Books to read for Oxford English Lit/Lang application?Watch
does it not really matter what you read, rather HOW you read it and discuss it
That said, what you read matters too—not perhaps what specific titles you read, but that 'read widely' thing. For a lot of students at the A-level stage, English literature really boils down to the novel in the nineteenth century and after, and the lyric poem. It would therefore be a good idea, both in a 'this will make me a stronger applicant' way and in a 'this will enrich my life' way, to read texts that aren't either of those two things.
Challenge yourself with stuff that's older and harder, and look for texts which make you scratch your head with their weirdness. Why is the novel 'novel', and what was popular before it? You've probably had to study Shakespeare at some point—have you looked into some of his contemporaries? Who's your favourite later seventeenth-century poet? Have you ever tried reading any Middle English? The Big Sleep and Chandler's other Marlowe novels contain a bunch of allusions to Arthurian literature: which text(s), and why? Why are medieval romances called 'romances' when they're usually not very romantic? Jane Austen liked Samuel Richardson: try reading Richardson's Pamela and when you don't like it, try to work out what's causing that (assuming you don't like it). Ezra Pound wrote a translation of the Old English poem conventionally called 'The Seafarer'—what does the original text look like, and how does Pound's translation compare to other translations? You don't have to do all or indeed any of these things but they're the kind of thing that will stretch you a bit and give you interesting things to talk about.
There're also texts not originally written in English which're useful because so many English texts are in dialogue with them—most of all, the Bible, but also the Iliad, the Aeneid, Ovid's Metamorphoses, the Divine Comedy &c &c. But that kind of reading (in translation, probably!) might be more efficiently left for the time when you've secured a place.
so, actually, additional side question here, is it worth putting on my PS that I've won creative writing competitions or would that be considered irrelevant?
If you've not yet found them, the resources and bits of advice here might be useful.
When applying, I did the following:
- Created a double-sided wall chart. One side was for prose (incl. drama), the other for poetry. The charts were split into centuries, and my aim was to have at least two texts/authors in each box whose work I'd read. This was useful, because it enabled me to find my weak spots and plug them with targeted reading in the run-up to the interview. At school you tend to study a very narrow selection of authors and texts, so interviewers are looking for people who've pushed themselves beyond this (at my interview I was literally subjected to a quick-fire 'what have you read from x century?' question round, lol).
- Tried to get a grounding in the canon, but throw in some rogue stuff too. Oxbridge want to see that you've read the important stuff, but that you're also interesting and not just programmatically following the canon word for word. This doesn't mean you have to read literally everything in the canon, but there are a few crucial texts I'd recommend reading/authors I'd recommend familiarising yourself with if you haven't already:
- Classics (some of The Iliad, The Odyssey, and/or The Aeneid can be handy)
- Paradise Lost (esp. Book IX)
- Major works by Shakespeare (pick ~3, they're short)
- Canterbury Tales (again, pick a few)
- Romantic poets (Preface to Lyrical Ballads is almost essential imo)
Beyond that and once you've filled your wall chart, pick some interesting stuff few other people won't have read. I read some Conrad, a LOT of Orwell, a LOT of Larkin, some Swift, some Asimov, and a LOT of Ben Jonson. I skipped out large swathes of the canon (never touched Austen or the Brontes haven't read much Dickens for eg), so I want to stress that your reading should not be exhaustive. There's a reason you do the degree! You're basically trying to look like you've read broadly but also interestingly and deeply, so follow up your niche areas of interest.
- Thought about how works connect together. You've only got a brief time to impress in interview, so bringing in a range of texts synoptically is essential. Think about common themes/contexts etc, and maybe for areas of particular interest come up with one or two subjects you think are worth discussing so you can whip them out at interview. For example, I had a Freudian reading of Paradise Lost ready to go for Cambridge if I needed it.