6 books every uni student needs to read
Unfortunately, not everyone can strike a Faustian bargain. But fear not, for these six texts will have you engaging in pretentious literary discourse in no time.
When I started my Creative Writing major, I was more than ready to name Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko (2017) as my favourite book during ice-breakers, and enter heated debates on the questionable value of post-publication world-building (ahem, looking at you J.K. Rowling).
As with most things in life, I had inflated expectations of what a literary major would entail. Fortunately, my interactions with both students and tutors ended up administering a healthy dose of reality that emphasised the true importance of discussing literature for it’s impact on the world, and on the craft itself. Of course, there are myriad texts that are significant to tertiary education. From George Orwell’s increasingly relevant Animal Farm (1945), to the perfect execution of writing a non-linear plot in Gabriel García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1981), deciding where to start can be daunting. Luckily, I’ve already done the hard work for you.
Predictable, I know. With the current Orwellian climate of surveillance, political (un)reliability, unnecessary fear-mongering, and the increasingly conservative mould that defines a ‘good citizen’, 1984 serves as a testament to individual power and unfair consequence that permeates the globe. The book follows the rank-and-file Party member, Winston Smith, as he discretely challenges the totalitarian regime of Big Brother through literature, writing, and sex. How doubleplusungood of him. Many terms and concepts from the book – such as Big Brother, Room 101, thoughtcrime, and memory hole – are used in contemporary media, and politics, making it one of the essential starting points into the academic world of literature.
You’ll also enjoy: Brave New World (1932) by Aldous Huxley, We (1924) by Yevgeny Zamyatin, Slaughterhouse Five (1969) by Kurt Vonnegut.
Another relevant classic due to its concern for morality, power, and greed, Macbeth deals with the moral struggle between the titular character’s ambition and virtue, the stark divide between tyranny and benevolent kingship, and the pressure of external factors that come into play through Lady Macbeth’s strong persuasion, and the equivocation of the Three Witches. Despite being one of Shakespeare’s shortest plays, it expertly taps into the unawakened desires of the human psyche. Since its first performance, it has been adapted into countless operas, films, and written works.
You’ll also enjoy: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966) by Tom Stoppard, Antigone/Oedipus the King/Electra by Sophocles, The Pillowman (2003) by Martin McDonagh.
If you ever have a conversation about unreliable narrators, the name Humbert Humbert is sure to come up. With memoiristic narration, Humbert recounts a dalliance with his 12-year-old stepdaughter, Dolores (a.k.a. Lolita), which is riddled with flamboyant displays of pseudo-intelligence that serve to skew the reader’s attention away from the real issue at hand. In disgustingly brilliant prose, graphic descriptions of Lolita’s apparent child-like sensuality paint her as the fire of Humbert’s loins. Despite perpetually teetering along the fine line between eroticism and paedophilia, Lolita is a great example of how raw and confronting subject matter can be conveyed through literature.
You’ll also enjoy: The Lover (1984) by Marguerite Duras, The Garden of Eden (1986) by Ernest
Hemmingway, The Waves (1931) by Virginia Woolf.
Flowers for Algernon (Short story: 1959 | Novel: 1966)
While Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the most commonly-cited text exploring scientific responsibility, Flowers for Algernon places this concept in our own contemporary world. The story is presented as progress reports written by Charlie Gordon, who is the first human test subject in an experiment studying the possibility of artificially increasing a person’s I.Q. through surgical means. Algernon, who had undergone the surgery prior, is the lab mouse observed alongside Charlie. Keyes uses syntax to portray Charlie’s intellectual journey, while simultaneously scrutinising the ethics of human experimentation and the treatment of those with intellectual disabilities.
You’ll also enjoy: The Gods Themselves (1972) by Isaac Asimov, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) by Ken Kesey, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003) by Mark Haddon
In Cold Blood (1966)
Venturing into non-fiction can be overwhelming for some, especially if they aren’t used to the straightforward info-dumps and footnotes. In Cold Blood is a great starting point because the narrative is presented in the more digestible form of creative non-fiction; a halfway point, of sorts. Capote’s journalistic details of the 1959 Clutter Family Murder in Holcomb, Kansas, are intertwined with vivid scene-setting, and characterisation. Not only is it a testament to the exhaustive research that can often go into writing any novel, it is also a perfect display of how rigid information can be reported with the same emotional depth as a fictional novel.
You’ll also enjoy: To Kill A Mocking Bird (1960) by Harper Lee, Sharon Tate and the Manson Murders (2000) by Greg King, Helter Skelter (1974) by Vincent Bugliosi, with Curt Gentry
Snow, Glass, Apples (1994)
Fairy tales have contributed a lot to the craft of writing. But, sometimes the cycle of sweet princesses, anthropomorphic creatures, and happy endings needs a bit of a revamp. Snow, Glass, Apples is the only revamp you need. Gaiman infuses the tale with controversial elements of vampirism, necrophilia, incest, and paedophilia to present a chilling retelling of Snow White that seeks to uncover the true motives of the (not-so-evil) Queen. It has also been adapted into an audio drama that perfectly captures the tale’s eerie essence.
You’ll also enjoy: Briar Rose (1992) by Jane Yolen, The Company of Wolves (1984) by Angela Carter, Red as Blood, or Tales from the Sisters Grimmer (1983) by Tanith Lee.
Zerene Catacutan is a second-year Communications student, majoring in Creative Writing and Social and Political Sciences. When her head isn’t rolling in a confusing concoction of short stories and academic articles, you’ll usually find her hopping between every museum in Sydney or trying not to impulse-buy a mountain of books from Kinokuniya.