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13 essential resources every literature student needs to use

1. Your Librarian is probably your best resource

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Most, if not all libraries, will have paid professionals who are able to guide you around to find what you need. Go to the help desk and don’t be shy. Trust me. You may be 18 or 78, but there are people of all ages from all walks of life doing various types of research, and often, librarians will give you those extra tips to figure out where you need to go. Not only will they be able to locate a call number for you, but they’ll likely be able to tell you what the best publications are and the best way to locate them on your online database. Remember, you want to spend the least amount possible

2. Google Scholar

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Google Scholar is a free resource that can find loads of academic articles without having to bypass paywalls or an endless string of pages through your library database. Great if you need something quickly, but don’t want to go to SparkNotes for the basics. I recommend that you make a PDF folder on your laptop as early as possible.

3. JSTOR, 4. LiON, 5. MLA international Bibliography, 6. Gale

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These four databases are absolutely essential for doing in-depth research on authors and their works. JSTOR is huge, so it’s easy to get swamped by a lot of articles. Learn the basics of doing advanced searches for what you want–and trust me, it’s out there. LiON is probably my favorite for looking up author bios. You can get a whole lot of preliminary information on anybody from Sophocles to Mavis Gallant, and make connections before you delve into your research. There is also a handy selection of academic papers here, too. The same goes for MLA International Bibliography. Like LiON, this database is very literature-specific and can help you find particular types of articles very easily. Finally, GALE contains some very precise info on authors, but takes a little more time than LiON. Luckily, it has a very up-to date selection of bios and text writeups on novels, plays and poetry books.

8. Cambridge, 9. Oxford, 10. Routledge and 11. Blackwell guides

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These four publishers offer dozens of Classic and Contemporary Author introductions (among virtually any topic in The Humanities and the Social Sciences) through accessible and concise readings you can get at virtually any University library. These are perfect memos before class or before embarking on a long academic paper, and they are rarely too complex for amateurs.

12. Paris Review Interviews

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The Paris Review Interviews are an essential for anybody who wants to become a writer. Read as many as you can and you will begin to understand what’s required and what’s expected of good writers. They also provide key insights into the artistic method, philosophy and life habits of some of the 20th century greats, from T.S. Eliot to Hunter S. Thompson to Alice Munro.

13. The Faculty is There For You

Photo Courtesy of: Graham Ballantyne (Flickr Commons)

Photo Courtesy of: Graham Ballantyne (Flickr Commons)

Photo Courtesy of: Graham Ballantyne (Flickr Commons)

Photo Courtesy of: Graham Ballantyne (Flickr Commons)

Remember, there are likely dozens at your school who do research of literature as their day job. They often love to talk about reading, researching and even writing, depending on what program they’re in. Don’t be shy to ask them stupid questions–they were once in your shoes and believe it or not, probably thought Paradise Lost was impossible to get through as well. But never forget that a personal perspective will often-if-not-always trump a digital reading.

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Speed Read Now: 5 tips to improve your reading speed

Speed reading is often misused and misunderstood. While certain self-help gurus will swear by it and certain academics will deride the practice as skimming, there’s a good chance you’re an inattentive, impractical reader in the first place, so doing certain exercises to improve these problems will not only benefit your reading speed, but also your overall comprehension of the words in front of you. Speed reading is not simply about the amount of information you take in, however. It’s also about what you choose to ignore.

1. Plan Your Reading

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Perhaps the most important part of speed reading is knowing what you’re looking for in the first place. For that reason alone, speed reading James Joyce or Virginia Woolf will do you no good; any text that requires the parsing of linguistic ambiguities will be nearly impossible to comprehend. On the other hand, it is far easier to digest texts with a stated purpose and texts stating a clear argument when reading quickly. You do, however, need to approach the text with a goal in mind. Although it’ll vary by text, ask yourself these questions while reading the book

  • Am I looking for broad points or specific statistics?
  • Are there any topics/chapters that I should ignore?
  • How do I need to respond to this text–in words or on paper?
  • Are there sayings/expressions/digressions that the author continually uses that I can gloss over?
  • When does the author establish his point–at the beginning or end of chapters?
  • At the beginning of paragraphs or at the end?

