A student’s life, in English Literature anyway, is beset with book lists. These come in two varieties: the Bibliography (books we have read) and the Recommended Texts (books we jolly well should read). Compiling bibliographies can be a misery of the first water and there is in the end no getting away from the heart-breaking realisation that no other approach will do, you are just going to have to develop a Tidy Mind. In other words, you really are going to have to buckle down and work on getting into your muscle-memory the sequence ‘pick up book, make note of author (surname COMMA first name) title (italicised) place of publication (oh help!) COLON publisher COMMA date of first publication COMMA date of the copy you’re handling with increasing loathing. And it has to become as automatic to you as breathing to note the page number of any content, no matter how tiny, you might at any time in the next millennia contemplate quoting or referring to. Because if you don’t do all this EVERY SINGLE TIME, it follows as night follows day and as hangover follows a good single malt that at the very last moment, with deadlines looming, you will want to quote or refer to something which you now realise underscores the entirety of your sublime and original thesis: and all you can remember is that it was in a blue book. This is a true story and as far as I know that particular student is still roaming the stacks of the university library, an academic Flying Dutchman. Remember, too, that all academic readers will turn to your bibliography first, where they will unerringly spot your failure to have read something blindingly obvious and/or their own master-work. They will also immediately notice that you have spelt their great friend Blenkinsop incorrectly. Neither of these lacunae set you up for the easy ride that you were craving.
The Recommended Reading List, in comparison, is a doddle, but it can intimidate. For a start, it is usually, at first glance at any rate, several thousand pages long, and is unnervingly separated into helpful sections such as ‘primary texts’, ‘secondary texts’ and ‘periodicals and journals’. Fear not and do not be down-hearted. Here are some tips.
First, it is important to take on board that these lists are neither prescriptive (you don’t have to read everything) nor proscriptive (you are allowed to read other things). Well, alright, I suppose they are quite prescriptive, but their breadth, once they have got the absolutely mandatory set texts out of the way, is meant to cater for a range of tastes. Something for everyone. Behind their rock-like masks of learned indifference and inscrutability, academics do have some sort of a heart, and they are not really seriously suggesting that you settle down and read every page of every tome on that list. Whisper it not, but there is just a chance that not even the compiler of the list has read every text on it. Not cover-to-cover. But they are giving you some pretty hefty clues that your spirit, your world or your degree (pretty much the same thing, I’m sure you’ll agree) would be immeasurably improved if you were to humour them and have a crack at quite a few on the list. It is neither funny nor clever to pitch up to discuss your thesis on Jane Austen and have to declare (because it is becoming distressingly obvious) that you’ve only read Pride and Prejudice (this is another true story. I was there). A booklist for a course on the novel that lists, say, eight texts, which the course then considers week by week in the order printed, is not just a useful checklist for you to be certain when you have been to enough lectures to not bother to go to any more or read any more. Just because you know the exam will ask you to write about two of the texts does not mean that you will show yourself to best advantage by having to write only about Sons and Lovers and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which just happened to be the subjects of Weeks 1 and 2 of the course. Remember: some poor sod has to mark your essays and yours might by the one hundred and ninety-eighth on those two. Imagine the cry of glee, the sparkling eye, and the willingness to give a good grade out of simple human gratitude, that befalls the essay on Moll Flanders in those circumstances (yup, that was me, too. All one hundred and ninety eight of them. And they all spelt D’Urberville wrong).
So what if you’ve taken a quick peek, like a horse in the show-ring, at the set texts and decided they’re not your sort of thing? Well, there are two answers to that. The first is, why are you cluttering up a perfectly good place at a good university reading English Literature when someone else could have been there instead of you and enjoyed it? The other answer is, trust them. Go on. Go out on a limb. It’s really not going to kill you. The very, very worst thing that can happen is that, after a few hours that you’ll never get back (but nothing like the sum of the hours you’ve spent playing Call of Duty or watching Game of Thrones), you’ll close the book knowing what happens, knowing it didn’t do it for you, and –crucially – being able to put WHY into words. What, apart from it was long and you have the attention span of a crisp, kept you from engaging with this book? The subject? The setting? The prose style? You may be right, don’t forget: it may be awful: mind-numbingly, toe-curlingly, skin-crawlingly awful (The Da Vinci Code is my nomination here for illustrative purposes). But think about what exactly made you so cross (the terrible, endless adjectives, and the relentless, entirely predictable plot, in my case). See? You are now an accomplished, articulate literary critic.
Or, of course, you might surprise yourself. I had lunch earlier this year with the man who made me read Joseph Conrad when I was a raw and tender undergraduate. Yup: all one million pages of Nostromo. I can still recall the exceedingly ill grace with which I embarked upon this enforced labour. And I also still remember the shock of pleasure as it dawned on me that this was great. Thank you, Anthony.