Three simple steps to prepare for your undergraduate English degree at the University of Birmingham:
1. Read widely
English programmes at university are all about broadening your horizons, and the summer is a great time to get some reading done. Instead of going back to a favourite book or author, try something new. Are there any unread books on your bookshelf? Do any of your friends or family have recommendations? Is there something you’ve been meaning to read for ages, but have never found the right moment? Reading outside of your comfort zone is a great way to prepare for the breadth of material you’ll be encountering at university. You can find recommendations from some of our academics and students in the English Department below if you’re in need of inspiration!
2. Get into the habit of taking notes
Lots of students like to get a head-start with reading over the summer, but bear in mind that you will be discussing some of the texts on your reading lists a good few months later. It’s helpful to make notes as you read, in a notebook, on the text itself (on a paper copy, or kindle edition), or on a computer. This will make your thoughts on a particular work easier to recall before seminars and lectures. Making notes as you read can also encourage you to slow down, pay closer attention to language, or aspects of a text that particularly interest you. This is also a good opportunity to see what kind of note-taking works for you: some people like to make this very visual, with highlighters, coloured tabs etc. Others like to keep this clean and simple, or to be able to move information around easily, which taking notes on a computer can really help with.
3. Try watching some lectures online
Listening to, digesting and following up on lecture material will be – for many – a new skill when they come to university. If you’ve never heard a lecture before there are lots available online where you can get used to this type of teaching. iTunes U is a fantastic resource where you can find free educational content from universities all around the world. We also have content from some of our own academics online, so their faces and voices can become familiar to you before you arrive! Perhaps try one of the following:
- ‘Virginia Woolf and Feminist Aesthetics’. Professor Deborah Longworth delivers a mini-lecture on 'A Room of One's Own'.
- Professor John Holmes
delivers an undergraduate lecture as part of the Discovering Shakespeare module,‘Shakespeare in Victorian Poetry and Painting: The Pre-Raphaelites’.
Listen to these somewhere comfortable where there won’t be too many other distractions. Let the information wash over you at first: there’s no need to jot everything down. We upload all of our lecture slides online and can usually – technology permitting (!) – make lecture recordings that can be consulted later, so there’s no need to try to understand everything in the moment, or copy things down exactly as they appear on the screen. Instead, try to identify any major or particularly important points. See if you can follow the academic’s line of thinking. If there’s anything you don’t understand, write down your questions, and follow these up afterwards. Like any other skill, this is something that you will improve at with time. The more lectures you watch or listen to, the better at this you will get!
Keep scrolling for recommendations from our academics and students in the English Department:
Henry James’ The Aspern Papers (1888): A masterpiece of suspense. James’ narrator seeks the correspondence of the deceased (fictional) Romantic poet Jeffrey Aspern. Attempting to access these documents from Aspern’s former mistress, the narrator is forced to consider what lines he will cross in pursuit of them.
Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938): A book that gripped me when I first read it in my early teens, and which speaks to me in new ways as I age (!). Gothic romance, jealousy, and family secrets, inspired by Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847). Check out the 1940 film adaptation, too, if you can, swiftly followed by the Mitchell and Webb spoof!
Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale (1999): Before The Hunger Games there was Battle Royale. Set in a dystopian Japan, a group of students are transported to an island and instructed to fight to the death. Fans of this one include horror-legend Stephen King.
Virginia Woolf - Orlando: A Biography (1928): It’s near impossible to complete an English literature degree without delving into the works of Woolf. I’d recommend Orlando because it isn’t a long novel but is jam-packed with references to the English canon as it follows the immortal Orlando through multiple centuries. Also, the book raises many questions surrounding gender because one morning Orlando unexpectedly wakes up to find that he has become a woman. Orlando is an excellent text to introduce you to feminist studies and queer theory in a thoroughly enjoyable manner.
J. D. Salinger – The Catcher in the Rye (1951): I remember being nervous before coming to university and feeling in a state of shift between childhood and adulthood. Salinger’s novel perfectly captures the complex emotions one has at this time because the protagonist Holden Caulfield is leaving his adolescence behind. My university experience has been excellent, and I feel a lot more confident than I did before I came. However, I’m happy that I read The Catcher in the Rye after leaving school because it reminded me that my worries about entering into adulthood were universal.
Zadie Smith – White Teeth (2000): White Teeth tracks the lives of three families over the second half of the twentieth century. Studying English at the University of Birmingham has expanded my understanding of Britain’s rich and diverse culture. This is why White Teeth is a great novel because it explores postcolonialism and migration by contrasting the experiences of a range of different characters. Smith’s novel will have you laughing, crying and pondering the world around you so is definitely worth a read.
If you’re interested in thinking about the social and emotional work that literature does in the world, then Rita Felski’s bracing manifesto, Uses of Literature (Blackwell, 2008), is for you. Felski demonstrates how the kinds of critical methods and dispositions you’ll develop in studying literature at university might relate to the desires and values of common readers. Written with clarity, passion, and humour, the book is itself an immensely engaging example of how criticism can speak to multiple audiences. By confronting and challenging many of the disciplinary orthodoxies of literary studies, Felski reveals the ways in which we can experience literature both as a source of knowledge and as a scene of enchantment.
