Books Tips

10 Books From My English Degree I Wish More People Knew About

books in bookshelf

Image credit: Pixabay

When considering which books to read in 2022, I started thinking about all the books I’d loved from my English Literature degree. I realised that most of the ones that I’d really enjoyed are not necessarily considered ‘classics’ or part of the amorphous ‘canon’ of literature. The ones that I remember are not the ones that so often appear on the numerous lists of ‘Books to Read Before You Die’ which bully you via existential dread into reading books you would otherwise have no interest in.

So which books do I absolutely wish more people knew about? Here is my list is in no particular order, because each of these books brings a different perspective worth considering.

1. Dust- Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

Dust is a novel that immediately came to mind when I was considering writing this story. The book deals with themes of grief, loss and forgiveness and critically examines modern Kenyan identity, but it’s intrigue lies in its unconventional narrative structure. Owuor moves through time creating mystery and transforming death into life, masterfully weaving the single threads into a rich tapestry. Her imagery is stunningly beautiful and alchemical; the titular dust combining with rain water to become mud, which in turn is shaped into new forms that hold endless possibilities.

2. War with the Newts- Karel Čapek

This Sci-Fi novel is strange, in more ways than one. First of all, the premise of the novel is that humanity discovers a species of intelligent, humanoid newts living in the Pacific Ocean. At first there is disbelief, followed by scientific curiosity and, inevitably, exploitation. It’s a funny, ridiculous, tragic satire that critiques capitalist consumption and the ways that we interact with non- human creatures, and the worldbuilding alone makes it absolutely worth the read.

3. The Lonely Londoners- Sam Selvon

This novel is absolutely essential if you are interested in reading stories about the Windrush generation and the experience of migration. Selvon’s writing cuts deep, like the bone-chilling weather and bleak prospects of immigrant life in 1950s London, but ultimately this is a story of friendship, connection and survival in the face of adversity.

4. The Argonauts- Maggie Nelson

This memoir explores queer family life in a radical and uncompromising way that explores the transformative nature of identity and language. It is a story of love, transness and the queerness of pregnancy. As if that wasn’t enough, the book engages with philosophy in a way that is both enjoyable and accessible.

5. Ban En Banlieue- Bhanu Kapil

I’m not sure I can fully explain what this work is, because it is so many things. Bhanu Kapil’s Ban en Banlieue follows a brown (black) girl as she walks home from school in the first moments of a race riot. It’s essence is poetry, but it is by no means your standard poetry book. The work challenges the reader to move with the figure of ‘Ban’ into an incarnate and untethered space where she becomes residue and power, tracking the city with the energy of a ghost fuelled by pink lightning.

6. The Soul of an Octopus- Sy Montgomery

This work of immersion journalism is full of respect and awe for non-human creatures and the natural world. Montgomery explores the figure of this strikingly different and infinitely complex cephalopod, challenging what we think of as ‘intelligence’ and telling the profound and touching stories of those whose lives have been transformed by this amazing creature.

7. Mutability: Scripts for Infancy- Andrea Brady

This is not your usual story of motherhood. Brady’s Mutability explores the child’s becoming and the strangeness of the mother-child relationship through a series of poetry and prose ‘scripts’. It is a challenging, exploratory work that examines the utopian possibilities of ‘the child-space’ and the unbearable intimacy between mother and child that infringes on individual autonomy.

8. Her Body and Other Parties- Carmen Maria Machado

This book wasn’t technically on my University reading list, but I chose to study it as part of my dissertation. A collection of dark, surreal, beautifully crafted stories, this collection is well worth reading, especially if you enjoyed Machado’s recent work In the Dream House.

9. The Transformation- Juliana Spahr

This story follows the relationship of three people who move to Hawaii in the late ’90s. It is an experimental book told almost entirely in third person plural and follows a ‘they’ who encounter the contradictory nature of the island that they inhabit. It makes them question how class, race and gender intersect, and it is only by navigating the vulnerability that a new form of writing can emerge.

10. Why Don’t You Stop Talking- Jackie Kay

This book of short stories explores lesbian relationships, mental health, illness, phobias and loneliness. Though downbeat in tone, there are moments of humor that shine through this collection. My favourite story is the Kafka-esque ‘Shell’ where a woman is forced to grow a shell to survive- completing her transformation by turning into a tortoise. Overall, it is well worth the read and there are images in this collection that I still think about years later.

What are some of the books you wish more people knew about?

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