Proper speed reading requires you to make these deductions quickly and effectively, but fortunately, doing so can help you improve your reading skills in general.

2. Eye-Exercises

Just as marathon runners or sprinters stretch before they begin, you must do the same. Reading is, after all, an exercise. Before you begin reading, look at the page or the computer screen. In one given night, you may be rocking your eyes back and forth tens of thousands of times. One technique I use is an “X” motion, where I direct my eyes towards the four corners of a page in an ‘x’ motion.

Another technique to use is what I call “fast-feet”, an agility exercise for your eyes. Direct your eyes as quickly as possible from the left of a line to the right, then do so for two whole pages. While reading may seem like an automatic action to many, establishing this habit will add some fluidity to your reading. – This is a great exercise that has actually been proven to improve vision over time. I have used it and can (honestly!) vouch that it works pretty well.

3. Stabilize your head

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(Martin Fisch/Flickr Commons)

Make sure to keep your back and head stable when reading. While lying on your stomach or hunched back on a heap of pillows may feel comfortable, it’s far too easy to sacrifice comfort for focus. Keeping your body stable will improve the consistency of your reading speed and make you less tired, as you’re absorbing all the words and letters at the same angle. It also goes without saying that it’s best to read at a desk, with the book still, with good lighting that illuminates the whole page. Anything else can lead to distraction.

4. Don’t Think Out Loud

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Perhaps the most classic pieces of advice for prospective speed readers. When you read, make sure not to “recreate” the voice of the narrator in your head. Doing so will immediately slow your input of information and will force you to stop when you’re having trouble pronouncing a word or saying a tangled sentence with clarity. Just look at the word but don’t say them in your head. While it may sound absurd to some, try reading the article from the beginning and you’ll find you’re going far faster than before.

CAVEAT: When reading dense fiction or poetry, make sure you deliberately create a personified voice inside your head. If you imagine their voice to be coarse, or perhaps as smooth as silk, then recreate its performance in your head. It will keep you far more engaged than a blank monotone.

5. Write Down Questions to Answers

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If you’re reading something you need to speed through, you should be taking notes. While counterintuitive, note-taking will make you more alert to essential information, and less prone to passages that deviate from the essential information. Better yet, you can write down some text-specific questions and keep them in mind while reading, then when you find the answers, note them immediately. Speed reading is not about skipping text. Rather, it’s about reading strategically.

Les Miserables - Victor Hugo

Top 10 novels based on political revolutions and social movements

By May Huang 

In September, Scotland held an independence referendum; my city, Hong Kong, is still witnessing the brave and tenacious efforts of citizens who are fighting for universal suffrage through the Occupy Central Movement. Will either the Scottish referendum or the Umbrella Revolution inspire writers to put pen to paper? Here are ten novels grounded in sociopolitical change that show how the written word is often the best way to capture history and express political beliefs.

  1. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens


Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities is famously set during “the best of the times” and “the worst of times:” the French Revolution. It traces the story of a French aristocrat and English lawyer who, although distinct in character, look near-identical and fall in love with the same woman. Their fates are intertwined in this story of love, revolution and sacrifice as both – along with the rest of France – live under the cruel shadow of the “the sharp female called La Guillotine.”

2. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was published during the Civil Rights Movement and remains one of the most heartwarming bildungsromans of all time. When Scout’s father is called to defend an innocent black man in court, she becomes witness to one of the darkest chapters of history. Yet her journey to understanding is a beautiful story about abandoning prejudices and being brave. The hero of the novel is none other than her father, one of the best lawyers and parents in literature: Atticus Finch

3. The Color Purple by Alice Walker


Like Harper Lee, Alice Walker was deeply influenced by the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s. In The Color Purple, she captures the hardships that a group of black women have to stomach in the face of racism and gender inequality. Readers admire the strength that Celie demonstrates in her fight for independence and remember to not be one of those people who “walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”

