I was always a big reader growing up, and it is something I just presumed would continue throughout my entire life. Then I made the mistake of doing an English degree. Being forced to read multiple novels a week and then be expected to talk about them in front of a bunch of people you don’t know, and then write 3000 word essays about them, was pretty draining on me. So much so that I pretty much entirely stopped reading for pleasure for my three years at uni. After my last ever essay deadline, one of the first things I did was order £70 worth of books and convince myself that I was going to jump right back into the joys of reading again, starting with something simple like David Foster Wallace (I’m still not sure why I thought that was a good idea). I even got an eReader! I was ready for this! Unfortunately all I’ve managed to read since July have been pretty basic YA novels about ghosts and goblins and all that fun stuff. And of course I couldn’t blame myself for my lack of literature, after all– I had loved it before I turned eighteen. It was the university’s fault, it had to be! However, the more I think about it, the more I realise that I actually read some pretty great things at uni. Things I never would have picked up if it wasn’t for the limited module choices. So this is my list of the top five things I read at university, because amidst the sea of Brontë, Defoe, and Swift (not the Taylor kind), there were actually some gems out there.
5) The Complete Poems of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester:
During my second year of university, I had to pick a year long module for the English side of my degree, and I pretty much hated all the choices, so I ended up choosing a class on the Restoration because I have a giant history crush on King Charles II. This class was hit and miss for me, some things (like A Journal of the Plague Year, ughhhh) caused me such pain to read, whilst others (like Rochester) I genuinely… enjoyed? Rochester was in the court of King Charles II, and when he wasn’t verbally fucking the Puritan movement, he was literally fucking a variety of women and men. And he liked to write a lot of poems about this. Rochester’s idea of a good night was collecting STIs like Ash Ketchum caught Pokémon… which is what eventually killed him at age 33. I pretty much love him, and if my Midnight in Paris-esque moment doesn’t take me back to the 1920s to party with the Fitzgeralds, St James’s Park in the seventeenth century would be pretty great too.
4) When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro:
When people think of Ishiguro, they usually think of Carey Mulligan and Keira Knightley running around in Never Let Me Go– which I’ll admit is actually a pretty good film. But Orphans just did something for me that Never Let Me Go didn’t manage. This whole novel is one giant mindfuck, that is the best way to describe it. You start off thinking you’re reading a simple detective story, albeit with a rather eccentric protagonist, but as you get further and further into the story you become less sure of what is happening. I’m surprised that this isn’t a film already, because the right director could really do something with this story. I included this text on the list because after I first read the synopsis, I was sure I was gonna hate it. But I grimaced and I sat down with some green tea and I forced myself to read. And before long, I wasn’t forcing myself anymore. I was staying up late, racing my tiredness to get to the end. And then I did. And I was disappointed. Because it seems Ishiguro’s favourite hobby is building you up, only to knock you back down. Yet I still love the damn thing.
3) The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter:
I first read Angela Carter during my A Levels, and although I enjoyed her work, it took me until my last year of uni to really get her. Maybe it was because I needed a few more years to begin to identify as a feminist, but by the time I read The Magic Toyshop, I was hooked. I said Orphans was a mindfuck? Well it’s got nothing on Toyshop. I was so angry when I finished this book. Was that an ending? Was anything that happened in this book real? Was Melanie just in a coma somewhere, high on medication? But I don’t even care. Everything else about this book is wonderful. The metaphors of the patriarchy, the utter creepiness, the never-really-explained incest. The complete absurdity of everything that happens just makes the reader more aware of Carter’s underlying feminist ideals. Before I started this class, I was completely set on writing my second essay on 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the moment I finished this book I knew it was the one I must write on. And it takes a lot to make me want to write on a novel over a film.
2) The Collector by John Fowles:
This is the second book about an abductor/abductee that I read whilst at uni, and whilst the first one (Room by Emma Donoghue) gave me the pretty basic ‘oh no this is a bad man, he is clearly the villain’ response, The Collector was something different. Fowles does something amazing with this novel, and makes you actually feel for the abductor, Clegg. This text really plays with your head, because at times you find yourself rooting for Miranda to escape, and others you feel genuine sympathy for Clegg. Out of all the novels I read at uni, I’d definitely have to say that The Collector is my favourite, and I will continue to recommend it to anyone who asks.
1) The Collected Dorothy Parker by, uh, Dorothy Parker:
I’m sort of cheating with this one, because I’m not really picking a particular book– but an entire person. Dorothy Parker is without a doubt one of my favourite people in history. She is my idol, everything I wish to be in life. If you’ve seen Girl, Interrupted, then you will know Parker from this scene, which is admittedly one of my favourite of her works, but there is so much more. I chose The Collected Dorothy Parker because it gives the best of both worlds– both her poems and her short stories. And there’s only one thing cooler than Parker’s work– and that’s Parker herself. I’ve been planning a post on why I love her so much for what feels like months now, but I just can’t get it right, so I’m not gonna say too much about it here, other than that everyone should experience Parker at some point in their life. Pessimism has never looked so decadent.
(Let’s ignore how the title of this post sounds like a Fall Out Boy song)