If I knew then what I know now
Strategies for Reading English Literature
Whether we are returning to education after a long break, changing to a course we have an interest in but no experience of, or are coming straight from school to college, studying literature is by no means straight-forward. Whether you are a student who picked English as a last-minute choice from the pool of arts subjects or selected it out of genuine love of the subject, regardless it has a long-standing reputation as “the easy choice”. This is understandable when we consider the ways in which the leaving certificate is set out. While our teachers may have been enthusiastic and innovative, this system itself outlines exactly what answers they are looking for and the students are guided towards these literary interpretations. Ultimately, in our school days, we likely had a lot of help.
At university level however, the independent critical thinking we do is what our lecturers – regardless of course or discipline – are looking for. It is the foundation of any university degree and an English course is no different. We are expected to read a significant number of novels, plays, poems in a short amount of time. We begin to learn about feminist, postcolonial, and Marxist theories. We are surrounded by key arguments, leading researchers, and are overwhelmed with who we agree with and why. It appears we are just getting used to one medium of writing and it is swiftly replaced by another. Old English finally makes sense but now it is suddenly semester two and the lecturer is giving us an overview to the nineteenth century. It’s a lot, I’m aware. So where does our voice come in? How can we ever expect to get a Times New Roman word in? The answer falls to two key things: the primary texts and what we do with them. Though we have a significant number of authors, eras, genres, theories, styles, secondary research, and more to go through, ultimately how we find our footing in any literature lies within our interpretation of it. If you can master this now, it won’t matter if you are assigned four genres and eight different novels and plays in a week (you won’t ever be, but you get the gist!). You will succeed and begin to understand why these contexts and theories are so important, why we need to learn them. Here is a brief overview of how I would approach the primary texts, if I knew then what I knew now:
Read a summary of the text
It can be overwhelming looking at a list of books you have to read and having no idea what any of it means or where it is going. This is understandable, especially given the array of material on the set reading list. Remember that the scope of literature on your set reading list is a brilliant thing! It might feel like a lot, but you are essentially getting a crash course in all eras of English literature (or close enough at least) and explore where your area of interest lies. But sometimes it is easier to fall behind than to work smarter instead of harder. Read a summary of the text to help get to grips with the basic plot, any key themes you feel might be relevant, and make a few bullet points before the lectures begin. Which leads me to my next point.
Yes, it would be ideal if you could have every single text read before your lectures, but things happen, and life gets in the way. It may be that with the current situation you can’t get your hands on a text. If that’s the case, remember the library staff can perhaps direct you to online versions of the texts if they are available to UCC. Perhaps you do have the text but can’t find the time or motivation amidst all your other work. Whatever the situation is if you can’t read the text on time don’t psyche yourself out. Do the pre-lecture prep discussed above and even that will stand to you. You will have a much better idea of why the lecturer has focused in on certain themes/theories in the novel, what historical context is important, and why. This helps to lay the groundwork for your own close reading.
Deciding what to focus on
A handy trick I learned too late. In addition to taking key themes/contexts discussed in the lectures, look at past exam papers available on the UCC Library website. While the same questions don’t come up every year (or even the same texts) they are an excellent indication of the types of topics that are asked about specific texts. Have a look for the kind of questions that came up for your specific texts in a previous year, make note of the key words in the question, and bear them in mind when carrying out your close reading.
With these common themes or key words in mind, what can you notice in the text that would work as a convincing example of why you agree/disagree/can add to the discussion set out in the exam question? These texts can be subtle or straight-forward. Either way, your approach needs to be the same. What quotes/imagery/characters/settings do you find particularly convincing in terms of the essay question? Remember it is not enough to pick up on these things. Expand upon them! You need to justify every example you choose. Your essay word count may seem high, but you will find when you get into the texts that there are always far more examples than you expect. Your job is to whittle them down to the strongest ones and by that, I mean, the strongest ones in your opinion. Therefore, it’s important to read the primary material first, to get a sense of what you think, and then help to widen the scope by learning from the secondary research. Your reading of the primary text doesn’t have to be an unenjoyable or stressful experience sitting uncomfortably at a desk. The reading of the texts is the best part of an English degree! Much preferable to the writing and the research (and I say that as someone who is eight years into studying it). Try taking the formal study element out of reading the texts. Sit down in a comfortable armchair with a ridiculously overpriced coffee or a similarly overpriced cake. Keep a post-it nearby with those key themes or key words from the exam questions so you have a handy reminder nearby of what you are looking for. Grab a highlighter, sticky tabs, a pencil, or a small notepad and pen. Get comfortable, enjoy the reading, and as observations come to you start marking particularly impressive key scenes, quotes, character arcs, pathetic fallacy. Anything! And then when you have jotted down some opinions, marked your strongest examples then you can better bolster your argument by turning to the secondary reading.
The key mistake people make when doing research is let the work argue for them. This is an easy trap to fall into but one you must try your absolute best to avoid. The secondary reading is extremely useful to help build upon, inform, or change your perception of a text but ultimately your opinion should be at the fore of any essay or presentation you do. It is important to ensure that when you read through the secondary material you note down their key arguments not the main points. Why? Because if you take down the main points you will quickly become overwhelmed by the number of quotes or paraphrased material but most importantly you will also end up with a summary. A summary does not equal critical thinking. Instead, consider what and who they agree or disagree with regarding the texts. Then ask yourself do you agree with their contention? If so, make a note of why. And select a similar example from the primary text to back yourself up. If you disagree, also make a note of why and select an example from the primary text which proves, in your opinion, that you are right to disagree. You can, and in fact you should, go back and forth between the primary and secondary texts to compare what they saw and what you think. The lecturers often provide handy secondary text lists for you, ensuring they have drawn upon the best and the boldest. However, if you do find it hard to find texts or use the website due to the sheer number of online resources available remember that there are a team of friendly experts in the library who can point you in the right direction.
Yes, often these texts have themes and contexts that generally the discipline agrees are correct but the extent to which we agree with these themes, the best examples of them, or their purpose or impact in the text is subjective. This is a good thing! It means there is always room for an alternative or even slightly altered viewpoint. Disagreeing (in a respectful way) isn’t disrespectful, it’s research. You are furthering the field anytime you make a new observation or look at a text in a slightly different way than you have found in your research. By ensuring you always ask (and explain) the ‘why? ‘of each point you take from the primary and secondary texts you will make reading the English literature so much more enjoyable for yourself.