The Burden and Excitement of Reading as an English and Literature Major

I had grand reading hopes when I went for my English and Literature degree, some lived up to the hype, others fell flat. Read along to learn more.

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drawing of a girl investigating a book over shelves of black books

As a bibliophile, I have a voracious appetite for the written word. I want to read everything I can get my hands on; that is, if it’s something I’m interested in anyway. As a writer, I crave the knowledge of past writers; to learn at their feet and study the nuances of the English language from those who have helped to mold and shape it into what it is today. While there was quite a gap between my high school years and my return to higher education, I knew I wanted an English degree. I was beyond excited about the journey into a subject I already knew quite a lot about. That excitement stayed with me throughout my three-year journey, but added in was the burden of required reading that needed to supersede my TBR pile.

Literature Requirements: The Thrilling and the Loathsome

The entire foundation of a Literature degree is reading. As bookworms, we jump up and down in excitement. We have classes that encourage us to read, so what could be so bad about that? Well, for starters, there aren’t enough specialized lit courses to choose from that aren’t steeped in classic and serious literary fiction. There are a few, but they’re few and far between. Also, some of the required courses for said degree deviate so far from what I want to study it’s sob-worthy.

Row of old books.

Shakespeare is meant to be watched, to be experienced as one in the crowd, soaking up the crass jokes of the 15th and 16th centuries. It’s not meant to be read like prose on a page. And for one who isn’t the biggest fan of the playwright, it was a horror to get through. The shining light, we didn’t have to read Romeo and Juliet. I think I would have started a riot in the discussion boards had one simpering student gushed over their love for this disaster of a tragedy as if it were the greatest love story ever told. (It’s not, by the way. It’s a tragedy of epic proportions that ends with many deaths. Love was not a factor in that tale.)

However, it was a great surprise to me to find that I enjoyed the English Romance class as much as I did. Thankfully, it was due to the limited required reading of Austen and more on Mary Shelley and Robert Louis Stevenson. I became obsessed with Frankenstein, the nuances of her writing, the themes, and the various theories posed by a woman far beyond her age and era. It was wonderfully eye-opening to connect fully to a piece of literature that was two centuries old and still find relevant connections.

Managing Required Reading and Pleasure Reading

I’m a procrastinator. Half due to the fact that I have massive ADHD with hyper fixation issues and the other because I work really, really well under pressure. May if it bit me in the ass more, I would learn to begin working on items with a deadline in a more timely manner. All that to say, when you have a massive TBR pile staring you in the face with books you’ve been waiting impatiently to read, it’s hard to focus on your required studies. While there were a few books on my class syllabi that caught my undivided attention, it was far too easy to drop one that didn’t and move on to something better. The problem there was the cram sessions that took place as exams and essays loomed.

Choosing Additional Materials to Substitute Problematic Requirements

Literature is one of the boys’ clubs of old. While many teachers might choose to supplement required reading with choices of their own desire, there are far too many happy to stick to a prescribed curriculum. The problem is the material deemed fit best to represent the ideas/eras of the class. That means quite a lot of the required reading is by white male authors who have a very distinct style, and not many women featured are of color. In fact, many of these authors have personal opinions that are problematic for various reasons, namely racism, culturalism, and ableism.

black and white classic books under colorful paper hands reaching for a paper earth.

While we as a culture are becoming more informed and are reaching for classic literature through the ages that weren’t written by the preferred selections, they’re just not showing up in classrooms fast enough. For me, it was a choice to research additional reading material by those author who are underrepresented in order to supplement my own education. I reached out to my professors and asked their opinions on who/what I should read to do this to get a more rounded education on their topics. This, too, created problems because now I was given more to read that I wanted to rather than was forced to. And like any petulant human, when we’re told to do one thing, we’re, of course, going to do the opposite.

If you’re beginning your English and Literature degree journey, the best advice I can give when it comes to completing coursework is to make a schedule and stick to it. Make sure to include pleasure reading along with your prescribed reading to help alleviate your stress. Also, if, like me, you find your syllabus lacking in diversity or want additional specialized classes, bring it to the attention of your professors, advisors, and during the course evaluations.

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