21 Texts I’d Recommend From My Time As An Undergraduate

It’s still slightly unbelievable that it’s been over a year since I completed my final exam as an undergraduate! Because of this, I thought I’d do a blog post relating to my degree. I studied English (focusing on literature) and History at the University of Liverpool, graduating in July 2015. As you can imagine, this involved a massive amount of reading and as a result I was able to explore a lot of brand new texts. I use the word ‘texts’ because my degree covered novels, short stories, poetry and plays, as well as a range of non-fiction. My degree lasted for 3 years and over this time I read over 40 novels, as well as a range of other texts from the early medieval period to some 20th and 21st century works.

There weren’t really that many texts I didn’t enjoy, to be perfectly honest. Some were certainly challenging to get through. The medieval poem ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ and Miguel Ángel Asturias’ ‘Men of Maize’ spring to mind as two of the most challenging texts I’ve ever had to read in terms of their style and content. But regardless, this is a list of 21 texts that I particularly enjoyed and that I would recommend to others. For the purpose of this post, I have decided to only include texts that I encountered for the first time during my degree. As such, this excludes a number of texts I had already read before the start of my degree.

Some old favourites I got a chance to revisit!
Some old favourites I got a chance to revisit!

So anyway, roughly in the order I studied them, here are 21 texts that I would recommend from my time as an undergraduate:

1) Evelina – Frances Burney (1778)

1st Year Module: Literature in Time

Evelina was one of my favourites from the first year of my degree. Frances Burney was a big inspiration on the writing of Jane Austen. Although the novel was fairly lengthy, it was paced very well and made for an enjoyable read. The novel deals with the idea of society and legitimacy, focusing on the debut of the protagonist into society. Burney creates some well-crafted and likeable characters; who are refreshingly realistic, independent and seek their own path.

 

2) Richard II – William Shakespeare (1593)

1st Year Module: Shakespeare – Ways of Thinking

I am a big fan of the Shakespeare I have read so far and I absolutely loved our first-year Shakespeare module. Previously, I had never touched any of Shakespeare’s histories, having looked predominantly at tragedies during my time at school. Richard II is an incredibly emotive play that details the story of an turbulent period of English history in an incredibly humane way. I personally felt very sorry for the tragic figure of Richard II and there was so much in this play that you could explore and get your teeth into.

 

3) The Lais of Marie de France (c. Late 12th Century)

2nd Year Module: Medieval Narratives

The medieval literature module was challenging but I enjoyed the texts we studied and found the module really rewarding as a whole. The Lais of Marie de France was probably the most accessible – probably because it had been translated into modern English! The ‘Lais’ are 12 or so short stories by one of the earliest known female writers. These tales are presented in a poetic form and detail love triangles, chivalrous knights, trapped princesses, werewolves, wicked stepmothers, magical enchantments and the search for true love. A perfect read for any fans of fairy tales!

The Complete Works of Shakespeare, Norton Anthology of English Literature & The Lais of Marie de France
The Complete Works of Shakespeare, The Norton Anthology of English Literature & The Lais of Marie de France

4) Villette – Charlotte Brontë (1853)

2nd Year Module: Victorian Literature

Villette received a bit of a mixed response from our tutorial group, but I personally loved this novel. It was my first novel of Charlotte’s – Jane Eyre has been sat on my ‘to read’ list for about 5 years! I adored her writing style and really responded to the protagonist, Lucy Snowe. The novel is a slightly bleak tale about loneliness and romance, seeing Lucy travel to France to work as a teacher.

 

5) Goblin Market – Christina Rossetti (1862)

2nd Year Module: Victorian Literature

‘Goblin Market’ is a longer poem, which I had heard a lot about but never actually read. It’s a beautifully told tale that paints a full picture of the love between two sisters. It is often commented on for its reported sexual imagery and clearly has multiple layers to explore within the poem. It is apparent that Rossetti had a strong grasp for language and I went on to read and enjoy some other of her shorter poems, like ‘I Don’t Love You John’. Goblin Market reads as a fairy / cautionary tale about temptation, love and sacrifice.

 

6) Lady Audley’s Secret – Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1862)

2nd Year Module: Victorian Literature

This book was included as an additional extra for our tutorial group. I had never heard of either author or novel beforehand and had no idea what to expect. I had to ready the book pretty quickly and was actually pleasantly surprised by the story. It was a refreshing change from the somewhat heavier writing style of the Victorians and was actually a comparatively straight-forward enjoyable read: handy as I had about 3 days to read it for the tutorial! It is a sensation novel and draws on influences from the gothic, melodrama and mystery genres. It is definitely worth a look for any fans of mystery/light crime writing.

