Reading list for American students going to the UK
Suppose you’re one of the next batch of American students heading to the UK for undergraduate or postgraduate education. (If so, congratulations!). Further suppose that despite your excitement for your adventure, you’re bored silly waiting for the summer to pass so that you can hop on that plane to take you across the Atlantic. Well, here’s a brief summer reading list that should be right up your alley. 🙂
Bryson, Notes from a Small Island
Bill Bryson left college to travel Europe and ended up falling in love and marriage in England. After returning to the US to finish his degree, the couple moved to the UK in 1977 where they remained until 1995 [ref]. Before moving once again back to the US (this time with a family), Bryson took one last farewell tour of Britain and published his travel memoirs as this book. I first received it as a gift from my university’s overseas fellowship director when I’d secured funding to study in the UK and Bryson has been my ideal of an American-in-England since. (I’ve mentioned this before, but Bryson has since returned to the UK as the chancellor of Durham University.)
The book is charming and funny. More importantly, it makes for a road map for future travels around the country. If you ever want to feel homesick, read Bryson’s books on the US when you’re abroad.
Sharpe, Porterhouse Blue
I think this will only really be enjoyable to those heading to Oxbridge, and even then perhaps only after one has spent a year or so living in-college. This is a good read about a fictional Cambridge college (Porterhouse) and its struggles as a new Master tries to modernize its upper-class traditions. It helps to have a familiarity with the vocabulary: porter, high-table, bedder, etc.
What I particularly liked about the book was the frank (but exaggerated) portrayal of class and tradition in Oxbridge. For all it’s jokes and caricatures, the tension between modern academic merit/dem-ocracy and collegiate hierarchy is something that is very much present in the grand old colleges at Cambridge — though certainly not in the overtly antagonistic way portrayed in the book.
Ivo Stourton, The Night Climbers,
This novel’s title refers to the out-of-print and highly sought after book The Night Climbers of Cambridge. I haven’t yet had the chance to read the book as it has just been released in the UK. I did, however, get a chance to take a quick glance in Borders and I got the impression that it might make a nice summer read.
Roof-climbing seems to be something of a time-honoured tradition that is frowned upon only if one gets caught. Fellows of certain colleges, of course, are privy to their own areas of the roof (with heated railings).
Feiler, Looking for Class
I can’t say that this was my favourite book. (Check out the scathing review by an Amazon customer.) It’s an autobiographical account of the author’s year in Cambridge, including such things as rowing, debating, and falling in love with a Rhodes Scholar (i.e. a student from the “other place”). I read this book as I was finishing up my undergrad and looking forward to moving to the UK. I should say that I finished it despite its story. The highlights of things that were radically different from the US — bedders, porters, and all that — was nice, though a lot of it is portrayed in the extreme. While I don’t doubt the veracity of the book’s contents, one should be careful not to treat this as a guide book for Oxbridge.
Fox, Watching the English
Written by a social anthropologist examining her own culture, Watching the English is a cheeky look at “the hidden rules of English behaviour.” Depending on your tastes you may devour it or end up finding it dry halfway through, but the content is certainly worth keeping in mind. Most American students, for example, aren’t used to buying drinks in rounds at the pub (nor do they understand the importance of the pub for social interactions). Even if you can’t read the book for pleasure, then treat it as a textbook and take some notes along the way. You may find yourself referring back to it down the road.
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