What exactly are we referring to when we talk about literary form? And how do we go about reading for form? In her beautifully written On Form: Poetry, Aestheticism, and the Legacy of a Word (Oxford University Press, 2007), Angela Leighton takes up these apparently simple questions by moving across nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature to examine the substance of form from the creative perspective of writers themselves as well as from the critical perspective of interpretation. Ranging from Victorian poetry through to Virginia Woolf, Leighton offers a masterclass in attending to the micro-textures of metre, grammar, and style. As such, you don’t necessarily need to be interested in the specific writers she considers; what’s most rewarding is how she illuminates their linguistic contours. I can’t think of another book that so elegantly shows us what ‘close reading’ is all about.
You’d be forgiven for sensing that crisis has become a ubiquitous, incessantly-invoked term for describing our contemporary moment. But one ongoing crisis that regularly drops from the headlines concerns the traumatic plight of child refugees from Central America who, separated from families, make perilous journeys to the US-Mexico border. Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive (Fourth Estate, 2019) responds to the outrage of this situation in ways that are emotionally compelling, technically ambitious, and politically urgent. It’s a devastating, compassionate novel, but one that deliberately reflects on its very own mission – raising some ethically difficult questions about the role of fiction in observing and representing the suffering of others. Watch the interview with Valeria Luiselli about the genesis of the novel.
For Dystopian/speculative fiction lovers, I fell in LOVE with The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood and The Power, Naomi Alderman just before starting uni. These two novels provide such an interesting scope for theoretical discussion, (especially in terms of feminism and Marxism) which really helped me begin to tackle and understand literary criticism, as expected at university and perhaps not covered in a lot of detail at A-level.
I would also recommend The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini. During first year, we studied texts exploring many different places and cultures (e.g. Untouchable, Mulk Raj Anand). Yet, the texts I studied at A-level were “English classics” rooted in British, often upper-middle class culture. Therefore, I definitely recommend reaching out to novels by writers from around the world.
Essentially, I recommend reading for fun. It’s often easy to lose the enjoyment of reading when you’re studying texts purely for exam reasons. I remember finishing with a rubbish relationship with poetry because I didn’t enjoy how poetry was approached by my exam board. Yet, I re-found my enjoyment of poetry through The Poetry Pharmacy, William Sieghart, which was gifted to me by my Grandma (a HUGE poetry advocate), and a poetry book I’d definitely recommend.
Explore some of Oscar Wilde’s extraordinary range. His children’s stories are often overlooked: The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888) and A House of Pomegranates (1891) are delightful and showcase his inimitable wit along with great fin-de-siècle illustrations. Wilde’s heart-breaking prison letter to his lover, titled De Profundis when it was published, strikes a very different tone, angry and recriminating one minute and pleadingly sad the next. The British Library has digitised the original 80-page manuscript, so you can read it as he originally wrote it in Reading Gaol.
The Yellow Book was the decadent periodical, featuring short stories, poetry, essays, and beautifully printed images by leading artists and authors of the day. It was also a little bit scandalous, its vibrant yellow cover an instantly recognizable sign for readers in the know. The Yellow Nineties online has all of the issues, along with some great commentary. Don’t miss Volume 9 (April 1896), which features artists from the local Birmingham School of Art.
Birmingham is home to Pre-Raphaelite riches, many of which can be visited online. The Birmingham Museums Trust has one of the largest collections of Pre-Raphaelite artworks and objects in the world, highlights from which can be seen in their recent ‘Victorian Radicals Exhibition’. The Birmingham Cathedral features stained glass designed by Edward Burne-Jones (a Brum native) and executed by William Morris & Co. For Pre-Raphaelite texts, the Rossetti Archive hosts all of Dante Gabriel’s works. Or check out William Morris’s inspiring address to the 1894 graduates of the Birmingham School of Art (the first civic art school in the country).
One book everyone should read before they come to University is Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. If you are interested in gothic horror novels, this one is for you. I love how it teaches the value of balancing your overly ambitious desires with compassion. I feel as though first year students especially could learn from this, to enhance their University experience as one being full of hard work and positivity.
Fugitive Pieces (1996): This beautifully written novel by the Canadian writer Anne Michaels combines an extraordinarily lyrical prose style with a commitment to the layered complexity of traumatic memory, in a story that shows how the impacts of nigh-on unimaginable Second World War-era Nazi atrocities resound through connected lives across space and time.
Coming Up for Air (1939): If the workings of memory and war interest you, then you might enjoy this novel by George Orwell (better known for Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four). Set on the eve of the Second World War, Coming Up for Air is about a disgruntled middle-aged man who takes a trip back to his childhood home. Searching nostalgically for an idealised version of rural England, he finds instead that memory can be misleading, and that the past isn't always what it's cracked up to be.
And if you like writers who are unafraid to criticise the status quo, and who have important things to say about racial, political, and sexual identities, then check out anything by the American novelist James Baldwin. My favourite of Baldwin's books is Giovanni's Room (1956), which focuses on a bisexual character in Paris and explores how cities contribute to and challenge the fluctuations of gendered selfhood.