 

7) The Wreck of the Deutchsland – Gerard Manley Hopkins (1918)

2nd Year Module: Victorian Literature

This was another longer poem that tells the story of a shipwreck and a convent of nuns that drowned… Despite the dark subject matter, I loved Hopkin’s sombre meditations of the fragility of human life. I was particularly interested by his exploration of God within this concept. Whilst the Victorians are often associated with devout faith, a lot of the writing I looked at often questions God and showed a shakier, more uncertain faith. This is exemplified through this excellently crafted poem.

 

8) Adam Bede – George Eliot (1859)

2nd Year Module: Victorian Literature

Adam Bede is a big book that is well worth a look. Eliot’s realist style is often seen as a challenge but I enjoyed her no-nonsense approach. Like a lot of Victorian novels, it is an intense, full-on read, but I really enjoyed the novel as a whole. The novel works around a love triangle and deals with society’s expectations in small country towns during the mid-Victorian period. Not for the faint of heart, but it’s a rewarding read if you stick with it!

 

9) The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – Anne Brontë (1848)

2nd Year Module: Victorian Literature

Unfortunately, nothing by Anne Brontë appeared on our prescribed reading list. However, having read a novel by each of her sisters, I felt it was only fair to read something by Anne as well. I am glad I took the time to read this during the Christmas break as it was fantastic and hard hitting book, exploring the themes of gender, loneliness, alcoholism and personal independence in an honest and sometimes brutal way. Anne often seems to be overshadowed by the work of her two sisters, but this novel proves that she is also a writer worthy of praise and attention.

4 great Victorian novels!
4 great Victorian novels!

10) Peter Pan – J. M. Barrie (1904)

3rd Year Module: Children’s Literature

Like most people, I had a basic concept of the story of Peter Pan before starting this module. However, it was a very interesting experience reading the original text of this iconic story. As is often the case, it was actually much darker than I realised, with the ‘Disney-fied’ Peter Pan in my mind contrasting sharply with the more brutal and sinister figure we see in the novel. One of the most striking images for me was that of Mr. and Mrs. Daring returning to the nursery to find that their children have vanished. This detail is often overlooked in modern adaptations and provided quite a sinister and bleak image. It was an enjoyable and interesting reading experience, even if it did blow apart my preconceptions about the figure of Peter Pan!

 

11) The Wind In The Willows – Kenneth Grahame (1908)

3rd Year Module: Children’s Literature

I have actually had 2 copies of The Wind In The Willows at home for many years and had just never got round to actually reading it. As such, I was thrilled that it appeared on one of my reading lists, as I discovered an absolutely delightful story that I really should have read years ago! As with Peter Pan, I had a basic idea about some parts of the novel – mainly Mr. Toad’s motoring antics! However, reading the whole book allowed me to meet a cast of loveable characters in the delightful world alongside the river.

 

12) Haroun and the Sea of Stories – Salman Rushdie (1990)

3rd Year Module: Children’s Literature

Haroun and the Sea of Stories was a complex novel that deals with a magical world that mirrors the real world to a degree. Rooted in fantasy and folklore, the novel uses allegory to explore a number of real world issues in a fantasy setting. The novel details Haroun’s struggle to reunite his parents and help his father make a speech by exploring the enigmatic ‘sea of stories’. It is an intriguing and unusual read that is suitable for both children and adults.

 

13) The Kingdom By The Sea – Robert Westall (1990)

3rd Year Module: Children’s Literature

This is a wartime novel that was paired with Michelle Magorian’s excellent ‘Goodnight Mr. Tom’ due to their similar subject matter. This novel tells that the story of a lost boy travelling the landscape of England during the Second World War, searching for home and security. It was a brutal and disturbing read in parts; a book that is in equal parts uplifting and heartbreaking.

Some children's classics!
Some children’s classics!

14) Son of Man – Augusto Roa Bastos (1960)

3rd Year Module: Non-Western Cultures in Latin American Literature

My interest in Latin America was sparked during my study of A-level Spanish, particularly after reading Ernesto Sábato’s novel ‘The Tunnel’. As such, I was delighted to have the opportunity to study more Latin American literature during my final year of university. Son of Man, or Hijo de Hombre, has been called the national novel of Paraguay and paints a picture of a country in conflict, but also of a people who refuse to give up. In parts, it reads like an action film, but is also philosophically invested in the idea of conflict and its effect on the human condition.

 

15) Cuzcatlán, Where The Southern Sea Beats – Manlio Argueta (1987)

3rd Year Module: Non-Western Cultures in Latin American Literature

This was another brutal, but powerful Latin American novel, from an incredibly talented Salvadoran writer. The novel deals extensively with the idea of childhood and memory, over the backdrop of the brutal and dehumanising Salvadoran Civil War, where child soldiers were used extensively. The structure of the book was quite confusing, often skipping between time periods. However, this highlights the long-term struggle of the Salvadoran people and the devastating consequences of the Civil War. Despite being a largely unknown text in the Western World, I feel it is an important novel as it demonstrates the impact of conflict and power politics on everyday people.

