Arts Blog, not usually one to pass up on the opportunity for 40 winks, woke up in a sweat last night, full of concern that it had not yet adequately advised its good readers on the importance of reading things other than Arts Blog. That said, Arts Blog has been waking up in a sweat quite a lot recently (Arts Blog must remember to turn the heating down), and would still advise you that reading Arts Blog is, in some small sense, possibly a Good Idea. It’s just that it would also be a Good Idea to expand your reading habits beyond Arts Blog, although Arts Blog does get a little teary at the thought. If reading is the bicycle, Arts Blog likes to see itself as the stabilizers, guiding the infant Oxbridge applicant down the hill and into the local library, whilst possibly at the same time mangling the wheels of rival Oxbridge applicants’ bicycles using its Ben-Hur-style Stabilizer Spikes, and leaving them in a crumpled heap at the library door with nothing to contemplate but the dreaded downward-pointing thumb of the Oxbridge Admissions tutor filling the role of Caesar. Metaphors, as we have learnt, have never been Arts Blog’s strong point.
Dubious introduction complete, Arts Blog will now cut to the chase with all the nimble dexterity that its readers have come to expect – nay, demand:
Much though Arts Blog would love to leave it there and hit the sack with equally as nimble dexterity as it has just demonstrated in cutting to the chase, there is much more to be said on the subject. So here goes:
You should by now be pretty clear on which subject you are aiming for (or, at least, you should be if you have been wise enough to battle your way through the metaphors and heed Arts Blog’s advice). The next stage, then, is the reading. The importance of this is nigh-on impossible to overstate. As Arts Blog mentioned last month, the vast majority of a successful application involves the applicant, a book, and nothing else. But, profound though that sounds, it doesn’t actually help much. It doesn’t help much because the next question is, quite simply, ‘WHICH book?’. To state the obvious, it doesn’t really matter which subject you choose – there will always be a daunting pile of books to read on even the slightest detail of it, and choosing where to start is a tricky business. So to allay one fear straight away: you will not be expected, nor will you ever in your lifetime be able, to read all the books. One of the first key skills it will be extremely useful to develop earlier rather than later in the application process is selective, targeted reading. In other words, you will need to use your time wisely, so you will need to be able identify which reading helps you and which doesn’t. Or, to be more precise, which reading helps A LOT, and which helps only a little bit.
So how do you go about doing that? As anyone who has ever written an essay well knows, unless you’re careful, bibliographies can, like YouTube, begin to form an endless chain: so that what started as a perfectly reasonable video about ‘Nigel Farage’s views on the EU’ can quickly lead to ‘Two Cats and a Poodle Do the Can-Can’ – although to be fair, the substance there is similar (athankyou – don’t let anyone tell you Arts Blog can’t do satire). Getting lost in that chain is tempting, and would even be informative, but it isn’t necessarily the best use of your time. You need, early on, to narrow down the options by knowing what you’re looking for.
Let’s say, as is very possibly the case, you’re applying to study English. You should know by now which authors you are interested in and would like to explore further – let’s say, arbitrarily, those authors are Dickens, Larkin and Shakespeare. That narrows down your reading list a fair bit – at a wild guess, that’s probably now only 2-3 million books you have to read between now and December. Great news, obviously, but for the sake of your sanity and the continued well-being of your family members it’s probably best to see if we can at least reduce that a little further.
So, what is it that interests you in Dickens? Why did you become hooked on Shakespeare and Larkin? Which particular areas of their work speak to you? Was there an essay you wrote at school that sparked something off? Or perhaps, more interestingly, what seemingly unrelated things interest you – feminism, Marxism, Post-modernism, other -isms – could they be used in conjunction with your thoughts on these authors? Considering these things helps you to narrow down your field of specialisation – and therefore to really take ownership of the discussions at hand. Perhaps, for example, you love Larkin because you find his poems are full of hope and humour – if so, make that the starting point for your reading. Find some people who agree with you, and, more importantly than that, find some people who don’t.
It can be very helpful to treat your academic reading like research for an essay – an essay you don’t have to write, but the ideas and arguments for which you can nonetheless hold in your mind. Any well-balanced essay takes into account various points of view – so once you know your field of specialisation, get yourself acquainted with all aspects of the debate. There’s still a lot of reading to be done (Arts Blog never said there wouldn’t be), but at least it’s now targeted and specific: it is much better to be very knowledgeable on one area of an author’s work than it is to have a very vague understanding of their whole oeuvre.
So where do you get all this access to scholarly debate? The school library, the local library and, if you live nearby, the British Library are all wonderful, free fountains of knowledge – all, one hopes, carefully archived, giving you the option to search not just for the author, but for the subject-area as well. Certainly the online archives at the British Library can provide very comprehensive details as to every book’s contents. But as well as this, the internet is a brilliant tool for research – as long as you look in the right place. Wikipedia might tell you that Larkin was the first tennis player to hit six sixes in an over during his debut for Manchester United Basketball Club, but Google Scholar and JSTOR are extraordinary resources. Scholarly articles, as well as books, are an excellent and efficient way to expand your knowledge – and a quick search on either Google Scholar or JSTOR can lead you very quickly to the right place.
This is a bit of a spoiler for future Arts Blogs (Arts Blog likes, in its bolder moments, to consider itself an ongoing drama akin to The Killing) but you will want, later down the line, to use your Personal Statement to define the areas for discussion at interview. Targeting your reading now, and getting to know your specialisation now, will help you no end in doing that. And you will find yourself making connections, drawing comparisons, and spotting parallels that you didn’t even know you were looking for – both within one author’s work, and between many authors ideas. Don’t be afraid to start small – as with many things in life, starting small can lead to something very big indeed.
Arts Blog loves a grand philosophical statement to wrap things up…