The What’s Hot and What’s Not of an English Literature Degree

The What’s Hot and What’s Not of an English Literature Degree

It’s been six, long, cold months since I graduated with a degree in English. The dated books. The nonsensical secondary readings. The ungodly hours spent in the library trying to cram 400 pages for a 9am tutorial the next morning. Take me back.

The first few years of my degree were spent studying the same-old tired tomes of Shakespeare, Hardy and Dickens (with a token female or non-white author thrown in for good measure). When I got my job at Rare Birds and was surrounded by an eclectic and diversified range of books, I was reminded why I fell in love with reading in the first place. No my boss isn’t watching me write this over my shoulder why would you think that.

So to pay homage to my roots, here’s a (really shallow) dive into the hot and colds, yes and nos of my 4-year Lit degree.

Let’s start off with the the good. And by the good, I mean the books I would actually read for pleasure on the outside world. I chose a course called Reality Hunger in my final year where we dabbled in feminine rage, sampled some prolific sexual deviation and dipped our toe into queer theory. Chef’s kiss, no notes.

1. My Sister The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

If you were ever (un)fortunate enough to have me help you in our shop last year, I would have 9/10 times recommended this book. This story follows two sisters, one who has a penchant for murdering her boyfriends, the other for cleaning up after her messes. It dives into sisterhood, women’s position in Nigerian society and begs to question, who’s the real villain of this story? Spoiler alert: I sided with the serial killer x

2. Milkman by Anna Burns

Next up, Milkman by Anna Burns. An unnamed narrator living in an unnamed city in Ireland is stalked by an IRA militant. We follow our narrator navigate life in a small town where gossip costs lives and a woman’s story is rarely heard.

If you haven’t noticed already, the way I measure if a book is good is by whether we stock it in store or not.

3. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Keeping it a bit more literary, I have to give a shoutout to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. One of the most pioneering novels covering mental illness and gender norms, we follow several intersecting characters battling their own inner demons, over the course of one sunny day in 1920s London.

4. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

A gorgeously woven tale about the beauty of childhood and the joy of innocence. Twins Rahel and Esthappen live in adolescent bliss in 1960s rural India. The arrival of their English cousin brings intrigue and fun. Yet her arrival sets off a chain of events that ultimately end in tragedy. Clever, witty and poignant - I read this on a Postcolonialism course and it really stuck with me.

5. Look At Me by Jennifer Egan

This wonderfully weird story follows our protagonist Charlotte, a supermodel who gets into a car crash, resulting in such extensive plastic surgery that she is left, although still beautiful, entirely unrecognisable to all of those she knew before. What follows is a searing analysis of image and beauty in the modern digital age. Charlotte is an underrated queen of the Sad Girl Summer genre, giving us iconic lines like "bad pictures were the only ones that could show you what you actually looked like, I would have killed for one.” I’d love to have this problem xx

Flop Era

Now it's time for the flops. The no-gos. The Burn Book of my 4-year degree. Most of them were written by men (duh), and were mandatory reading in courses I couldn’t choose myself. Goodbye Reality Hunger and Queering Fiction, hello mind-numbingly boring 16th century texts.

1. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

I’M SORRY. Look, it’s actually not a bad read - I’m fully aware of how important this text is in the context of feminism and sci-fi and the longstanding hot-take of ‘Frankenstein is actually the name of the doctor, not the monster’. Crucial stuff.

The resentment for this book pretty much solely lies in the fact that it was on my course set-list FOUR YEARS RUNNING. Other books written by women exist :)

2. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Another career-threatening hot take. 

This was taught as a groundbreaking feminist text, and for its time, sure. Fine. Okay. I’m semi-convinced. However, how can you dangle the prospect of Persuasion or Northanger Abbey over me and give me this one instead? At least with Pride and Prejudice I could’ve watched the movie and pretended it was revision.

3. Jude The Obscure by Thomas Hardy 

If you ever want to feel happiness again, then I suggest you don’t read this book. It’s one of the most bleak texts I have ever read, not to mention it’s like 10000 pages long. No thanks, sorry Thomas Hardy. RIP.

4. Hard Times by Charles Dickens

A.K.A what I was going through when reading this book. It’s the classic Victorian workhouse drama we all know and love him for. It’s the embodiment of that TikTok sound: “the rules don’t apply, not in East London”. Dickens has been real quiet since that one came out.

I respect Charles and his penchant for social justice for Victorian children, but just read Oliver Twist instead.

5. Richard III by Shakespeare

First, boring. Second, I’m more of a Macbeth girly x