As term progresses and deadlines begin to loom, the piles of unread texts are looming ever higher for many humanities students. Fear not, the Books section understands your plight and the wonderful Bethany Gore is here to help!
Courses with extensive reading lists are the ones shaped like icebergs; contact hours merely constitute the tip above water, whilst the consummation of various texts is the activity rarely seen in the open. As an English student I have been rebuffed by my non-humanities friends with busy timetables: “but it’s okay for you because you enjoy reading!” Yes, I love reading, but I’m not quite so partial to a 30- something page critical essay written by a pompous critic who seems to have a fetish for choosing the most obscure words from a thesaurus to make his point.
Now halfway through my undergraduate life, I like to think I have learnt some of the tricks of the trade. Firstly, it helps to check out the reading lists (usually posted on ELE) some weeks before the modules start. Last term I ordered term two’s texts a fortnight before the Christmas holidays started and came home to piles of Amazon parcels – much to the annoyance of my parents, who had been signing off each one as it came in my absence, but much to my satisfaction, as it meant I could get started with the reading straight away. Some modules can be expensive but that money will still be spent, so you might as well get it out of the way.
My aim this Christmas was to get the reading completed for the first two weeks of term – which I successfully managed. It helped to make a small checklist listing each text I had to read and let me tell you, the pleasure of ticking off each one is undeniable. It meant I could come back to Exeter and focus on my exam, rather than the Shakespeare play I hadn’t read for the first week.
Each medium of text has its own challenges. If you’ve been blessed with an interesting novel, then I would suggest reading it as you please – but for those that are more of a struggle, it helps to count the pages and calculate how many to read each day in the time limit you have. Plays can be somewhat easier; I think an Act a day keeps the stress at bay, especially if you only use the footnotes when you don’t understand a particular word/phrase. Another helpful tip that a friend clued me in on last term: podcasts. If you have an iTunes account, chances are you can get comfortable with the play in front of you whilst listening to other people speak it (only don’t get too comfortable in your bed at 3pm or you will undeniably fall asleep).
I’m willing to bet that secondary critical articles are the worst – but not if you manage them in the right way. Check to see how many pages it is first so you know what to expect and, believe it or not, it does help to write notes on them. I never print them out (with up to 100 pages of secondary material a week, what student can afford that?) but I make notes on points I find interesting and relevant – that way, when it comes to revising, I don’t have to read the whole essay again. There’s a bonus if I ever saw one.
I have to admit that Sparknotes is a good friend in hard times, but I try to read the text first and use it as confirmation that I’ve understood it correctly. Maybe when I’ve finished my degree I’ll be so competent at reading Elizabethan literature that I won’t need Sparknotes’ safety blanket anymore – but I’ll get back to you on that.
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