Essential Books For Productive Studying

ways of readingIt is a cold, snowy week here in Pittsburgh. Jelly Bean and I are home alone, settled in for a good snuggle and read. We enjoyed a long eleven-day holiday celebration with a house full of visiting relatives, and a few visiting playmates for Jelly Bean.  This morning everyone is on a plane home to Wien, Washington D.C., and Baltimore, and my husband went off on a business trip.  After a fun afternoon playing in the snow together, my collie dog is ready to curl up on her blanket, watch the snowfall, and wait to bark at the corgis and cats that live next door.  Despite all of her anticipation and excitement, I am quietly enjoying a mocha latte and reading the posts in our VLE to get back into the swing of studying.  Many newer students have a great question as they plan their study agenda: what books on the recommend reading list are the most useful and merit purchase.

That is a great question to consider, especially as I settle in to begin writing research papers and essays, the mid-section of my study plan. After a little thought, I realized there are a few books that are indispensable to me. Some have been on my shelf since I started studying, and some were discovered along the way. Many of my essential books are recommended in our Study Guides but a few are ones that I found while sorting out how to accomplish the learning outcomes of my courses.

First, we should note the essential books we are discussing are secondary texts. Which primary texts we use are unique to our own interests and study plan. When I first started studying, it seemed best to purchase the primary texts for each course.  Having the books on hand that I will read critically, engage in close reading, and use to write research papers is very important. It is easier to find primary texts as e-files, often free of charge, than it is to find secondary texts in free electronic files.  While I strongly prefer print books for my convenience, I often use e-books to skim, particularly if they are other than the ones I will focus on for in-depth study. Secondary texts are a little different.  They help us address what, for me, are the core learning goals of our program.  Secondary reading materials are the ones I will address with my ‘essential’ list.

MLA HandbookFor me, essential books are divided into three areas: reference books; books about how to engage in the process of studying literature, theory and criticism; and secondary criticism related to certain primary texts or literary periods.  My reference books are absolutely indispensable and include a range of titles from the obvious to what might be eccentric: Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary and my Oxford Dictionary and Usage Guide are on desk all of the time. I also like Cassell’s New Latin Dictionary, a personal discovery that makes reading half a dozen of our courses much, much easier.  I also use Cassell’s French Dictionary and a good French grammar book.

The MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, and The Chicago Manual of Style, are also resources that I use on a regular basis – weekly when I am writing papers.  Those books are tools that are helpful to many students I think, whether or not you are studying English and Comparative Literature or another discipline.

Some essential resources I cannot imagine working for an English degree without are Joyce MacAllister’s Writing About Literature Aims and Processes, Abrams’ Glossary of Literary Terms, Holman’s  A Handbook to Literature, and Montgomery and colleagues wonderfully helpful Ways of Reading.  Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By, Wallis and Shepherd’s Studying Plays, and Barry’s Beginning Theory are also constant resources.  Barry’s wonderful book helps me apply different critical readings to my primary texts.

beginning theory

Here are a few others that, for me, were on my desk when the literary penny dropped, and have been important resources ever since: Booth’s Rhetoric of Fiction, Culler’s Structuralist Poetics, Butler’s The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection, Porter’s London: A Social History, and E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. My most recent favorite and indispensable book is David Lodge’s The Art of Fiction. This text is recommended reading in my course on the novel. If I had known about it, I would have bought it years ago.

That is my list for essential reference books and books about how to engage in the process of studying literature, theory and criticism.  Secondary criticism related to certain primary texts or literary periods is unique to our own reading lists, but for me, I wanted to have a few on hand for authors that resonate with me, like Shakespeare and Chaucer, and ones that are challenging but engaging and important to a period,  like Milton.

I hope this helps you as you decide what books are the best investments for your personal library. And happy studies!

Caowrites is studying the BA English by distance learning with the University of London International Programmes. She lives in Pittsburgh in the United States.

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