Today I thought it’d be interesting to have a look back and discuss everything I read in university. I’m not entirely sure if I’ve mentioned it before, but I graduated in English Studies. This, at my university, entitled language (since English is not the first language here), culture, linguistics, and of course literature. I must admit that the literature courses weren’t normally my favourites—I was definitely a linguistics nerd—and I even found them sometimes lacking—I touched on this slightly on my “on reading classics” post. However, we did read some books I ended up liking quite a bit.
I always enjoy seeing what other English literature students read at other universities so this is perhaps a bit of a self-indulgent post. Nevertheless, I hope this will be interesting to you whether you’re a student yourself or you’re just interested to see what is read in such a degree. Obviously, I will only be mentioning works we read in their entirety, because if I had to mention all the fragments we read I might go crazy. I’ll break it down by years and courses so it is easier to structure, and I will also provide my star rating and some thoughts I had as well as a short summary—in case you don’t know what some of these are about.
The first year of this degree at my university is mostly introductory, so we don’t take any English literature specific courses. However, I took one literature course and one English language course where we had assigned reading.
An introductory course to—mainly 20th century western—literature. This course was taught in Catalan so I read these books in either Catalan or Spanish. Here’s what they are:
Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov
Thoughts: This was a very quick read but not one that particularly caught my attention. It wasn’t terribly bad but it also didn’t offer anything particularly interesting.
Summary: Set on an estate in nineteenth-century Russia, this deeply emotional tale of misplaced idealism and unrequited love concerns the complex interrelationships between a retired professor, his second wife, and his brother-in-law and daughter from a previous marriage. In deceptively mundane dialogue, the characters reveal their private tragedies — weakness and inability to communicate — the failures that lead them to lives of frustration and despair.
Les poesies de C.P. Cavafis by Joan Ferraté
Thoughts: Here is my turn to confess that I didn’t pay much attention to this because I wasn’t a big fan of poetry—I’m not the biggest poetry reader out there now, but I’m certainly less intimidated by it so I’ll eventually read some. However, some of these poems I really enjoyed.
Summary: This is essentially a collection of C.F. Cavafy’s poetry.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Thoughts: I’ve talked about this book before in my dark reads post, but this is a book I thoroughly enjoyed. I do have to say that some of the conversations we had in class were slightly worrying
some people were too comfortable blaming Dolores instead of Humbert. Regardless, this was my favourite book I read that first year! If you read it, definitely beware of the trigger warnings (pedophilia, grooming, manipulation).
Summary: Humbert Humbert—scholar, aesthete and romantic—has fallen completely and utterly in love with Dolores Haze, his landlady’s gum-snapping, silky skinned twelve-year-old daughter. Reluctantly agreeing to marry Mrs Haze just to be close to Lolita, Humbert suffers greatly in the pursuit of romance; but when Lo herself starts looking for attention elsewhere, he will carry her off on a desperate cross-country misadventure, all in the name of Love.
High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
Thoughts: I don’t think, scratch that, I know I’ve never read a book that has angered me quite as much as this one did. This is the only book I’ve written an entirely negative review for (you can read it here if for some reason you’re curious). I would’ve DNFed this so fast if it hadn’t been a compulsory read and needless to say, I won’t be recommending it anytime soon.
Summary: Do you know your desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable split-ups? Rob does. He keeps a list, in fact. But Laura isn’t on it – even though she’s just become his latest ex. He’s got his life back, you see. He can just do what he wants when he wants: like listen to whatever music he likes, look up the girls that are on his list, and generally behaves as if Laura never mattered. But Rob finds he can’t move on. He’s stuck in a really deep groove – and it’s called Laura. Soon, Rob’s asking himself some big questions: about love, about life – and about why we choose to share ours with the people we do.
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith
Thoughts: I didn’t really enjoy this. I didn’t necessarily have any problems with it and the premise was interesting enough, but this just wasn’t for me.
Summary: Precious Ramotswe has only just set up shop as Botswana’s No.1 (and only) lady detective when she is hired to track down a missing husband, uncover a con man, and follow a wayward daughter. However, the case that tugs at her heart, and lands her in danger, is a missing eleven-year-old boy, who may have been snatched by witch doctors.
