Professor John Gardner’s Top Five Reads

Faculty: Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences
School: School of Humanities and Social Sciences
Course: BA (Hons) Writing and English Literature
Category: Staff

31 March 2020

John Gardner

We asked our Writing and English Literature lecturers for their personal recommendations on books you should read, and other online resources you should check out, before joining one of our BA English Literature or Writing courses.

These recommendations come from John Gardner, Professor of English Literature, whose main interests include Romantic and Victorian poetry and drama, 18th and 19th century literature, poetry and conflict and Scottish literature.

Zadie Smith, ‘The Waiter’s Wife’ (1999)
This is a brilliant literary story, that alludes to a history of literature, straddles WW2, Bangladesh in 1971, the National Front in 1975, sexual politics, rubbish jobs and London housing. It’s astounding just how much can be done in a short story and Zadie Smith does it. Read the full text on the Granta website.

R. L. Stevenson: The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886)
This famous novella never tires. It has been adapted, parodied, made into plays and films, but the original still lives. This story about addiction, the instability of the self, and the tribalism of old friendship that will even protect a murderer, is lasting, insightful and economically written. Read the full text on the Gutenberg Project website.

Mary Robinson: ‘Letter to the Women of England on the Injustice of Mental Insubordination’ (1799)
It took until 1920 before Oxford University allowed women to take degrees and 1948 for Cambridge. For Princeton it was 1969! Back in 1799 Mary Robinson, an actress and poet, made demands that women must have their own university and it could be staffed only by women within a few short years. This is inspiring, original, assertive feminism that demands that the achievements of women, who Robinson argues are also the best dramatists and novelists, are taken seriously and rewarded. Read the full text on the Romantic Circles website.

S.T. Coleridge: ‘Frost at Midnight’ (1798)

Maybe the most beautiful poem ever written. A man sitting at midnight by a low-burnt fire feels disconnected with everything around him. He then uses the fire to go on a mental journey back to his childhood, and finally makes a connection with the people and natural world surrounding him. An important poem. Read the full text on the Poetry Foundation website.

Jonathan Swift: ‘A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland Being a Burden on Their Parents or Country and for Making them Beneficial to the Publick’ (1729)
A biting, brilliant and effective political pamphlet. This famous satire, stating that one way of dealing with the poor and a food shortage was to eat their babies, was taken seriously by some. Reading it fresh you can see how Swift keeps his nerve throughout as he makes this modest proposal to deal with poverty and population. Brilliant! Read the full text on the Gutenberg Project website

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