Reading Oxford Year-1 Review

If you are a big reader but have never pursued your English literature dream beyond school, here’s a project I heartily recommend. I’m now at the end of the first year of my DIY English Literature education and would like to share my experience so far. Hopefully it will inspire and spur you on in your own pursuit.

Origin

Here’s where it all started: my curiosity and frustration. A brief explanation from my Third Quarter of 2020 in Books post:

“At some point towards the end of August, I was frustrated by the patchiness of my knowledge in English literature, fed up by my futile attempts at keeping up with all the new book releases, and so decided to correct the problems by finding myself a reading list from an English Literature degree. I found a few, and settled on the Oxford University one. So in theory, I’m reading the same sort of authors and eras as an Oxford English Literature student would be at the moment.

“My hope is at the end of my DIY education (2022), I’ll have touched on Old English, Middle English, Renaissance, Restoration, Romanticism, Victorian, Modern Literature and some theory, thus having a clearer ‘big picture’ of the subject. In the first year I aim to read roughly 36 books in total from Victorian era, Modern era, Shakespeare and on literary theory (and maybe one or two Old English), and depending on how it goes, plan the second year (or give up?). I’ll write a review for each book. Obviously I won’t have any tutors to discuss things with or to mark my work. But I’ll have to do without and that’s OK.”

I decided to give it a grand name: my ‘Reading Oxford’ project.

Overall

First of all, was it worth the time and money and effort? Yes! I’m extremely glad I took a year out to read old books and to meet dead authors (except one who is still alive). I read like I never did before. I planned with excitement and read each title with purpose and pleasure. I’m so glad this project ‘forced’ me to read these classics. Without it, I’ve no idea how many years would have passed before I would get to them, or if I would have ever touched them at all. There is no more ‘What is Middlemarch anyway’, or ‘I wish I had read The Picture of Dorian Grey’, or ‘I promise I’ll get to Far From the Madding Crowd one day’.

In addition, I also got to know many new (old) book titles and authors, for example, believe it or not, I only heard of Elizabeth Gaskell, Katherine Mansfield, Henry James and E. M. Foster this year. Although I had heard of Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot and James Joyce, this was the first time I picked up their books and met them personally. I didn’t dodge formidable titles, like Middlemarch, which was very long, and like Ulysses, which was very long and very weird. But I was pleasantly surprised how enjoyable and worthwhile they were.

I covered 29 books for this project from September 2020 to July 2021, mainly focussing on Victorian and Modern Literature. A disclaimer first of all, I used the original reading list which I downloaded from one of the Oxford schools as a reference and a starting point. I didn’t follow it strictly. This is probably an unnecessary disclaimer for you my dear readers since I’m not putting the original list here anyway. But hey, for the future reference of the compulsive me, here’s the reason why the titles don’t exactly match – go worry about something more important.

  • I added a few titles: I wanted to read Rebecca before watching the film so I stuck it onto my list. Also the original list did not include 1984, which was a mystery. I judged both Rebecca and 1984 could safely be counted as classics and thus be added to my reading curriculum.
  • I swapped titles: I read the author instead of a specific title by that author. For example, Howards End by E. M. Forster was on the original list but I read Where Angel Fears to Tread by the same author instead.
Here are the ten major Victorian titles I read: Jane Eyre, Middlemarch, Great Expectations, North and South, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Portrait of a Lady, Wuthering Heights, The Woman in White, Agnes Grey and Far From the Madding Crowd, plus two minor ones I couldn’t fit on the image: The Time Machine and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hide.
Here are the nine Modern titles I read: T. S. Eliot poems, Ulysses, The Rainbow, Rebecca, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, To the Lighthouse, 1984, Katherine Mansfield short story collection, Where Angels Fear to Tread. During the 1900 to 1950 Readathon I read a few books that are also under the period of ‘modern’ but since they’re not in the same league of ‘classic’ as these, I didn’t include them here.

More on those in Victorian and Modern categories anon. Let me get ‘theory’ and ‘Shakespeare’ out of the way first.

For the ‘theory’ category, I read three titles: English Literature, A Very Short Introduction and Literary Theory, A Very Short Introduction, both by Oxford University Press, and How Fiction Works by James Wood. Among the three, I recommend the last one. The first two are very academic. They completely lost me if I use George Saunders’ illustration of motorbike and sidecar, therefore not very beneficial. The third one was the best among the three. Talking about George Saunders, his A Swim in A Pond in the Rain helped me understand literature and excited me about writing and reading way more than any of the three on the list.

For dear Bard, I have to say I’m still a newbie. I read King Henry VI part 2, Two Gentlemen of Verona, and As You Like It. Very random selection I know.

Before gushing about the individual books, let me reflect on my failings.

Failures

  • Failure NO.1 – I set out to read 36, but there are only 28 at the end. I ran out of time.
  • Failure NO.2 – I didn’t manage to cover all the authors on the original list, e.g. George Gissing, W. H. Auden, W. B. Yeats, Joseph Conrad, Robert Browning. Some of them, you might have noticed, are poets…
  • Failure NO.3 – I have to confess I didn’t finish Tennyson’s poems or T. S. Eliot’s poems. I just couldn’t carry on till the end.
  • Failure NO.4 – I set out to write one blog post for each book, which I gave up fairly earlier on and was glad I was not really doing an English degree.

I read 28 books of various lengths across 47 weeks – so about one to two weeks for each book. I’ll give an account of each title in the Victorian and Modern categories in a dedicated post: which has my favourite protagonist, which was an unfortunate disappointment, which was a pleasant surprise, which I abandoned and at what point. Maybe I can name the post as ‘Where to Start with Victorian novels’. I’m excited to look back at each of them and share with you my personal and unprofessional thoughts and tips from my experience reading them.

See you in the next post!

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