Reading lists and how to wrangle them #1: What to read first?

Firstly, I’m going to concentrate on a fairly practical issue – namely, Reading lists and how to wrangle them.

You will probably be sent some reading lists for your first year courses at some point (or, given that the world had progressed since I was an undergraduate, emailed them or sent a link to lists on course webpages. One of the reading lists I was sent in 2002 was written on a typewriter and photocopied. I’m digressing). If you don’t receive anything it’s worth contacting the department to see if there’s any recommended preparatory reading, because doing some will put you in an excellent position once you start your degree. Honestly. It will. Don’t look at the computer like that, I know you wanted a summer off after your exams, but you do not want to be the person attempting to read Ulysses in a week.

A very important thing about university study is learning how to wrangle a reading list successfully. Reading lists come in as many shapes and forms as academics do, and while the reading list you receive may not be an accurate reflection of the course leader (it may well be based on previous course leaders’ lists) it’s worth recognising that different kinds of reading lists require different approaches. I’ve sketched out a sort-of-diagram-thing below. I’m not sure how successful it is, but there you go. Click on the image to make it bigger, download it, do whatever you want with it.

(A quick note before I proceed. Course leaders, please try to provide your students with the second kind of reading list. Regards, etc).

As you can see, the reading list should hopefully give you a clue about where to start. But if it doesn’t – or if there just seem to be lots and lots of set texts (I’ve definitely been there. This is why the above diagram is Milton-themed. Because I got one of the fourth kind of reading list when I was a second year undergraduate, and it terrified me.) here are some thoughts about the ancient art of prioritisation.


This is an absolutely fundamental part of reading-list wrangling. It’s important whether you’re a keen type who plans to read all the suggested texts, or if you’re planning to wing it by reading as little as possible (this is withering disdain I’m looking at you with, latter types. Withering disdain). On a serious note, you might have limited time, for whatever reason. You will certainly have limited memory to pack all this reading into, because that is the way of the human mind. I’ve spent days ploughing through texts only to forget them when I actually need them (this is pretty much every day of doing a PhD, by the way. Perhaps I’m just very forgetful).

Prioritisation means the art of arranging your work so that you get as much as possible of it done, and making sure that you do at least the most important bits. It also means arranging said work so that you do it in the most effective way – i.e. so you get the most out of your reading, and avoid the tricky issue of it all falling out of your head just before the first seminar. In my experience, the best way to do this is to accept that you’re going to need to read through texts again at some point, but that an initial reading before you arrive will help that second reading to be quicker and more effective.

So what to start with? Set texts, obviously. But not all set texts are created equal. These are the two types of texts that I reckon you should prioritise when it comes to preparation.

  • Anything that’s too long to comfortably read during term time. As soon as term starts you’ll be busy with all sorts of stuff, and all sorts of preparations for lectures, seminars, tutorials, etc. Your time will be taken up with dashing round everywhere and, more importantly, your brain will be taken up with getting to grips with your new courses. You may think you’re perfectly capable of reading Little Dorrit in snatched moments in between other seminars, getting the washing done, your first game for the rugby team, preparation for your next theory seminar, etc, etc… and you might be right. You might be one of those lucky souls who can read very quickly. But you’re not going to understand what you’re reading half as well as someone who read the darn thing over the summer. The person who read it over the summer will have to read it again if they want to say or write anything good about it, but that’s the point. Second readings are quicker and better than first ones. Prepare the ground early when it comes to long novels, epic poems, etc.
  • Anything you’re frightened of. Been set a text you don’t like the look of? A text that someone’s told you is impossible to read, or that you’ve looked at and found to be blinkin’ difficult? This is the time to face your fears, my friend. You’re a bright person. You’re good at reading. This might take some puzzling over, and you might have to go slowly. And you might reach university without feeling you understand it – that’s cool, you’ll read it together with your seminar group and seminar leader, or your tutor and tutorial partner, and you’ll puzzle out some readings together. You’ll learn important things about how there’s never a right answer, never just a single valid reading. See your fear or your confusion as a reason to look closer, to read more carefully, and you’ll be rewarded. If you start doing this before you arrive, you’ll be better equipped to approach both the texts that frighten you, and the texts that don’t.

Next up, a quick reading-list financial digression… To buy, or not to buy?

One thought on “Reading lists and how to wrangle them #1: What to read first?

  1. Pingback: Avoiding the Bears – beating your reading list | Beth Durham

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