Five books English majors love to hate (or hate to love)

Notes from a recovering English major

Jude the Obscure. Supplied
The Great Gatsby. Supplied
The Canterbury Tales. Supplied
Fifty Shades of Grey. Supplied

Jude the Obscure
by Thomas Hardy

This behemoth of a novel is full of dreary, depressing scenery and dreary, depressing characters. It stars an earnest young chap named Jude Fawley, who begins a torrid love affair with his cousin Sue. You’d think the juiciness of an incestuous relationship would be enough to spice up this 400-plus page Victorian beast, but alas, good old Jude is too busy thinking too darned much about everything. Hey, Jude - don’t take it bad (I had to). Take a sad book and make it better? Not likely. The best part about this snooze-fest is the introduction to the word bildungsroman, which is a fancy German term for “coming-of-age story” that your profs adore. It’s a handy word to plop into an essay when you want to use a big word and sound smart.

The Great Gatsby
by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Didn’t we already read this in high school? Blegh. How many times do we have to talk about the eyes of T.J. Eckelberg standing in for the eyes of God? Come on, Fitzgerald - more booze-filled sex romps, less contemplation of the delicate nature of the human condition, please. English majors hate this book because it inevitably makes them jealous they weren’t alive during a time of flagrant wealth, ever-flowing liquor and flapper dresses. Start paying more attention to your American history courses and discover the good times were not there to stay for those freewheelin’ new-moneyed folk - the Great Depression was right around the corner. Bummer.

The Canterbury Tales
by Geoffrey Chaucer

No matter how many times your prof waxes poetic on the lilting beauty of the original Middle-English verse, it still sounds like gobbledygook to you. No matter - there are plenty of translations (and free online resources) available out there, explaining the whole mess in layman’s terms. And hey, some of the tales are actually kind of entertaining when you get into them. Sex and fart jokes? Don’t mind if I do.

Finnegans Wake
by James Joyce

“Finnegans Wake is a work of comic fiction by Irish author James Joyce, significant for its experimental style and resulting reputation as one of the most difficult works of fiction in the English language. The entire book is written in a largely idiosyncratic language, consisting of a mixture of standard English lexical terms and neologistic multilingual puns and portmanteau words, which many critics believe attempts to recreate the experience of sleep and dreams.” If that passage sounds familiar, it’s likely because that’s exactly how you started your essay on this book. It’s also the first few lines of its Wikipedia entry, you plagiarizer, you. But I mean really, the thing is more than 600 pages and Wikipedia wasn’t foolin’ about that idiosyncratic language. Yikes.

Fifty Shades of Grey
by E.L. James

This little treasure has been popping up on reading lists for Popular Lit classes all over the place. It may be filled with enough raunch to make you blush during class discussion, but with such terrible writing, it’s just a painful read. Did Ms. James even have an editor? Or a thesaurus? What the hell is an “inner goddess,” and why is she such a moron? English majors, especially those focusing in creative writing, have a secret love for the Fifty Shades trilogy because it reinforces their faith in their own writing skills. There’s also a lot of sex scenes, so, yeah.

Published in Volume 67, Number 4 of The Uniter (September 26, 2012)

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