4. North by Seamus Heaney

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Many poems in Seamus Heaney’s North were inspired by The Troubles, a period during the 1970s when Irish nationalists in Northern Ireland clashed with Ulster Protestants: the former hoped to unite with the rest of Ireland while the latter preferred to remain as part of the United Kingdom. In his poem Punishment, Heaney draws a parallel between the punishment that the ancient ‘Bog People’ suffered and the “tarring and feathering” endured by Irish women who fraternized with British Soldiers during the 1970s. Throughout history, there will always be those who “connive / in civilized outrage / yet understand the exact / and tribal, intimate revenge.”

5. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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The Women’s Movement of the 1960s and 1970s heralded significant social change: women were given the right to abortion, to vote and to fairer employment. The characters in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, however, live in a patriarchal society in which women are helpless victims of misogyny and prejudice. Published in the wake of the anti-feminist and conservative-driven Christian Right Movement, The Handmaid’s Tale was – and still is –  a firm cry for the preservation of women’s’ rights and gender equality.

6. Les Misérables by Victor Hugo The French Revolution

Les Miserables - Victor Hugo

The second novel in this list that is set during the French Revolution, Victor Hugo’s 1,000+ page-long Les Mis is perhaps more accessible as an Academy award-winning and Tony award-grabbing  musical. Yet it nonetheless occupies an important space on the shelf of French literature, capturing romance, patriotism, redemption and resolution as its characters – from the young Gavroche to the old Jean Valjean – strive towards “a life about to start / When tomorrow comes!”

7. Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak


Mostly set during the buffer period between the Russian Revolution in 1905 and the outbreak of World War Two in 1945, Doctor Zhivago encompasses a range of sociopolitical conflicts: World War One, the Russo-Japanese War and the Russian Civil War, just to name a few. Its protagonist, Yuri Zhivago, finds himself fighting on the warfront – but also battling his personal affairs of the heart.

8. Animal Farm by George Orwell

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The atrocities that George Orwell witnessed during the Spanish Civil War of 1937 drove him to write one of the most incisive allegories in literature: Animal Farm. It is the farm-version of Russia after the October Revolution of 1917 and a biting criticism of totalitarianism. Two pigs, Napoleon and Snowball, represent the Soviet leaders Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky and remind us that “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

9. Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

Chains - Laurie Anderson

The first novel in Laurie Halse Anderson’s The Seeds of America trilogy, Chains tells the story of a young girl’s fight against slavery at the onset of the Revolutionary War in the 1770s. Throughout the novel, our protagonist, Isabel, struggles to break free from the “chains” that society’s laws have placed on her. Wise beyond her years, Isabel is victim to much injustice and brutality but persists, insisting that “a scar is the sign of a survivor” and refusing to allow her soul – and not just her body – be chained.

10. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie

Balzac and Chinese Seamstress - Dai

Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution transformed everyday life in China between 1966 and 1976. One of the 12 million youths who were forced to do manual labour in the countryside during the 1970s as a way of being “re-educated” about socialist values, Dai Sijie drew on his personal experiences when writing Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. He traces the story of two young boys who, when sent to the countryside, have their lives irreversibly changed once they become drawn to a little seamstress – and western literature.



10 Great Contemporary Works that Offer a Minority Perspective

By Elizabeth DiEmanuele

One of the greatest abilities we exercise when reading is empathy. When we read great literature, we experience the thoughts and insights of someone other than ourselves. In our growing world where people are becoming more globally aware and connected, empathy is becoming all the more important. Whether it be our gender, culture, race, religion, or even just our upbringing, learning to understand others can take work. For this reason, I have compiled together a short list of novels from varying cultures and societies to inspire and prompt a personal understanding of others.

  1. Dictee, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1982)

Challenging every reader’s perception of the self and culture, Dictee is an autobiography that tells the story of many women. Some of these women include the Korean revolutionary Yu Guan Soon, Persephone, the author’s mother and the author herself. Through using many modes of creation, including different languages, bi-directional text, and images, Cha creates a complex work that that escapes the confines of self-identity. In exchange, the novel becomes a powerful collage of culture and memory.