The second year was when we actually started taking courses specific to our degree, which was a relief.
20th Century Literature
Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
Thoughts: This was just very confusing at the time, and I read all of it in some sort of daze. However, despite the low rating, I’m actually curious to see what I’d think of it if I reread it now—with a few more years of reading classics under my belt.
Summary: The story revolves around two seemingly homeless men simply waiting for someone—or something—named Godot. Vladimir and Estragon wait near a tree, inhabiting a drama spun of their own consciousness. The result is a comical wordplay of poetry, dreamscapes, and nonsense, which has been interpreted as mankind’s inexhaustible search for meaning.
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
Thoughts: I talked about this in my “8 sapphic adult book recommendations” post so you already know I liked this. Although I don’t remember the specific details, I was very excited to be reading a sapphic story at university because it felt more like voluntary reading than compulsory.
Summary: This is the story of Jeanette, adopted and brought up by her mother as one of God’s elect. Zealous and passionate, she seems destined for life as a missionary, but then she falls for one of her converts. At sixteen, Jeanette decides to leave the church, her home and her family, for the young woman she loves. This is a few days ride into the bizarre outposts of religious excess and human obsession.
Blonde Roots by Bernardine Evaristo
Thoughts: This was one book I truly enjoyed. It gripped me instantly and I thought the concept was original and very well executed. I really liked the satirical tone and criticism this delivered. Also beware of trigger warnings (slavery).
Summary: Welcome to a world turned upside down. One minute, Doris, from England, is playing hide-and-seek with her sisters in the fields behind their cottage. The next, someone puts a bag over her head and she ends up in the hold of a slave-ship sailing to the New World. In this fantastically imaginative inversion of the transatlantic slave trade—in which ‘whytes’ are enslaved by black people—Bernardine Evaristo has created a thought-provoking satire that is as accessible and readable as it is intelligent and insightful.
Potiki by Patricia Grace
Thoughts: Although I thought this story was a truly interesting and important one to tell, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I hoped to. For some reason I couldn’t get into it. However, I would still recommend this since it might’ve not been for me, but I’m sure others will love it.
Summary: On the remote coast of New Zealand, at the curve that binds land and sea, a small Maori community live, work, fish, play and tell stories of their ancestors. But something is changing. The prophet child Toko can sense it. Men are coming, with dollars and big plans to develop the area for tourism. As their ancestral land comes under threat, the people must unite in a battle for survival.
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
Thoughts: This wasn’t mandatory, but since we had to translate a fragment of it in an exam, I thought I’d get better acquainted with the story—which I had been wanting to read for a few years. I ended up enjoying this but it didn’t exactly blow me away. It was more harrowing to read than I had anticipated and it left me feeling quite uncomfortable.
Summary: It is the story of a young man who, transformed overnight into a giant beetlelike insect, becomes an object of disgrace to his family, an outsider in his own home, a quintessentially alienated man. A harrowing—though absurdly comic—meditation on human feelings of inadequacy, guilt, and isolation, this has taken its place as one of the most widely read and influential works of twentieth-century fiction.
The third year was, hands down, the year I read the most. I spent a semester abroad and I took more literature courses—I took a fourth year literature course since I could transfer those credits. That semester abroad was when I read to the degree I had been expecting to when I started university and, although it was quite stressful at times, it was the most enjoyment I got out of any literature courses. So strap in, because this section is about to be pretty long.
Goblin Market and other poems by Christina Rossetti
Thoughts: At the time I didn’t think much of this—like I said, not a fan of poetry—but I read both Goblin Market and some other of her poems again last year and thoroughly enjoyed them.
Summary: A collection Christina Rossetti’s poetry, including Goblin Market.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Thoughts: I was super excited when we were told we had to read this since I was anticipating loving it, but it exceeded my expectations. I loved this a whole lot and I had way too much fun writing my essay on it. Definitely one of my favourites I read during my entire degree.
