“Canonical writing is born of an originality fused with tradition.”
– Harold Bloom
At long last – but seemingly all too soon – I’ve reached the end of my first year at university. A long summer awaits, and so it’s time to bid farewell to the reading list of first year and anticipate the list for next year. But before doing so, the favourites of the bunch await their highlight.
Now, I’m aware this post opens with a photograph of a book that’s somewhat unrelated to this list – though it was part of my uni reading – and a random quote about the literary canon. Why? Because when looking at this list of favourites, I can’t help but feel like it proves a point to myself, in a way. The English literary canon has always been ridiculously restricted, dominantly featuring white men from centuries past and a few women thrown in for good measure (though most of them only being admitted after publishing under a male pseudonym, mind). So it’s pretty standard to find authors such as Dickens, Conrad and good ol’ Shakespeare on uni reading lists. And while I’m excited to read these books, I do wish things were more diverse…so I find it interesting how out of the five favourite books I’ve listed below, one of the three men are of Nigerian descent, and the other two books are written by women.
There’s probably a better ratio of general diversity amongst this list than most uni reading lists.
That being said, this list does also prove that universities are *trying*, at least. One day we’ll get there. For now though, I’ll just pick out my favourites from the bunch and be glad it turned out to be these ones – which happen to cross a whole timeline of eras, funnily enough. Why pick out a favourite period in history to read from when you can just have a bit of everything?
So, let’s do this – in time order, because organisation is key.
• The Odyssey •
by Homer, translated by E.V. Rieu
Starting way back in Ancient Greek times we have The Odyssey, a heroic voyage tale featuring many trials and tribulations…most of those being monsters. This is a book I’d already read and adored before starting university, and so discovering it was on the reading list filled my heart with joy. It was bound to be one of my favourites of the year. However, what I didn’t expect was to end up loving it even more. On my first read I rated it 4.5 stars, but having reread it a couple of months later at uni and then revisited multiple passages almost daily for two or three weeks while focusing on an essay featuring it, I just had to bump that rating up to the full 5 stars and officially title it as an all-time favourite. It’s wild and wondrous, action-packed to the final page, and I continually found every chapter a joy to read.
• Sir Gawain and the Green Knight •
by an unknown author, translated by Simon Armitage
Moving on to medieval England, we have Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, an Arthurian poem following the journey of Sir Gawain on his challenge against the Green Knight. While I was beyond excited to read this one, I didn’t expect to love it quite as much as I did. But again, this is one I found myself rereading multiple times for an essay and loving it more every time I did so. Though I can’t compare the translation to its original form (though being able to read old English would be impressive…), it seems to me Simon Armitage did an incredible job, keeping the rhythm and rhyme scheme as you can imagine it being. After reading this one in first semester, I actually got a huge collection of Arthurian legends for my birthday a couple of months back, and I can’t wait to read more from this period of history!
• Jane Eyre •
by Charlotte Bronte
With Jane Eyre we have another book I’d read before starting university, but grew to love even more when revisiting. This book is a Victorian bildungsroman following Jane Eyre’s life, and probably the most typical “literary canon” choice on this list. Though I have to say it’s a slow burn kind of read, I can’t help appreciate what people call its flowery language and the sheer intensity of emotions written. So much of everyday life mattered in this time, and rereading this book actually inspired a blog post I plan on writing sometime soon about some of the classics I’ve read. For now though, I’m definitely glad I reread this one and studied it from so many different critical approaches, because my love for it only grew.
• Swastika Night •
by Katharine Burdekin
This is definitely the lesser known of the books on this list, but I honestly think so many people would like this one if they gave it a chance. Published by the Feminist Press, Burdekin creates a dystopian world where Hitler won WWII, causing society to regress and become a highly patriarchal system. It’s an unnerving read and fairly unsettling to realise how the explanations given aren’t entirely unrealistic, and the history lover in me couldn’t resist speeding through this alternate timeline. I found it to be dark but in a weirdly fascinating way, and even though published in the 1930’s still remains relevant to our society now.
• Things Fall Apart •
by Chinua Achebe
Finally arriving at the latest book published, Things Fall Apart is one that probably wouldn’t have been on this list if it wasn’t for the final chapter. Following Okonwko and his clan as they suffer the effects of imperialism, I did find myself enjoying this one throughout, but in the more understated OK-this-is-good-but-moving-on kind of way. But reading the final chapter changed that entirely, providing the one final kick that set this book apart from any other I’d read by cementing the message, loud and clear. It’s one of those books I’m glad exists, with Africa gaining at least a smidgen of authentic representation from an author who would actually know it, instead of being smothered in stereotypes as it has done for years already.
And so those were my favourite reads from my first year university reading list!
I’d love to know if any of these books are favourites of yours, or if you’ve ever had to study them! If you’re in education yourself, what was your favourite required read of this year?
Until next time…