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Impactful books on the English syllabus

Sofia Lambis reflects on the books she has read whilst studying English Literature that have stayed with her beyond her studies.

By Sofia Lambis, First Year, English Literature

As English students we are constantly discovering books that challenge how we think and give us new perspectives. Often books will stay with us long after we have read them. Here is a (by no means exhaustive) list of some of the most impactful texts on the course so far.

1) My Complaint - Thomas Hoccleve

Perhaps a more niche pick for the medievalists among us, Hoccleve’s My Complaint is a poignant rumination on mental illness and selfhood. Written in Middle English, this poem discusses anxiety, sickness and regaining your place in the world after a prolonged absence. There is something surprising about seeing such a deeply personal account of mental illness and recovery from the 15th century. In an especially impactful moment, Hoccleve describes himself standing in front of a mirror marvelling at how his face would betray none of his inner turmoil to onlookers. Today, readers might identify with Hoccleve’s experience and be struck by the beauty of his language and intricate metaphors.

2) The Lottery – Shirley Jackson

A short story that is easily accessible online, Jackson’s The Lottery illustrates a disturbing game played in a fictional American village. It raises questions about mob mentality and the meaning of tradition. It was a brilliant introduction to the American Gothic genre and has made me want to delve into it further! No spoilers for the ending, but this tale is sure to unsettle you. Jackson’s clever attention to detail means the tale becomes more disturbing each time you read it. It will stay with you for a long time afterwards!

3) Jambula Tree - Monica Arac de Nyeko

In this award-wining short story, a woman in Uganda addresses her childhood love, painting a picture of their life as two girls growing up together. Themes of absence, shame and religion allow readers to empathise intensely with the characters; finding security under the Jambula tree just as the lovers do. Nyeko’s ability to create compelling characters and a moving narrative in only a few short pages make Jambula Tree a must-read. The text’s film adaptation Rafiki is also worth watching. Set in Kenya, it gives insight into the Afrobubblegum movement, which aims to create work celebrating African joy.

4) Persepolis – Marjane Satrapi

Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel illustrates her childhood in Iran and Austria during and after the 1979 revolution. Originally written in French and translated into English, it is a stunning portrayal of growing up in a time of conflict and uncertainty. The cartoonish visuals combine with a mix of dry humour and sobering social commentary to make a truly unique work. Particularly emotional are the moments of separation and returning and the discussions over what it means to leave family behind.

5) Epistemology of the Closet – Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

A seminal work in the area of queer studies, Epistemology of the Closet explores what makes up human sexuality and how it is used to define personal identity. Sedgwick analyses relationships throughout literary and philosophical history, drawing on the works of Oscar Wilde, Michel Foucault and Marcel Proust. She looks at the influence of Victorian and Gothic literature on values of heterosexual masculinity whilst deconstructing the idea of social binaries. It gives you a whole new way of reading texts – you won’t be able to help thinking of it next time you open a book.

Whilst Bristol University’s English Literature course offers a diverse and interesting selection of texts, Ocean Vuong’s novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous would perhaps be a welcome addition to the syllabus. Vuong’s speaker ‘Little Dog’ explores themes of sexuality, migration and family identity in a beautifully written letter to his mother, who cannot read.

Featured Image: Isabel Williams

Which books on your course do you feel have impacted you?