Written by Victoria T, a graduate from the University of Cambridge who attained a First class degree in English, ranking in the top 10% in her year. Victoria has also been a Resident Tutor at Wycombe Abbey.
Whilst the summer holidays are ultimately a time for relaxation after a hard couple of weeks of exams, there is no harm in giving yourself a head start by reading a few foundational texts on literary criticism and, of course, some key influences on English literature itself. Get acquainted with these literary gems and you will be more than prepared for that whirlwind first term at university studying English:
- The Poetry Handbook by John Lennard
This is an invaluable introduction to close-reading and a wonderful way of improving your understanding of a poet’s technical craft. With chapters ranging from metre to punctuation to gender, Lennard’s handbook is your one-stop-shop for all the terminology you may need to do in-depth analysis of language, structure and form. It also contains practical exercises to test your understanding of the concepts – a luxury for undergraduate texts!
- Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Jonathan Culler
Before I read this, I was terrified of literary theory. I had covered very little at school and arrived at university overwhelmed by other students casually talking about the intricacies of structuralism and why historicism was outdated. Needless to say, this book gives you the best overview of the major schools of thought and history of the study in just under 200 pages. A no-nonsense introduction to one of the more confusing aspects of literary study.
- The Short Oxford History of English Literature by Andrew Sanders
Though you may have specialisms within English literature such as the Victorian period, it is a good idea to get a general overview of literary history. Taking you from the Anglo-Saxon age all the way through to the late 20th century, Sanders provides detailed summaries of key writers in each period as well as a fascinating analysis of the impact of literature on contemporary social, political and economic developments. This book is a contextual gold mine.
- The Odyssey by Homer
It may surprise you that this epic poem was not written by the lead character of the Simpsons. Homer was a Greek poet and the Odyssey is his most famous work. It recounts the story of Odysseus, a Greek hero, as he navigates the trials and tribulations of his journey home after the fall of Troy. Considered one of the oldest works in Western literature, its influence cannot be underestimated with its quest narrative structure, mythical monsters and use of symbolism which has been reinterpreted by writers ever since. Read Books 5-13 and 19-24 as a starting point.
- The Bible
The Bible’s influence on English literature cannot be understated. Its contents have not only been re-interpreted thematically, but also stylistically throughout history. I would personally recommend going for the King James Version; however, any unabridged edition will also suffice. Some starting points would include: Genesis, Exodus 1-20, the Psalms, Song of Solomon, Mark, Romans, and Revelation.
With a smattering of literary theory, a cursory overview of the history of English literature and an acquaintance with some canonical texts and cultural reference points at your fingertips, rest assured that your first steps into an English degree will be the start of an exciting and enriching journey into some of the greatest minds of all time!