Summary: Lockwood, the new tenant of Thrushcross Grange, situated on the bleak Yorkshire moors, is forced to seek shelter one night at Wuthering Heights, the home of his landlord. There he discovers the history of the tempestuous events that took place years before; of the intense relationship between the gypsy foundling Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw; and how Catherine, forced to choose between passionate, tortured Heathcliff and gentle, well-bred Edgar Linton, surrendered to the expectations of her class. As Heathcliff’s bitterness and vengeance at his betrayal is visited upon the next generation, their innocent heirs must struggle to escape the legacy of the past.
Basil by Wilkie Collins
Thoughts: This is one I actually finished after graduating—I didn’t manage to finish it in time at the time and since we had to get so much reading done it didn’t make sense to dwell on it, so I moved on. I finished it just last year and I loved it way more than I expected!
Summary: Basil, son of a father who values the family pedigree and who would not let him marry below his station, falls in love at first sight with a girl he sees on a bus. He follows her and discovers she is Margaret Sherwin, only daughter of a linen draper. Basil and Margaret enter a secret and unconsummated marriage. Intrigue, shocking betrayal, insanity, and death follow. In this novel Wilkie Collins reveals the bustling, commercial London of the 19th century wreaking its vengeance on a still powerful aristocratic world.
The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
Thoughts: I vividly remember reading the entirety of this on a train ride to London—something that now seems slightly unreal to me—and chuckling the whole way. This was very fun and funny and, so far, my favourite Wilde read.
Summary: Cecily Cardew and Gwendolen Fairfax are both in love with the same mythical suitor. Jack Worthing has wooed Gwendolen as Ernest while Algernon has also posed as Ernest to win the heart of Jack’s ward, Cecily. When all four arrive at Jack’s country home on the same weekend the “rivals” to fight for Ernest’s undivided attention and the “Ernests” to claim their beloveds pandemonium breaks loose. Only a senile nursemaid and an old, discarded hand-bag can save the day!
A Sicilian Romance by Ann Radcliffe
Thoughts: This book was all right, not bad but also nothing to write home about. The constant fainting of the protagonist was slightly annoying but it did allow for many in-class discussions which were quite fun.
Summary: On the rocky northern shores of Sicily stands a lonely castle, the home of the aristocratic Mazzini family. The marquis of Mazzini has remarried and gone away to live with his new wife, abandoning his two daughters—sweet-natured Emilia and lively, imaginative Julia—to wander the labyrinthine corridors alone. His only involvement with their lives is to arrange a marriage between Julia and the cruel Duke de Luovo, even though she loves another. But that is not the end of Julia’s troubles. Strange lights and unearthly groaning noises are coming from parts of the castle that have been locked up for years.
Frankenstein (The 1818 Text) by Mary Shelley
Thoughts: Alongside Lolita and Wuthering Heights this is my favourite work that I read during my degree, and alongside Dracula, my favourite classic ever. This was a beautiful story, much more sad than I expected. One that deserves the recognition it’s had.
Summary: Obsessed with creating life itself, Victor Frankenstein plunders graveyards for the material to fashion a new being, which he shocks into life with electricity. But his botched creature, rejected by Frankenstein and denied human companionship, sets out to destroy his maker and all that he holds dear.
And now, three short ghost stories I remember absolutely nothing about but which I apparently thought were okay because I gave them all 3 stars (★★★☆☆)!
Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu
Thoughts: I thoroughly enjoyed this. I had been wanting to read it for years and I was super glad we got to it in this course. Honestly, what’s not to like about a sapphic vampire story?
Summary: When a mysterious carriage crashes outside their castle home in Styria, Austria, Laura and her father agree to take in its injured passenger, a young woman named Carmilla. Delighted to have some company of her own age, Laura is instantly drawn to Carmilla. But as their friendship grows, Carmilla’s countenance changes and she becomes increasingly secretive and volatile. As Carmilla’s moods shift and change, Laura starts to become ill, experiencing fiendish nightmares, her health deteriorating night after night. It is not until she and her father, increasingly concerned for Laura’s well-being, set out on a trip to discover more about the mysterious Carmilla that the terrifying truth reveals itself.
Good Lady Ducayne by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
Thoughts: This was an interesting take on your typical vampire story. I had no expectations for it but I actually quite liked it!
