Back in January I announced that I would be starting a new series on the blog, entitled on my bookshelf. The plan was to share a list of books in each post which corresponded to a theme, whether that was my favourite picture books as a child or my current collection of feminist theory, and I was also planning on including guest posts too. For one reason or another, though, I never managed to get it off the ground – until now, when I’ve finally got the time.
On my bookshelf posts will alternate with my #PrettyHealthyProject pieces every other Monday. For the first post, I’m going to be sharing my top five texts from my first year studying English at the University of York – one per module.
Le Morte d’Arthur, Thomas Malory (1485)
I might be the only person in my year to choose this as a top-five text. It was the first book we read in our Approaches to Literature: Medieval to Modern module which essentially introduced us to the study of literature at university level. My real favourite from this module was Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but I’ve gone with the Malory for this list simply because it was unlike anything I had ever read before. It’s essentially a compilation of the King Arthur stories; Malory collected the traditional English and French tales and added his own material. The English is vastly different from ours, as is the style and structure of the narrative, and although it took a while to get into once I’d waded through the opening sections I found it surprisingly easy and entertaining reading.
The Odyssey, Homer
I read The Odyssey for my Translations module over the summer whilst on tour with the County Youth Orchestra, and given that our coach journey to Germany took twenty-one hours when it was supposed to take eleven I felt a certain appreciation for Odysseus’ trials. In all seriousness, though, I was surprised at how accessible and easy-to-read I found the work, and also how humours and smart. With ancient texts it’s important to remember that what we now read from a page would originally have been performed orally, and although the lands to which Homer travels are fiction and the intervention of the odds in his efforts purely magical imagination, we are in some way transported to a time so far away it’s difficult to imagine without the help of texts like these.
Villette, Charlotte Bronte, 1853
This is one of my all-time favourites, though it’s difficult to pick from my Victorian Literature module. I love Bronte’s Jane Eyre, but I identify so much with the character of Lucy in Villette. She is so extraordinarily real and believable, and certainly not always likeable, and that’s something I really respect in a character. Much of the story is based on the time Bronte herself spent teaching in Brussels, which the town of Villette is modelled on, including her heartbreaking unrequited love for a schoolmaster there. As well as being a masterful piece of literature, and despite its intriguing supernatural element, Villette is an inherently human story about the inner workings of a real and rounded woman; it explores female puberty and sexuality in a manner far ahead of its time, and it also held the most impressive ending of any book I read all year (but don’t, don’t, don’t skip to the last page – let it come to you!).
Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2013
I really struggled with the postcolonial module in term two, but when I read Americanah I was struck dumb. It’s an extraordinary piece of work dealing head-on with some of the most important issues facing Nigerian, American and British society. It examines what it means to be black, what it means to be a woman, what it means to be both of those things at the same time, and what it means to be human in an increasingly globalised world. Adichie focuses closely on the concept of cultural displacement – how it feels to not entirely belong – and her protagonist, Ifemelu, explores these concepts through her online blog. All this is examined through the lens of an impressive, thorough and moving plot. I learned so much by reading this book, and found myself exploring notions of internationalism and intersectionality from a much wider range of perspectives as a result.
Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens, 1865
In my third term I took two ‘topic modules’. One was focused entirely on poetry, hence no novel from it in this post, but the second looked at just one book: Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend. It’s a monster – over 800 pages, around 40 characters (some of whom have multiple names) and countless plot twists and turns – but it’s also one of the most extraordinary books I’ve ever had the joy of reading. It was the last novel Dickens completed before his death, and unlike many before it, the work didn’t come easily to him. As a reader, though, it takes no time at all to be pulled out of the Thames by Gaffer and Lizzie Hexam, and into the cross-section of London Dickens characteristically evokes, where nobody is wholly good or wholly bad, and certainly not entirely what they seem.
Would you like to guest-post for the on my bookshelf series? Drop me a line in the comments below, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!