How I work my reading lists
Do not underestimate the importance of diversity in your reading list to achieve more productive study sessions.
As you may know, this year I am attempting for the first time ever to sit for three modules (‘Augustans&Romantics’, ‘Victorians’ and ‘Moderns’). Up until now, I have been doing two modules per year, but last year’s marks have encouraged me to take on a new challenge. It also helps that I have already read some of the authors on the suggested syllabus before, so I already have a few ideas to work with.
However, one of the issues that I had last year was that I did not compile a good reading list from the beginning, and I had to muster all my forces to overcome that and do well in the examinations, but I felt like all of it was done in a haphazard way, and this prevented me from enjoying my studies fully. I have been thinking a good deal about how to compile my reading list this year because with three modules and a 1-and-a-half-year-old kid I cannot get away with a bad organization.
For compiling a good reading list I have used two fundamental tools: subject guides and past examination papers. On one hand, subject guides offer a general reading list for the historical context and general reading around certain topics. If a title catches your eye, you can find reviews in big retailers’ websites or in literary forums, and in some, you can even get a look at what’s inside (like a table of contents, useful to decide if the book suits your needs). On the other hand, analyzing past examination papers will show which topics tend to come up more and then you can find the intersection between your interests and commonly asked questions. Past examination papers are also invaluable in making you feel familiar with how questions can be (re)formulated.
These two tools have helped me to pick my primary texts. Although this may seem a bit basic, having a definitive list of authors and topics is key for approaching the literary modules, and the sooner you have this list, the sooner you can start with research and gathering interesting sources, and consequently, the better you will be prepared to face essay questions as soon as possible. Essays are the way in which your learning crystallizes, and your reading should be geared towards this essay-writing goal. One issue to take into account is the number of pages you are going to read. Last year when I prepared ‘Renaissance & Restoration’ I was naive in my initial appraisal and thought I could prepare in depth Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained and The Faerie Queene. I soon realized how unrealistic this approach was, and had to drop Faerie Queene before it sunk me in desperation. This could have been avoided if I had checked carefully the load of work I was intending to cover.
For secondary reading I have applied a very pragmatical criterion: my reading lists are elaborated based on the examination section that my reading is aimed at. In Section B of the examination, you are expected to discuss in depth the works of one author, which implies reading more than one text (unless the chosen text is very long) and doing focused secondary reading, that is, collections of essays about said author and her/his work. Section C, on the other hand, needs you to take one topic and contrast and/or compare two authors. For example, if you intend to discuss parody and satire using texts by Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope in Section C, in addition to the primary texts of your choice, you should read books about satire in the 18th century, Augustan models of satire, etc. However, if you wanted to do one of the two for Section B, it would be advisable to read a biography, especially one dealing with their works, and reading things from different stages of their lives, so as to have a better grasp of how their style develops. As you can see, different sections require different approaches, and your reading should be adapted to these requirements.
Section A is quite a different story, and generally, examiners’ reports complain about worse quality in the answers of this section compared to Section B and C. The issue may be that it is hard to choose how to prepare for the analysis of an unseen text, and maybe some of you think that you cannot really prepare for it except by doing timed essays. However, Section A is usually the section where you can demonstrate good knowledge of the period, not only in terms of dates and events, also showing that you know the development of a particular genre and its main features. I remember last year I prepared Renaissance love poetry with the heavy emphasis in sonnets, and metaphysical poetry as a second choice, and I am glad I did this, because there was not a single sonnet in Section A, but there was a metaphysical poem by Donne that highlighted issues of Platonism. When you compile your reading list, do not forget to include texts useful for Section A in it!
From my discussion, you can also see how important it is to strategize as much as possible your reading, not only in terms of workload (i.e number of pages to read) but also in terms of quality and diversity. An examination with two or even the three major genres will fare better than the examination restricted to one genre, it shows a breadth of reading, a key feature of the BA English syllabus. In addition, having different genres will also come in handy when focusing becomes harder since you will be able to switch between different things when you feel tired, as a way to refresh your mind. Do not underestimate the importance of diversity in your reading list to achieve more productive study sessions.
As a last note, do your own reading list and try not to rely too much on other student’s reading list. The opportunity to tailor your studies to your own needs and interests should not be wasted. You may think that you will save a lot of time by doing this, but in due time you will realize that engaging with the material at all stages of your studies (including the planning stage) yields better results. Do not worry if no one else that you have talked to is not doing what you do, as Mama Cass sang: “you’ve gotta make your own kind of music, even if nobody else sings along”.
Ana is studying the BA English by distance learning in Luxembourg.