I think everyone should watch the RSC production of ‘The Tempest’. It reminded me why I love literature and really inspired me before starting my degree. It also made me want to study the drama module in first year, so looking into things you’re interested in before studying at Birmingham will help you to choose modules in first year.
Barry Unsworth, Morality Play (1995): For anyone who is curious about the Middle Ages, and likes detective fiction, this book is absolutely brilliant – but it’s a lot more than a gripping murder mystery set among a travelling troupe of medieval actors. Unsworth writes brilliantly about the startling and profound capacity of theatre and performance to explore our motivations and reveal us unexpectedly to ourselves, and about the conflicting demands of knowledge, desire and power. His central character – a scholar-turned-actor-turned-detective – learns to think critically, to ‘read’ the evidence, to challenge his preconceived interpretations and to try to understand human motivations: these are skills that are central to studying literature (as well as solving murder!). My favourite quotation from the book, ‘Always you seek the why of things’, sums up what the study of English literature is about, for me.
[Note: content warning: sexual assault; violence against children.]
The Public Medievalist: This is a fabulous and free online resource about the Middle Ages, whose focus is squarely on pulling together a diverse range of new expert research in an accessible way in order to debunk popular myths, generalisations and misconceptions about what ‘the medieval’ is or was, and how we might best understand it. Their series of posts on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, and Gender, Sexism and the Middle Ages are excellent: extremely thought-provoking, and based on factual evidence and clear argument.
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (2009), Bring up the Bodies (2012), The Mirror and the Light (2020): I love the way in which Mantel brings to life the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries at Henry VIII’s court – both the ‘big’ happenings (execution, adultery, betrayal, ruthless exploitation, wholesale reformation of the Catholic church), but - just as evocatively - the everyday sights, tastes, sounds, smells and sensory surroundings. She writes so superbly about the tiny things – a wall hanging, a scent, the emotions and memories these things spark – which make up lived experience. The way the action unfolds in the present time for the characters, too, makes you re-visit seismic events in British history with a new appreciation of their uncertainty. These books showed me the astonishing power of fiction, imagination, and creative writing to reshape my understanding of the history I thought I knew.
James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son (1955): Baldwin was a former child preacher, a novelist, essayist, activist, and playwright, and one of the most important and provocative cultural critics of the 20th century. He felt that his role was to ‘disturb the peace’ and to bear witness to the racial struggle taking place in America. Notes of a Native Son is a collection of ten essays scrutinising race and racism in America, as it intersects with self-discovery, family life, literary and cultural inheritance, history, and economic injustice. Leading American literary critic and historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote that Baldwin “named for me the things you feel but couldn’t utter… articulated for the first time to white America what it meant to be American and a black American at the same time”.
Eileen Myles, 'An American Poem' (1991): Myles is a working-class non-binary lesbian poet, whose work is plain talking, direct, harsh, funny, at once intimate and highly public. It’s vernacular – which for Myles means ‘the place where everything meets. It’s a gathering of people.’ In 1992, Myles ran for President of the United States alongside George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton. Myles’s campaign – in which a broke, avant-garde, lesbian poet made a claim on phallic power – marshalled the power, potency, and force of a coming together and being together, of publicity and publicness and poetry, in moments of overwhelming political crisis. 'An American Poem' offers a glimpse of what a 'poetic presidency' might look like.
Sea Wolf, 'Frank O'Hara' (2020): This quiet, poignant song by indie band Sea Wolf imagines meeting queer New York School poet Frank O'Hara (1926-1966) on a subway platform on the day the US finally legalized same-sex marriage (26th June 2015). The song evokes an earlier poem, 'A Supermarket in California' by Allen Ginsberg, in which the poet similarly imagines realizing a queer mode of belonging with his poetic forefathers Federico García Lorca and Walt Whitman in a 'neon fruit supermarket'.
Hild: Travel back to the early Middle Ages with Nicola Griffith’s historical novel Hild. In this character-driven tour de force, Griffith brings St Hild of Whitby to life. Plugging gaps in our leaky historical record, Griffith reimagines, queers, and fleshes out a real 7th-century woman we still know all too little about. This novel’s immersive descriptions of everyday life in the early Middle Ages will give you a real sense of place to bring with you when exploring this period’s literature in greater detail.
Beowulf: If Hild piques your interest and you want to learn more about Old English, Seamus Heaney’s masterful poetic translation of Beowulf is an excellent place to begin. This translation gives new life to an ancient story, with the uniqueness of the poet’s voice leading to the translation’s infamous nickname: ‘Heaneywulf’. When it comes to monster-bashing epics, you can’t go wrong here.
The Mere Wife: After reading the original poem, why not delve into a contemporary adaptation? Maria Dahvana Headley offers a feminist take on the Old English epic in her novel The Mere Wife. In it, suburban America is shaken to its core by the unlikely friendship of young Gren and Dylan, and their mothers' attempts to protect them from each other. Who are the monsters of the modern world? This novel knows.