As we begin a new semester, and as some of us begin a new path in life as a university student, Adam Kirkbride reflects on his recent undergraduate studies and the books that inspired him:
This semester I began my MA in Contemporary Literature at York St John University, where I also studied for my BA in English Literature. I’ll be completing my MA on a part-time basis, so by the time I hand in my MA dissertation, I will have been at YSJ for five years.
So, I felt now was a good time to stop and reflect on my previous studies, and I’m writing this down because it will help me to remember what I have learned in the years to come. Over the past three years the texts that I studied have helped to shape my views on literature, politics, representation and so much more. Reading is, in my opinion, the best way to educate or entertain yourself in an age of turmoil. And if I get to the end of writing this post without developing an overwhelming desire to read all of these books again, then I will be shocked!
The freedom and independence to pick and choose texts, topics, and modules on my degree was by far the feature that I enjoyed most. I rarely came across a text I disliked, and not once did I have to write about a text which truly bored me with no redeeming factors. Creativity and the study of literature go hand in hand, so it is important when reading to engage with texts that pique your interest and inspire originality. These ten books have nurtured my head and my heart throughout my degree, and I know that I am a better person for having read them. I can only hope that the texts I will read over the next two years will have the same impact on me.
I studied over 200 different novels, stories, poetry collections, poems, essays, plays, films, and more so this was an incredibly difficult list to make! Nevertheless, after a long period of thought and reflection, this is what I have come up with:
10) Say Something Back, Denise Riley (2016)
This was one of the first complete texts that I studied on my degree. It was taught on the first-year module “Forms of Narrative”, a module which was compulsory for all English Lit and Creative Writing students (whether single honours or joint). Say Something Back is a poetry collection in which Denise Riley reflects profoundly on grief, motherhood, and the tragic death of her son. I found it to be an incredibly moving tribute and reflection on grief that captured my attention and my sympathy.
9) The Collector, John Fowles (1963)
The Collector is another first-year text, this time from the “Theorising Literature” module which all single honours literature students took. The novel is about a man who uses lottery winnings to kidnap a woman whom he admires and hold her in an underground room so he can be close to her. I could not put this novel down. Not only is it gripping, but its concern with class differences and its incredibly unlikeable characters make it a fantastically complex text that encourages you to think about gender, class, power, and how these concepts intersect and play against one another.
8) Christodora, Tim Murphy (2016)
This book was taught as part of the second-year module “Sick Novels: Literature and Disease”, taught by Dr Jo Waugh. The novel centres around a group of characters with complicated relationships, and is set in New York during the peak and then the aftermath of the AIDS crisis. In addition to it being beautiful and heart-warming, Christodora can also be read as a complex critique of the treatment of LGBTQ+ people, women, and black and latinx communities during the AIDS crisis.
7) Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and its Metaphors, Susan Sontag (1978/1989)
Also taught on “Sick Novels”, this collection of two long essays by Susan Sontag wasexactly what you would want in an academic book. As the title suggests, in these essays Sontag reflects on the implications of metaphorical language used in relation to illness, focussing principally on Cancer and Tuberculosis in the former essay, and (obviously) HIV/AIDS in the latter. Sontag’s essays are intriguing without being overly abstract, they are complex but still accessible, and although they are context-specific the ideas raised remain relevant today.
6) Gardening in the Tropics, Olive Senior (1994)
The highest rated poetry collection on this list is Olive Senior’s Gardening in the Tropics, which was taught by Dr Sarah Lawson Welsh on the third-year module “Writing the Caribbean”. The poetry collection could accurately be described as post-colonial, ecocritical, dialectic, and spiritual all at once. Senior’s writing is incredibly heartfelt, and each poem is imbued with a sense of magic. I was particularly moved by her “Hurricane Story” series, four poems which narrate the experiences of Caribbean peoples who contend with economic downfall, natural disaster, domestic abuse, and separation. This collection got me hooked on Olive Senior and I haven’t looked back!
