It is the first week of a very hot summer here in Pennsylvania. Jelly Bean and I sit in the shade of our enormous maple tree for our favorite activities. She indulges me in one of my favorite activities, reading and we wait for a chance to indulge in her favorite activity, romping with her canine playmates as they come by on their walks. Now that I have no specific course to study for, I am suddenly aware of how much reading I have been doing over the last several years and how much I enjoy reading with a plan and a purpose. Even without preparing for a course of study, since May, my reading list surprised me: two novels by Hilary Mantel, one by Rushdie, Malory’s complete works, and Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain. Right now, I am back onto Victorian poetry. I wondered what I would choose to read without a syllabus or course goals for structure. How much our course of study has affected how I read is a constant, pleasant surprise. How did this happen, exactly? Other students seem to be curious about this too, according to conversations in our student chat areas. Many wonder which texts on the recommended lists are the best aids to degree level study. How I read now has been influenced by some helpful texts.
How I read today is definitely different from it was when I started our course. For me, it is a pleasant surprise to see that topics it felt like such a challenge to learn have somehow become part of how I think and read. For example, I cannot read Mantel without appreciating her manipulation of narration and point of view, or Rushdie without considering what makes him the master of metaphor. Very different writer’s tools, but a marvelous effect on the reader. Their skill as writers produce a sense of believing in the world they create, a real understanding of subtle themes, identification with protagonists, and a great appreciation of the delicacy with which both authors’ offer a view of humanity. Now that I have this sense of detachment and even swaggering confidence as a reader, the earlier works of Malory and Monmouth offer the same reading pleasure and satisfaction. This week I marveled at my reading experience, and thought about how I learned to read in our course.
Reading is like so many other pleasant things, you learn it by doing it, but you have to learn correctly. I thought about how we learn to read effectively in the English and Comparative Literature program, and what tools helped me along. Read a lot, write a lot, and participate in study support schemes are important tips, but since much of the study process takes place on our own, some secondary texts our study guides recommend can be very helpful. I narrowed it down to nine that have been indispensable.
For me, a constant companion for the entire course has been M.H. Abrams’s Glossary of Literary Terms, and Holman’s Handbook to Literature. I cannot imagine pursuing degree study in English literature without these two books. They compliment each other very nicely. For example, sometimes just having a definition does not mean I understand it. Having it explained in two ways is a considerable help. Ways of Reading by Montgomery et all, and Wallis and Shepard’s Studying Plays are always at hand too. An odd habit of mine is to block a chapter of fiction as if it is a play, or write a scene of a play as if it is fiction. If you try it, you find out quite a bit about what the author is trying to accomplish, and you get to investigate two genres in a detailed way. Wayne Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction, Watt’s The Rise of the Novel, Barry’s Beginning Theory, and David Lodge’s The Art of Fiction are permanently useful too, and the Shakespeare Glossary by C.T. Onions is indispensable in several courses.
There are many texts I use regularly and that I enjoy a great deal. If I were beginning degree study this term, these nine books would be on my shelf. I found them at various times over the years of degree study. For me, they are excellent reference texts for studying English literature and are quite interesting reading on their own too.
Caowrites is studying the BA English by distance learning with the University of London International Programmes. She lives in Pittsburgh in the United States.