 

16) Here’s To You Jesusa! – Elena Poniatowska (1969)

3rd Year Module: Post Dictatorship Representation in Latin America and Europe

This was another harrowing novel, detailing life during the Mexican Revolution. The novel is based on interviews with an unnamed Mexican woman, who inspired the character of Jesusa. She was reportedly unhappy with the final product but it makes an interesting and compelling read nonetheless. Again, the hardships and brutality of poverty are highlighted acutely. However, Jesusa’s attitude, fierce independence and straight-talking manner make her a likeable character that drives the plot and spirit of the novel.

 

17) If This Is A Man / The Truce – Primo Levi (1987)

3rd Year Module: Post Dictatorship Representation in Latin America and Europe

This was an incredibly difficult and emotive read, unsurprisingly. Primo Levi was an Italian chemist who was a survivor of the Holocaust. ‘If This Is A Man’ is an autobiographical account of his time in Auschwitz, whilst ‘The Truce’ is the account of his journey home afterwards. It is harrowing, but is both honest and raw. Levi has a real grasp of language and the book is beautifully written. Levi’s humanity shines through the inhumanity of the subject matter, making it a difficult but important read.

 

4 incredibly powerful novels about how awful humanity can be, but also how incredible people can be in the face of adversity.
4 incredibly powerful novels about how awful humanity can be, but also how incredible individuals and communities can be in the face of adversity.

 

18) My Ántonia – Willa Cather (1918)

3rd Year Module: Modern American Fiction

My Ántonia is a short but engaging novel. It details the life of immigrants in post-WWI America and takes place during the end of the pioneer period. Over the course of the novel, we see a move away from the countryside and towards larger towns. Cather explores the impact of this social change as well as the idea of creating a new life from humble beginnings. We see two lives that are forever intertwined due to shared childhood memories and the novel considers how our childhood and our memory can shape our lives as we grow up.

 

19) Tender Is The Night – F. Scott Fitzgerald (1934)

3rd Year Module: Modern American Fiction

I used this novel during my final essay on the American Dream, alongside Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’. This book is quite long, but incredibly compelling. It considers the idea of illusion versus reality. The novel takes place on the idyllic French Riviera, with the Drivers glamorous Hollywood-esque world giving the impression of perfection and sophistication. However, Fitzgerald slowly rips this image apart as the novel deals extensively with mental illness, loneliness and the price of keeping up appearances. Although this book is nowhere near as accessible as ‘The Great Gatsby’, I think it’s worth a look for anyone interested in the idea of the American Dream.

 

20) The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck (1939)

3rd Year Module: Modern American Fiction

I absolutely loved this novel. It is pretty hefty and I read it in about 9 days! It is an intense and full on-read but I would recommend it to anyone. Seriously, persevere with it, despite its size and sometimes dense content. Steinbeck’s presentation of life in post-depression dustbowl America is stunning and I was particularly incensed by his depiction of scaremongering and the appalling way that people were treated. The manipulation of the word “red” to slice apart workers’ rights particularly made my blood boil! An absolutely amazing novel; a must for anyone!

 

21) A Visit From The Goon Squad – Jennifer Egan (2010)

3rd Year Module: Modern American Fiction

This was the most recently published text I studied and it was refreshing and interesting to look at some from the 21st century. The novel is somewhat experimental and consists of a series of linked shorter stories, that come together to form a full novel. I quite enjoyed this snapshot approach, as we glimps different moments from the lives of a host of characters over a range of time periods and locations. The main themes of the novel include: growing up, ageing, music and rock & roll. An excellent contemporary novel!

 

Four 20th (and 21st) century American classics!
Four 20th (and 21st) century American classics!

 

So anyway, that was my 21. That doesn’t include everything I read and there were some great texts I didn’t get a chance to mention here. But I hope you enjoyed the list and I would always encourage people to try to read widely, because there might be books out there that will surprise you!

Have you read any of these texts? Why not vote in the poll that’s posted below!

All books together (sadly, I borrowed my copy of Evelina so didn't have a copy for the photo!)
All the books together (sadly, I borrowed my copy of Evelina so didn’t have a copy for the photo!)

Over and out! 🙂

 

 

P.S. I forgot to include a link to a song on the last video, so I thought I’d pop one down here. I’ve chosen Lana Del Rey’s National Anthem – which was a song I used as a starting point for my final essay on the American Dream.

Enjoy 🙂

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