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Five books every English Lit student needs to own


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Fact: English Literature courses are bloody difficult.

After ticking off your never-ending reading list, the last thing you’ll want to think about is more books. But with these five titles under your belt, essay time will become a whole lot easier. 

Referencing isn’t fun – and neither is trying to understand overcomplicated theories and terminology. However, these reference books will make you feel much more comfortable when it comes to academic writing. 

First semester is just around the corner. Make sure to get these titles (second hand if you want to save a few bob) in order to plump up that essay and fast track towards a healthy 2:1.


Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms

This is an essential for any Lit student. If you want to give your imaginative comments academic legitimacy, you’re going to have to back them up with precise terminology. This is great for learning new terms and a quick and handy reminder of the classics you’ve been taught since primary school. There’s nothing worse than overusing the same key terms over and over, or trying to shoehorn that fancy word your professor said once into every essay where it doesn’t fit. But with this concise dictionary, you’ll be able to ensure that you’re using these words accurately and appropriately, which is the hallmark of any great essay. 

Find a copy here


Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory: Fourth Edition by Peter Barry

During our A-levels, we’re vaguely introduced to a couple of literary concepts, but these are superficially glazed over (unless you had a hard-core literary nut as a teacher) and little attention is paid to them. It can be a shock, then, to any English Lit student entering first year to hear words such as structuralism and formalism thrown about as if they’re as common as metaphor or alliteration. To get a brief overview of the most important concepts you’ll encounter on your degree, look no further than Peter Barry’s excellent book, which is written specifically for students. It covers topics such as post-structuralism, as well as more recent movements such as ecocriticism. The books will give you some brilliant and simple examples, as well as introducing some key thinkers and works to delve into.

Take note: don’t fall into the trap of using this as a reference – even if Barry is a respected scholar, using a student handbook as one of your key sources will never look good. Stick to the recommended reading and use this to secure your knowledge. 

Find a copy here


The Norton Anthology of Poetry, edited by Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter, Jon Stallworthy.

In most cases, this absolute mammoth of an anthology will already be prescribed by your tutors. It contains hundreds of poems spanning the entirety of English Literature and has become a staple at many UK universities. From Chaucer to Shakespeare to Keats, its commitment to the canon means you’ll most likely be familiar with most of the authors here – and find it very difficult to come over anything other than dead, white, rich men.

However, its flaws aside, this anthology will prove to be a reliable source for reference. Most tutors will recognise it and, more importantly, it will make your bibliography much more streamlined if you can find all of the poems you’re talking about in the same place. Yes, it’s pricey – a lot of places sell it for over £60 – but with some online bookstores selling it for £30, it's worth the extra money for something that will be useful for the entirety of your degree. 

Find a copy here


Very Short Introductions, Oxford University Press

By now, you’re most likely familiar with Oxford’s Very Short Introductions series – and already rolled your eyes at its patronising title. These standalone books go into more depth than Peter Barry’s handbook. They cover more specific themes – such as the contemporary novel, romanticism, or Victorian literature – and give readers an insight into the origins and developments of these key areas. Although more ‘academic’ (aka pretentious) than Barry’s work, they do go more in depth and, although their arguments can hinder students looking for objective overviews, if read carefully, they can provide illuminating and robust thoughts on important topics.

Top tip: if you’re planning to do a module on contemporary literature, for example, read the Very Short Introduction beforehand to give yourself a bit of background knowledge, without having to dig into the hard-core stuff.   

Take a look at the full selection, here


Cambridge Companions to Literature

Again, this is a series of books rather than a standalone reference. Most likely, you’ll be able to access these through your university’s e-library for free, making these essential and accessible reads. Rather than being penned by one author, as with the Very Short Introductions, these collections compile a range of essays from authors that come from different acedmic backgrounds, offering interesting and contrasting arguments around a single topic. Unlike Barry’s book or Oxford’s similar series, these are useful to reference in your essays, as they work as more than a starting point. Yes, they are still entry level, but they brilliantly explain broad themes and provide piercing academic insight.

Take a look at the titles, here

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