I’ve been a lit major for nigh on six years now, and so I thought it only fair that I use this week’s Top Ten Tuesday ‘Back to School’ theme to share some of the wisdom I’ve managed to gain. So I’ve decided to share ten texts I think every new lit major should try and read at some point in their university careers. Don’t be alarmed if these texts at first seem unnecessarily confusing, pointless, and/or completely and utterly useless. That’s more or less precisely how they’re supposed to be.
Top Ten Texts Every Lit Major Should Read
Any or all of the following: the Odyssey, the Iliad, or the Aeneid – since most authors up until about the mid-twentieth century tended to have an almost excessive reverence for the famous works of classical Greece and Rome, knowing a little bit about any (or all) of these texts is pretty useful. Also, if you’re planning on doing any psychoanalytic work, reading Sophocles’ Oedipus plays might also come in handy, if only so you can poke holes in Freud’s logic. (‘Electra Complex’. Honestly.)
At least one Shakespeare play. If you come from a country whose approach to education tends to be fairly laissez-faire, as I did, you may have gone through twelve or so years of schooling without once setting eyes on a Shakespeare play. If that’s the case, then you may want to brush up on your Bard ASAP, because as with the ancient Greeks and Romans, later writers couldn’t get enough of old Billy Shakespeare. Popular choices include: Hamlet (murder and ghosts), Macbeth (murder, ghosts, and infanticide), and Romeo and Juliet (murder, suicide, and whiny teenagers).
For those of you interested in pursuing British fiction, I’d suggest at least one Austen and one Dickens novel. Tell everyone about reading the Dickens novel – tell nobody about the Austen, especially if you enjoyed it.
Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time). Among literary types, the mention of his name tends to prompt immediate and uncontrollable bouts of salivation, and is hence useful for distinguishing the really pretentious people that you may wish to avoid. Or join, if that’s your scene.
A contemporary classic. Even if you’re planning on studying something very obscure and/or archaic, like medieval French romance or the history of bathtubs in nineteenth and early twentieth-century literature, it’s always good to have a handy contemporary novel you can whip out, either to make you seem well-rounded and cultured, or that you can roundly abuse in order to point out why All Contemporary Literature Is A Perversion of Mankind’s Greatest Art.
Criticism and Theory
‘The Death of the Author’, by Roland Barthes (in Image, Music, Text). Barthes’ ‘Death of the Author’ is essential for every post-1960s lit student out there. You may not agree with his views on the unimportance of the author, but his focus on the way that meaning is made (by the reader) makes this a classic text which contributed to the development of postmodernist thinking.
Orientalism, by Edward Said. Seen by some as the founding text of postcolonial criticism, Said’s book is a fascinating look at the way that the ‘West’ has traditionally envisoned the ‘East’, positioning it as backward, violent, and sexualised, in order to create a myth about ‘Western’ superiority. It’s a text which becomes more and more relevant with every new day.
Gender Trouble, by Judith Butler. Butler’s theory of gender perfomativity is an example of the development of feminist thought over the past century. It shows the way we’ve come to think about gender: as a performance of a socially-determined role, rather than an innate, biologically-determined fact.
‘Word, Dialogue and the Novel’, by Julia Kristeva. Kristeva’s one of those scholars that you desperately want to like, but her writing style is so terrifyingly complex that you’ll feel pleased if you come away understanding even two per cent of what she’s saying on your first reading. Nevertheless, this is an important essay in which Kristeva first coins the term ‘intertextuality’ to describe the way that texts relate to one another. It’s a great way of coming to grips with the fact that texts never emerge in a vacuum, and that there is a complex interplay between old and new, present and past.
‘The Uncanny’, by Sigmund Freud. Yes, there’s lots you could read from the father of psychoanalysis, and while Freud’s theories have become more and more unfashionable in the psychological community, literary scholars still grin from ear to ear when confronted with the prospect of a little Freud (and don’t even get me started on Jacques Lacan). But of all his work, ‘The Uncanny’ is perhaps the most interesting and fun to study. It’s a great complement to Gothic and horror fiction, from Ann Radcliffe to Edgar Allen Poe, detailing the psychological motivations behind our instinctive sense of unease in the face of uncanny situations.
Do you have an recommendations for texts that you think all new lit students should read?