When a lot of people think about studying literature at university, they usually think of a very classics-dominated syllabus. Chaucer, Eliot and Dickens are probably among the names that spring to mind. I know this is partially what I was expecting, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised.
Of course, these books are on the syllabus somewhere, however I’ve been lucky enough to go to a uni that allows a lot of flexibility in terms of modules you can take. As a result, there have been times when I’ve been genuinely surprised by the books on my reading list for a multitude of reasons.
I think it would be really interesting to talk about five books that I’ve had to study on my literature course, and I also think it would help to reduce the misconception that all literature courses are narrow and restrictive. I’m sure I have been lucky with my university’s willingness to give us lots of freedom to choose modules that suit our research goals and personal taste, but it might be interesting for you to see the variety of books it’s possible to study at university.
Intellectual snobbery is something I’m very passionate about reducing, so I hope this helps to show that literature is worth reading even if it isn’t a classic!
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
We studied this on a module called ‘Law and Literature’, and we focused on the theme of surveillance and control for this novel. Anyone who has read The Hunger Games will know that this book perfectly exemplifies these themes, but for some reason I didn’t think YA would be included on a reading list unless we were specifically looking at YA literature.
I know a couple of my friends on other courses were very surprised when I told them I was reading this in my final year of university, but I honestly think that just shows how far spread intellectual snobbery has gotten. Some of these people barely read themselves, yet they felt comfortable enough to judge the value of a book based on its target audience.
Honestly, as well as the fact I already owned and had read this book, I really liked studying this. It was really interesting to see how the serious messages that Collins included were tailored for a YA audience, and how scarily accurate its take on surveillance and state control compared to things in the real world. It showed how the dystopian genre can be used to highlight problems in our society without directly criticising current governments, and I think that really valuable research could arise from analysing this novel in this area of study.
This is Not a Werewolf Story by Sandra Evans
In a similar vein to the last book, this was surprising to me because it’s written for children. At a masters level, you wouldn’t necessarily expect an academic to choose this for one of the main weekly readings, but it is!
I read this for a module called ‘Evolutions of Popular Literature’ which looks at how popular themes and myths are passed down through the literature of different eras. When you think about that specific research goal, using a children’s book that focuses on a werewolf makes complete sense, and is really valuable in its own right. We are comparing this to stories about werewolves from centuries earlier and looking at how certain elements are dropped or adapted to create a story that is engaging for a modern reader.
Considering children’s literature is a really important part of popular literature, it seems silly that some people would overlook it just because it’s not considered ‘high’ academic work. If you really like figures from myths and legends, looking at children’s literature and its presentations of those figures is a really interesting perspective that not many people have probably taken!
Cloud Nine by Carol Churchill
Okay, so not technically a book, but I studied this play in one of my first year core modules. I’ve included it because, firstly, it shows the different types of literature I got to study, even when I didn’t have the chance to pick my modules.
I also think the content of this play is different to what I’d expect from a literature degree. It’s split into two acts, with the first focusing on racist violence and power in colonial times, and the second on homophobia and familial power in modern times.
It’s quite an explicit play, that shows people getting shot, having gay sex and one particularly crude moment where a man receives oral sex on the London Underground. Although talking about this was awkward at first in seminars, it was really great to tackle serious and adult topics after being at school where everything seems a little bit watered down and sheltered.
If you think that classics are the main texts studied on a literature course, it might shock you to hear that a play so explicit and modern would be included!
A Girl Called Eel by Ali Zamir
This book surprised me less because of its content as it’s context. This is a book that was originally written in French by Comoran author Zamir, and was subsequently translated and published in English.
Before I came to university, I had heard that you really had to seek out modules that contained books written by non-White non-British authors. The module I chose wasn’t specifically aimed at this, but instead looked at ‘Literature at Sea’.
We did read the classic Moby Dick, but we also looked at several writings by other authors less well-known. What made me even more surprised about this book was that it was translated, adding even more interesting areas of analysis. We were considering the role of a translator and how important their choices were in terms of shaping the narrative and making comment about certain themes, as well as the original author’s choices.
I think this is probably an area that my university is quite good as, as there are often multiple books on the reading list by authors outside Britain and America.
Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James
This is a little bit of a cheat because I technically didn’t study this, but my housemate did so I think it can just about count towards this list.
In final year, there was an optional module that looked at regency and modern romances, and the infamous Fifty Shades of Grey was one of the readings for it. Now, I don’t think it was necessarily picked because of the quality of the book, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be used to contribute to research in the field!
I think this surprised me for a lot of reasons. Firstly, reading something very sexually explicit with a seminar tutor sounds like an awkward experience, but also that the novel wasn’t just dismissed as smut and cast aside. There are academics who look at modern hits like Fifty Shades to see how a range of trends and conventions have adapted in today’s world.
What I learnt from this is just because the book you’re reading might be about something that doesn’t seem very academic, doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth reading or it can’t have academic value.
I would love to hear from any fellow literature students about your experience of the range of literature you’ve gotten to study! I hope everyone has been as lucky as me, but I know that isn’t always the case, so I’d love to start a discussion about it in the comments!
I’m thinking of making a little university series of blog posts where I talk about other aspects of my degree, so if you’d like that let me know in the comments and give me suggestions for what you’d like to hear!