Reading recommendations! Watch
Looking to apply for English Lit at Cambridge but I can't help but feel that I haven't read a particularly broad range of books. To those who study there/applied to, which books would you recommend as useful and informative (and most importantly enjoyable) that will make me a smarter, more desirable candidate.
Don't always just go for the books everyone reads interviewers like obscure books and it gives you more of a chance to show off if you know something they don't, it also helps you to stand out from all the other candidates who have probably read the same books as you
Read the things you're actually interested in, and then read texts that support that - criticisms and essays on the text/it's author contemporary to it's release, as well as more modern ones, texts that predated it from which it referenced or drew upon in some way. For example, it's entirely reasonable to read and want to comment on say, Beowulf. It's not that obscure a text (I believe many schools teach it in primary and secondary school) but it is a major work that still has research and criticism written about it today. However, you should look deeper - considering nuances in the "translation" of it from old English to modern English, cultural aspects of Anglo-Saxon life and diplomatic relations at the time as evidenced by historical and archaeological analysis outside of the literary sphere. Similarly for Shakespeare, considering different folios and quartos and in general whether the plays remain representative of their original form through these, etc.
Once again, the context (historical and cultural) is also important, and you can do a lot of wider reading in this regard; Literature is not just reading (fiction) texts alone. You can also look more broadly at different forms of text, for example the historical development of the concept of the novel (and cultural issues e.g. whether the debate of The Tale of Genji as a novel vs other form stems from Orientalist biases, while Don Quixote is readily accepted as representative or establishment of the form, and is a European text published during a period of Spanish dominance in Europe) or the nature of the form of the novella.
The key thing is to know what you've read well, which extends beyond what the singular text itself contains - looking into the contextual writings around it. You probably don't want to pigeonhole yourself into only one text/style/genre/era/etc now, but you can certainly just consider a handful in great detail. Quality over quantity. Bear in mind as well that words have specific meaning in the field - things like "ideology", "discourse", and "postmodern(ism)" for example follow specifically from particular critics/philosophers works, so make sure you understand what these mean and don't just use them willy-nilly without understanding them (and avoid it otherwise). In general, looking into major literary critics (like Foucault) might be quite useful wider reading rather than simply reading more "literary texts".
What I did when applying was aim for breadth and depth, to show that I'd engaged with a broad spectrum of the degree-level canon, but also that I was pursuing my own particular areas of interest in more detail. To help me visualise breadth more easily, I made a big wall chart with two boxes for each century from the 14th up to now. One box was for prose and the other was for poetry: I aimed to have at least two texts/authors in each box I was happy to talk about briefly in my interview. Obviously, in some cases this isn't possible (prose wasn't a thing in 14th century England, for example), but I found this really helped show me where my gaps were.
As for depth, that's more personal to you and you've probably already developed this area by just reading what you like. I found it useful (and interesting) to chart the development of ideas/genres I was interested in over time; so I traced dystopia from Wordsworth's preface to Lyrical Ballads (!) through up until Nineteen Eighty-Four and Fahrenheit 451, for instance. That way you can be synoptic in your interview and start thinking in a degree-level way about the way texts inter-relate chronologically.
I'd also just quickly caution against reading really 'out there' stuff because you think it'll make you stand out - it will, but remember that your interview is supposed to be a conversation, which can't happen if your interviewer hasn't read whatever you're talking about. You're basically shooting yourself in the foot because you'll be unable to impress them if they haven't read it. The canon is broad enough that you should be able to find interesting stuff which most school leavers haven't read yet.
Quick non-exhaustive list of some things I had on my wall chart:
- Canterbury Tales (don't need to read them all, I only read like 3-4 I think, and even then only in translation)
- Paradise Lost (you're going to have to read this for Part I anyway, may as well get started early lol)
- Preface to Lyrical Ballads (imo you simply cannot understand Romantic poetry without reading this - it's short too)
- Genesis (yeah ik it's not from the requisite centuries, but it's important background to have)
Quick non-exhaustive list of some things thousands of people every year say the same things about at interview and thus are really really boring:
- Jane Austen
- The Brontes
- Shakespeare as super progressive, especially re: Twelfth Night (no no no no this is WRONG do not say Twelfth Night is way ahead of its time because it features gender bending, this is just you projecting what you want to see onto a much-misunderstood play, anyway /end rant)
- Chaucer as proto-feminist (no, this is too grand a claim and there's little evidence)
- Anything obviously A-Level (e.g. Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Miller etc - there are exceptions if you can make these things interesting at a super-curricular level, but if you're just going to regurgitate your A-Level syllabus... no)
- Sylvia Plath
- Romantic poets (again, fine if you can do something interesting with them, but if you're just going to be vapid it's best to leave them alone)