Going to university isn’t just about lectures and seminars. There’s much more to the experience than your course, think self-discovery and developing as a person.
One way to achieve this is to read. Read as much as you can. Obviously you want to study your textbooks from the front to back cover (you don’t need us to tell you that), and you’ll probably have a flick through the student newspaper every so often. However, nothing beats a great novel.
Immersing yourself in a great work of fiction is one way to broaden your horizons and learn not only about great writing, but it’s a way to transport yourself into a time and place new and mysterious to you – whether it’s a story set on the mean streets of 1970s America, or post-war Westminster or Catalonia. If you’ve not delved into these great novels before, here are five that you might want to pick up, starting with a modern classic from Virginia Woolf.
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925)
Mrs. Dalloway is a ‘day in the life’ novel which brings two seemingly separate storylines together as the story unfolds towards its culmination, a party held by Clarissa Dalloway in the evening. Covering subjects as wide ranging as mental illness, feminism and homosexuality, it may have been published in 1925 but the themes are still as relevant as ever.
Mrs. Dalloway is an extraordinarily realised piece of fiction, written by one of the most talented female writers in history - and tremendously for you, the story takes place in the Westminster, so once you’ve read it you could even go on your own Mrs. Dalloway tour around the area.
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway (1926)
Hemingway is one of the all-time great American novelists. His 1926 novel – a modernist love story set between Paris, San Sebastian and the Festival of San Fermin in Pamplona – is considered one of his greatest works.
The novel is mainly a love story war that follows novelist Robert Cohn and his love interest Frances Clyne, all under the watchful eye of the narrator and main character, Jake Barnes. Like many of Hemingway's novels it is highly autobiographical and covers many of the themes he was well known for including post war emotional turmoil.
It’s a fantastic example of Hemingway’s trademark style: his ‘less is more’ approach to writing.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)
Another 21st Century great, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is set in the fictitious town of Maycomb in the southern US state of Alabama that’s plagued with strong race issues. Scout Finch and her brother Jem live with their widowed father Atticus. Atticus Finch agrees to defend a young black man called Tom Robinson who is accused of raping a white woman. Throughout the trail, the events that unfurl see the characters exposed to stereotyping and prejudice.
The locations are based on Monroeville, the ordinary town where Harper Lee grew up. Despite this, it has proven to be ample inspiration for a novel which is now considered to be one of most seminal of the last 100 years.
Post Office by Charles Bukowski (1971)
Post Office is Charles Bukowski’s first novel. It’s a polarising story that was released in 1971, and a book that’s almost the antithesis to what people at the time might have considered to be ‘proper literature’. The opening line, “It began as a mistake”, pretty much sums the rest up. The story follows Henry Chinaksi (based on Bukowski himself), an alcoholic with a distinct lack of ambition, but who shows his intellectual side throughout.
Despite this clear intellect, Chinaski repeatedly reverts to his vices: gambling and drinking, a cycle that leaves him either working in the Post Office or relying on welfare handouts. At one point Chinaski does enjoy financial success at the race track, but as usual his luck very runs out quickly.
It’s a story of multiple lovers, and doomed heroics, Chinaski is a cynical man who despite his failures retains a superiority complex throughout. Bukowski is a writer that you could introduce to anyone without an interest in reading and they’d enjoy. It’s the most leftfield novel on the list and a real “down and out” story, check it out.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006)
We thought we’d end with something more recent. The Road is a post-apocalyptic story that follows a father and son as they attempt to survive the dark world they find themselves living in.
The lonely isolation of the American road is the setting for the majority of the story. It’s a story of hope and desperation in a barren landscape where many of the creatures who have managed to survive have been driven to murder and cannibalism.
Where there’s desperation in the book, there’s also hope: the boy asks his father on many occasions what the world they are in was like before the darkness set in. Then, once you’ve read it, check out the movie adaptation directed by John Hillcoat starring Viggo Mortensen and Robert Duvall.
Find your nearest library
The great thing is that there are libraries close by all our London locations, where you’ll be able to pick up the five novels listed here, or any other book you fancy reading for that matter:
- Pure Hammersmith to Hammersmith Library (one minute walk)
- Pure Aldgate to Calcutta House Library (eight minute walk)
- Pure Highbury to Islington Central Library (twenty minute walk)
- Pure Bankside to Southwark Local History Library and Archive (ten minute walk)
- Pure City to The British Library (fifteen minutes via Thameslink)