There’s no doubt that the English course at York allows you great flexibility and range when it comes to picking modules. Being more of a contemporary literature book hoarder myself, I chose modules focusing on 20th- and 21st- century literature, and had the most enjoyable time reading and researching the texts and period! Here’s a round-up of the top set texts I’ve fallen in love with:
1. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
This book was on the Approaches to Literature module in my first term of university. Without giving too much away, I’d describe it as a book that gives more stage time to what goes on in characters’ minds than what actually goes on in the real world. It also deals a lot with themes of nostalgia and memory, in very, very fluid prose! I fell in love with Woolf’s stream of consciousness style and the way she described her character’s emotional states of being so much that it inspired a Virginia Woolf reading spree that lasted the entire of first term. I remember finishing this book in a single sitting before promptly walking out to town after lunch to buy Orlando, another Woolf text, and a biography of her life. I also ended up writing one of my essays for this particular module on Mrs Dalloway.
2. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This was a text we did in the Global Literature module in the second term of first year. Once again, I am reminded of how inclusive York’s English and Related Literature course is, giving students ample exposure to literatures from other cultures and histories. Americanah is a novel set both in America and Nigeria and deals with issues of authenticity, race, culture, and the diaspora identity. The prose is witty, elegant and vivid. While it was the longest text of the reading list for Global Lit, I remember spending a whole two days holed up in my room simply because I was too engrossed to do anything else but finish this novel.
3. Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid
Of all the books in this list, Lucy was the one that moved me most. This was also one of the texts set in the Global Lit module, and can be said to be a Bildungsroman (a coming-of-age novel). In the novel, the protagonist, Lucy, experiences conflict between her quest for self-determination and societal expectations. She seeks to form an identity that is not prescribed by her mother, who symbolises the expectations Caribbean society has of a young woman. What attracted me to this book was how it portrayed a strong independent female character subverting the dependent, submissive female role. Also, the novel draws on postcolonial tropes and the idea of reinvention, forming a new, different self that is not at all similar to one’s cultural and personal history.
4. Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow
Ragtime falls in the contemporary American literature canon and depicts early 20th-century American society. What fascinated me so much about this novel was how it talked about real-life icons such as Charlie Chaplin and J. P. Morgan, people who formed part of modern American history, but interweaved these with fictional characters. Fans of Tennessee Williams’ oeuvre would love Doctorow’s writing style, speaking from personal experience. I ended up writing my 3,000-word essay for this module on Ragtime. I thoroughly enjoyed the research process, which took me to interesting corners of American literature, reading up about the three waves of feminism, what it means to write the Great American Novel, and what America was like in the 1900s-1930s!
5. The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark
This text was part of my British and Irish Literature, 1910 to the Present module, and was also one of the shortest. The title of the novella comes off as so casual and normal, which is completely unlike the actual contents of the story. There’s not much I can say without spoiling this book for you, but I can tell you it involves a woman doing and saying the most absurd things ever, and it felt like I was watching an episode of Sherlock but with ten times the intensity and adrenaline. I can safely say that Muriel Spark’s writing is one of the best discoveries I made in second year, and that I greatly enjoyed the entire module’s reading list (which also included another Muriel Spark text!).
I must mention that these are the top five books I love from the reading lists, and that I have another list of top five most loved books I’ve read over the last few terms in addition to the reading lists’ texts. Last year, I remember stumbling upon a book of Octavio Paz’s poems in the J B Morrell Library and falling in love with it. I now have my own collection of Octavio Paz’s poems sitting on my bookshelf at home, and have also become interested in literature in translation.
As English Literature students, I think that it’s important for us to read outside our reading lists. There’s a whole world of literature out there for us to discover — literature from other continents and periods that might be completely unfamiliar to us in style, genre, and thematic concerns, but that should give us all the more reason to venture in.