graduate…

    • so am i but still we never covered a lot of these authors. I did my degree also before a lot of feminist criticism came into existence so we missed a lot of texts that could be examined from that perspective

  10. Thank god for No 9, otherwise I’d be a complete failure. I love the ‘if necessary, in translation’ note for 8.

    • number 9 came to my rescue too. I don’t get the reference to if necessary in translation – these are students who are going to be coming from other countries beyond GB borders in some cases but they still need to be able to demonstrate high level English language skills

  11. Mmm. It’s actually quite easy to skip the cetology chapters if you want to, and just read the actual story. I can see why the book fascinates people, and why people regard Melville as a great writer, because he is! Maybe I’m just over the whole ‘Man vs Wilderness’ thing – I don’t really know.

  12. I was very interested to see your comment, ‘Melville I have no interest in reading.’ I would love to know why!

    I have a degree in English Literature and worked as a book editor and publisher for many years, so I see myself as a quite voracious and educated reader. (I am now retired.) However …

    This year I joined a U3A class called ‘Reading Moby Dick’. We meet once a month, having read 20 or so chapters each month, and discuss our feelings and responses to what we have read. I thought this would be a fairly painless way of getting through one of the most famous books in the American literary canon. Wrong, wrong, wrong!

    After the first five or six chapters (which I quite enjoyed) I began to find it harder and harder to read the prescribed number of chapters per month, and by now I have virtually given up. I am on the verge of dropping out of the class, and am feeling like a complete failure, especially as I’m finding it very difficult to articulate my REASONS for finding it such a struggle.

    So please, can you tell me why you are not interested in reading Melville?

    • good question Teresa. I made the decision having heard that so much of the book consists of detailed descriptions of the feeding habits and the habitats of whales – not a subject that particularly interests me. But then I also heard those descriptions were taken from natural history books rather than Melville using his creative talents.Now if I wanted to know about these things I would just read the natural history book

  13. I’m woefully behind and at this age, highly unlikely I’ll ever catch up. But I’m at peace with this revelation. I love books and reading, and that’s never going to change, at any stage of my life. However, I do salute your energy.

  14. Cripes, I’d really struggle with that list – and I remember that the reading was the thing the two of my offspring who studied English found the hardest. Very difficult if you aren’t a quick reader!

  15. I don’t often get to feel smug, but I’ve read every one of those texts set by Kings College, and wonderful they are too:)
    But I only score 11 points with the Sheffield list. I lucked out on Q1 too even though I’ve read The Moonstone, and I’ve never read the bible. I have read Beowulf and Sir Gawain, and I love them both. But for those a bit overwhelmed, there’s a cheat’s option… Michael Morpurgo has wonderful illustrated children’s versions of them both which would not only provide a plot outline but also show the moral issues embedded in the stories. (I used to read them to my Year 5 & 6 classes).

    • Feel smug when the opportunity arises is fine with me Lisa. Cheating by reading summaries!! – next you’ll be telling students they can just watch the film versions of the classics (unfortunately some think they can do that and get away with it)

      • LOL Morpurgo’s books aren’t reading summaries, they are literature in their own right and quite poetic in places. In fact, the adult teacher aides who came to the library with disabled students loved listening to them too.
        I don’t recommend them as a substitute, but rather as an entry point for students who haven’t had much experience in reading very old literature, especially if English is their second language. Then, once they know what the works are ‘about’
        and can see what the issues are, they can then use the proper texts to amplify what they started with.

  16. Geez, I think I’d fail! Apart from Shakespeare, a deep love for Henry James and a summer spent reading Les Mis, I could hardly tick off any of those categories!

  17. Haha not many points for me, and if I’m honest I feel that life is far too short to tackle some of these now as my gaps are in the older texts although I would get points for Shakespeare!!

    • I don’t think I have the appetite for the really old ones either Cleopatra. I did start Canterbury Tales and was enjoying it but its not the kind of thing I can read at the end of a long day

  18. Now you know why I’m a business major. God what an awful list.

  19. I don’t pity those students, I envy them!! I read some of these way too young and would love to go back to school to revisit them. Actually I totally fell in love with Paradise Lost and plan to reread it next year (having done the whole Divine Comedy this year), and then Paradise Regained, because I only remember reading short excerpts. All my schooling was in France, on a very high end track, so I was fortunate to read a lot of these

    • Good for you to have loved Paradise Lost. I still remember doing book 9 and getting a lump in the throat about the final lines. It would be interesting to see the difference between French/English education systems in terms of what is read and expected to be known

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