Summary: A sensational tale of a young woman, Bella Rolleston, who secures a job as a paid companion to a very elderly and wealthy aristocratic lady who offers her a handsome salary, a winter travelling on the Italian Riviera and the Italian Lakes and very little to do. It all seems too good to be true. And when Bella learns that the old lady’s previous two companions died under mysterious circumstances and she herself is becoming paler and sicker… it does seem as though something sinister is afoot.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
Thoughts: I believe this is the only book on this list that I had read prior to studying in class. Funnily enough, the first time around I didn’t like it at all, but upon rereading it I found it much more enjoyable. In the end, it was actually quite a good time.
Summary: Dr. Henry Jekyll, fascinated by the dichotomy of good and evil, no longer wants to inhibit his dark side. He concocts a potion to create the alter ego of Mr. Edward Hyde. With the burden of evil placed on Hyde, Jekyll can now take pleasure in his immoral, nefarious fantasies – free of conscience and guilt. It’s when Hyde turns to murder that Jekyll realizes how monstrous his impulses are and how hard they are to suppress.
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
Thoughts: This one I actually finished reading after the end of the semester—much like with Basil I hadn’t had enough time during it. I thought it was okay, but I mainly remember the spooky vibes and not that much of the plot.
Summary: A very young woman’s first job: governess for two weirdly beautiful, strangely distant, oddly silent children, Miles and Flora, at a forlorn estate… An estate haunted by a beckoning evil. Half-seen figures who glare from dark towers and dusty windows- silent, foul phantoms who, day by day, night by night, come closer, ever closer. With growing horror, the helpless governess realizes the fiendish creatures want the children, seeking to corrupt their bodies, possess their minds, own their souls… But worse-much worse- the governess discovers that Miles and Flora have no terror of the lurking evil. For they want the walking dead as badly as the dead want them.
In this course we also read some of Emily Dickinson’s poetry which I have not included below. The reason is that that particular class was a disaster and I cannot remember a single thing from what we read. Honestly, the Apple TV+ show Dickinson has taught me more about her and her poetry than this course ever did. So yeah, we read some poems but no, I do not recall which ones at all.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving
Thoughts: I had high expectations for this but it turned out to be something quite different from what I expected. As you can see from my rating I didn’t really enjoy it much.
Summary: Ichabod Crane, a schoolteacher, came to Tarry Town in the glen of Sleepy Hollow to ply his trade in educating young minds. He was a gullible and excitable fellow, often so terrified by locals’ stories of ghosts that he would hurry through the woods on his way home, singing to keep from hysterics. Until late one night, he finds that maybe they’re not just stories. What is that dark, menacing figure riding behind him on a horse? And what does it have in its hands? And why wasn’t schoolteacher Crane ever seen in Sleepy Hollow again?
The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe
Thoughts: This was the first Poe story I read, and like every single one I’ve read since it left me a bit disappointed. I can never truly get into his stories, and I believe it’s that I’m too detached from the writing. I enjoy them, but I never love them. However, I still would recommend them because they’re short and fun—for lack of a better word—reads.
Summary: The tale opens with the unnamed narrator arriving at the house of his boyhood friend, Roderick Usher, having received a letter from him in a distant part of the country complaining of an illness and asking for his help.
The Open Boat by Stephen Crane
Thoughts: An interesting story. I liked it well enough, but like many of the ones from this course, it didn’t blow me away.
Summary: Following a shipwreck, four survivors are adrift in a leaking dinghy. The captain is hurt but still able to lead, the cook keeps the boat afloat by bailing, and the correspondent and the oiler—a man whose job it is to oil machinery—take turns rowing. At first, angry at their situation and inclined to bicker, the men ultimately form bonds of empathy and, united, struggle to survive.
The Story of an Hour by Kate Chopin
Thoughts: I loved this. It’s just 3-4 pages but it was super enjoyable, my favourite read from this course for sure.
Summary: Mrs. Louise Mallard, afflicted with a heart condition, reflects on the death of her husband from the safety of her locked room.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Thoughts: This was an okay read, but I was a bit disappointed because I expected to like it more than I did.