5) A Small Place, Jamaica Kincaid (1988)
Breaking into the top five we have another text from “Writing the Caribbean”. A Small Place is, appropriately, only a short text, but there is more anger in its 80 pages than anyone else could fit into a book of triple the size. In this book, Jamaica Kincaid launches into a relentless criticism of the treatment of her home island, Antigua. Kincaid’s use of direct address makes this small text incredibly potent, and when you finish reading it you may feel as if you’ve just barely survived a round in the ring with Mike Tyson. Her wit and fury shine through this text and force you to address your complicity with the legacies of colonialism. A fantastically uncomfortable (and therefore necessary) read.
4) Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys (1966)
Originally, this book was taught as part of the first-year module “Canonicity”, which was compulsory for all single honours literature students. However, for reasons I can’t quite remember, I only read part of this book in my first year. Nevertheless, when it came time to write my dissertation proposal, I picked up this book once again and it blew me away. Wide Sargasso Sea is a “prequel” text to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847), which focusses on the backstory of Bertha Mason (here Antoinette Cosway) before she was trapped in Rochester’s attic. It is only a short novel, but it is stupendously haunting, and after reading it you will never read Jane Eyre (or Victorian literature as a whole) in the same way again.
3) The Book of Salt, Monique Truong (2003)
At number three we have The Book of Salt by Monique Truong. I studied this text on a third-year research module “Culinary Cultures” (once again taught by Dr Sarah Lawson Welsh) and just fell in love with it. The novel follows Bihn, a fictional gay Vietnamese chef under the employment of Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas, as he moves through Paris, sails the ocean, and reflects on the life he left behind in Vietnam. This book is a queer masterpiece. It is astonishing, breath-taking, and heart-wrenching. I fully recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys modernism, queer fiction, or countless sensual descriptions of food!
2) Beloved, Toni Morrison (1987)
I wrote about Beloved as the first text in my dissertation, but I became aware of the novel due to it being mentioned on the second-year module “Harlem to Hip-hop: African American Literature and Culture” (taught by Dr Janine Bradbury), where we studied Toni Morrison’s short story “Recitatif”. However, this book is also taught by Dr Anne-Marie Evans on the third-year module “American Radicals”.
Beloved is arguably Morrison’s most famous novel. Drawing inspiration from the historical case of Margaret Garner (a formerly enslaved woman who attempted to kill her children rather than allow them to return to a life of slavery), Morrison creates a whole host of characters who are haunted by the ghost of a child killed by her mother to save her from enslavement. The novel’s opening line – “124 was spiteful. Filled with a baby’s venom.” – sends shivers down your spine and commands your attention from the outset. The book is haunting, thought-provoking, and utterly thrilling. It is easily my favourite novel of all time and writing about it for my dissertation was one of the best parts of my degree.
Before revealing which book holds the number one spot, I’d like to make some honourable mentions: Raymond Antrobus’ The Perseverance (2018), Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929), Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (1898), and Andrea Levy’s The Long Song (2010). These are four texts which I thoroughly enjoyed studying, but I did not have room for on this list.
1) Mouth Full of Blood: Essays, Speeches, Meditations, Toni Morrison (2019)
This collection of essays was never set as essential reading, but I was recommended several of the essays included at varying points in my degree and feel that I would be amiss not to mention it as it was absolutely vital to the completion of my dissertation.
Occupying not only the second-place spot, but also the top spot on this list is Toni Morrison! Mouth Full of Blood is a tour de force wherein Morrison reflects on issues of race, gender, history, writing, reading, drama, canonicity, resistance and so much more. Although only being recommended a few of the essays contained within the collection, I was so enthralled by Morrison’s writing that I ended up reading the whole thing cover to cover. Morrison’s fiction writing is obviously excellent, but her non-fiction writing is just as powerful. Without this book I would not have been able to produce a dissertation, because without her reflections on topics such as historiography, the canon, and memorialisation I would have been lost in a spiral of my own incomplete, unstructured ideas. The essays and speeches in this book are captivating and nuanced without being pretentious or inaccessible to a non-expert. And although it was not a set text on my degree, it truly (for me) captures the essence of what the study of literature is about at York St John: how to make the world better, even just a little bit.