  1. Beloved, Toni Morrison (1987)

“124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.”

This chilling novel is dedicated to the 60 million Africans and their descendants who died in the slave trade. Inspired by the true story of Margaret Garner, Morrison’s protagonist, kills her daughter, Beloved, and attempts to kill her other children when a group of men try to send her and her family back to the Kentucky plantation. Now, in her new home she shares with her daughter, Denver, the spirit of Beloved haunts them. It is a story that deals with memory, choices, and the uncontainable past for those affected by slavery.

  1. 1949, David French (1989)

David French takes on a unique perspective through his Mercer family saga. Focusing on a group of individuals from Newfoundland, this series explores many of the cultural difficulties that Newfoundlanders experienced during the years approaching Confederation. French’s play, 1949, takes place on the day of Confederation and focuses on multiple Newfoundlander generations in conflict. With many comedic moments, this inspiring and thoughtful play offers an important Canadian perspective that is often forgotten.

  1. Fronteras Americanas, Guillermo Verdecchia (1993)

In Fronteras Americanas, Verdecchia plays two different personalities. The first is himself. In this role he tells stories of his life and the struggles of being an Argentine-Canadian, that is, someone who is caught between two identities and homelands. The other is a Latin-American stereotype named Wideload, who is more comedic and perhaps even cartoonish. As the play continues, the audience becomes exposed to societal constructs surrounding Latin-Americans, as well as the difficulty of being an individual who identifies with two completely separate cultures.

  1. Green Grass, Running Water, Thomas King (1993)

There are no truths. Only stories.”

This novel is set in the First Nations Blackfoot community in Alberta, Canada. All of the characters are looking for a way to make sense of Native American tradition and the modern world. Using a blend of oral and written tradition, Green Grass, Running Water juxtaposes Western societal norms with First Nations beliefs and ways of living. It is a satire that blends together these two cultures.

  1. Scarlet Feather, Maeve Binchy (2000)

Maeve Binchy creates another story that is rich with the culture of contemporary Ireland. Cathy Scarlet and Tom Feather begin their catering business together and through their connections, their lives become complicated. From taking care of two children to planning a wedding for Cathy’s sister, Tom and Cathy’s lives are full of chaos and connections. Scarlet Feather offers a bittersweet picture of Ireland now, much different from the classically dim political circumstances of Joyce’s Dubliners.

  1. Three Day Road, Joseph Boyden (2001)

Canadian historical fiction rarely offers a narrative that considers the crucial role played by the First Nations people. Recognizing this discrepancy, Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road is a First World War account that is told through two Cree narratives: Xavier’s experiences in battle and Niska’s experiences at Moose Factory. As these two characters journey home, their memories of the war and the home front become stories of pain and healing that offer a unique perspective regarding Canada’s complicated history. In turn, their narratives also become ways of giving voice to Indigenous war heroes who were left unrecognized, unaccounted for, and forgotten.

  1. Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides (2002)

As a Bildungsroman and family saga, Middlesex follows the impact of a mutated gene back three generations. At the same time, Middlesex tells the story of a hermaphrodite who changes her identity as Calliope to a “he”—Cal. These two chronicled tales become connected through history and genetics. Addressing themes such as rebirth, gender identity, and the American Dream, this novel works through many of the obstacles and struggles for those who are part of intersex communities.

  1. The Book of Negroes, Lawrence Hill (2007)

Many times during that long journey, I was terrified beyond description, yet somehow my mind remained intact. Men and women the age of my parents lost their minds on that journey.”

Lawrence Hill’s novel tells the story of Aminata Diallo. As a free woman, she tells the story of how she and her people were captured and sold into slavery. Juxtaposing her personal life is the document, The Book of Negroes. This document was kept by the British navy and contained a list African people who were given the right to flee to Canada. In bringing together the moving personal story of Aminata with the rigid history that is The Book of Negroes, Hill makes known Canada’s shocking role in the slave trade.