Summary: Jay Gatsby is the man who has everything. But one thing will always be out of his reach. Everybody who is anybody is seen at his glittering parties. Day and night his Long Island mansion buzzes with bright young things drinking, dancing, and debating his mysterious character. For Gatsby—young, handsome, and fabulously rich—always seems alone in the crowd, watching and waiting, though no one knows what for. Beneath the shimmering surface of his life he is hiding a secret: a silent longing that can never be fulfilled. And soon this destructive obsession will force his world to unravel.
Barn Burning by William Faulkner
Thoughts: I must admit I’m slightly confused as to why I gave it three stars considering how much I suffered because of this. I think I had to read it more than three times because I just had to keep re-writing an essay for my professor because nothing was making sense. The story per se was okay, but definitely not a favourite.
Summary: Abner Snopes is accused of burning Mr. Harris’s barn, and his son, Colonel Sartoris Snopes (Sarty) is convinced that the people of the court are his family’s enemies. Sarty fiercely aligns himself with his father, placing his loyalty to blood and kin above his faith in the justice system.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams
Thoughts: This mainly annoyed me. The drama was way too much and way too irrelevant for me. It’s a fast read and thus easy to get through, but still, not for me.
Summary: ‘Big Daddy’ Pollitt, the richest cotton planter in the Mississippi Delta, is about to celebrate his sixty-fifth birthday. His two sons have returned home for the occasion: Gooper, his wife and children, Brick, an ageing football hero who has turned to drink, and his feisty wife Maggie. As the hot summer evening unfolds, the veneer of happy family life and Southern gentility gradually slips away as unpleasant truths emerge and greed, lies, jealousy and suppressed sexuality threaten to reach boiling point.
During my fourth and final year I only took one literature course since the year before I’d taken extra ones, which was a good move because that course was the hardest one. This was also the year I started giving half-star ratings.
From the Origins to Shakespeare
Twelfth Night, or What You Will by William Shakespeare
Thoughts: I would be lying if I said reading this wasn’t a struggle. This was my first Shakespeare work I read in its entirety and on my own, and for a good portion I was thoroughly confused—the fact that this is a comedy of errors didn’t help my case. Eventually I got the hang of it and I ended up enjoying it more than I originally anticipated.
Summary: The Countess Olivia, a woman with her own household, attracts Duke (or Count) Orsino. Two other would-be suitors are her pretentious steward, Malvolio, and Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Onto this scene arrive the twins Viola and Sebastian; caught in a shipwreck, each thinks the other has drowned. Viola disguises herself as a male page and enters Orsino’s service. Orsino sends her as his envoy to Olivia—only to have Olivia fall in love with the messenger. The play complicates, then wonderfully untangles, these relationships.
Macbeth by William Shakespeare
Thoughts: Having previously read Twelfth Night definitely helped ease into this. I truly liked this and analysing it in class helped so much with understanding all its nuance.
Summary: One night on the heath, the brave and respected general Macbeth encounters three witches who foretell that he will become king of Scotland. At first sceptical, he’s urged on by the ruthless, single-minded ambitions of Lady Macbeth, who suffers none of her husband’s doubt. But seeing the prophecy through to the bloody end leads them both spiralling into paranoia, tyranny, madness, and murder.
Metamorphoses by Ovid
Thoughts: This was an elective course and we had to read only four books from Metamorphoses. Since I enjoyed those I decided to finish the entire thing after graduation. This was quite a dense read and I’ll admit I got lost at times because it’s told in some sort of stream of consciousness way that I found hard to follow. Definitely one you need to be focused for. However, I really liked learning more about these myths.
Summary: It weaves together every major mythological story to display a dazzling array of miraculous metamorphoses, from the time chaos is transformed into order at the moment of creation, to the time when the soul of Julius Caesar is turned into a star and set in the heavens.
I am aware that this was a very long, very self-indulgent post, but I hope you have found it somewhat interesting.
If you’re an English student yourself, I would really like to hear how our reading differs. If you aren’t, please let me know if you’ve read any of the books I mentioned and what you thought of them. In any case, thank you for reading!