  1. The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga (2008)

Adiga’s darkly humorous novel, The White Tiger, is narrated by Balram Halwai, a village boy. Halwai writes a letter explaining how he went from a poor boy to a successful entrepreneur. Following his journey as a chauffeur in Delhi to Bangalore, where he kills his master, Adiga’s work examines Indian culture, such as religion, caste, corruption, and poverty through his protagonist’s first-hand accounts of his experiences.

Please let us know what other novels offer this special perspective on the world. We appreciate your feedback :)


How to Write like Jane Austen

For all the praises that literary scholars and countless book clubs put on Jane Austen, one of the most virtuosic novelists in English literature is still misunderstood today. Some see her novels as dinner-party rabble and the relics of the British Empire at its most stodgy. What most people overlook is that Austen, iconoclastic and quiet in the tempestuous social circles of the day, saw through the veneer slow rural life and pointed out the frailty of human existence while also portraying its most redemptive aspects.

She understood that we needed to follow certain manners and etiquette in this world, but she also looked down on the people. As John F. Burrows puts it, her legacy as one of the greatest writers boils down to “her economy of description, her customary formality of tone, her subtle mingling of styles, and her creation of so smooth a surface that every ripple repays our attention.”

Jane Austen wrote six novels, most of them set in the Hampshire countryside where she lived her whole life. Although she was not immensely popular during her lifetime, she was one of the defining figures of early 19th century literature, and was perhaps the sharpest of the many female novelists who emerged at the time, include Ann Radcliffe, Maria Edgeworth and Mary Shelley. She is arguably responsible for leading one of the first women-lead artistic golden ages.

You don’t need to know much about Jane Austen to write like her. What you do need to know, however, is what makes people tick, how they act in social situations and how such situations are controlled, implicitly, by the people inhabiting them. Without such a skill-set, you won’t be able to be as sharp, observant and witty as Jane Austen is (and honestly, 99.9% of us will not, either, but it’s worth a try!).

Here are six tips to write like Jane Austen:

1.In most of Jane Austen’s novels, narrative (as opposed to dialogue) makes up only about half of the content. Use description to set up the characters, the places and the circumstances, but move the novel forward using dialogue.

Her narrative contains a lot of hidden irony and humor that you simply can’t overlook if you want to write like Austen. Consider the opening passage of perhaps her greatest novel, Emma, and how Austen combines her “praises” with a particular backhandedness:

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

It’s funny because, for a 20-year old, being pretty, conniving and wealthy are great virtues, but much of the novel is concerned with events that deny such a claim. She also seems to bring together “The best blessings of existence” but does not actually (though without close reading, you may probably be fooled). That is why the modern film adaptation of the novel, Clueless, takes place in a high school where such an attitude may at first be rewarded with popularity, but will soon bring real-life consequences.

2. Jane Austen was one of the first novelists to use Free Indirect Discourse (FID) to portray her characters. Basically, FID is a way of writing narrative that incorporates the thoughts, opinions or general set of vocabulary that the character in question would use.

Jane Austen uses FID to point out the often-deluded perception of her characters by contrasting the description with conventional, objective speech. Going back to the opening lines of Emma, the title character believes she is “handsome, clever, and rich”, but the ambiguous nature of the descriptors (clever as in smart or clever as in manipulative? rich as in wealthy or rich as in full of goodness?) invoke both the vanity of the protagonist and the doubts of the narrator.

3. One of the most stereotypical misconceptions of the Austinian novel is that it’s full of brooding, romantic, Colin-Firth-types who profess their love like no other. The reality is, however, that these characters are masters of subtlety, and pique the interest of the protagonists (and the readers) with sustained language. Consider this piece of dialogue from Pride and Prejudice between Elizabeth and Darcy:

On his approaching them soon afterwards, though without seeming to have any intention of speaking, Miss Lucas defied her friend to mention such a subject to him; which immediately provoking Elizabeth to do it, she turned to him and said:

“Did you not think, Mr. Darcy, that I expressed myself uncommonly well just now, when I was teasing Colonel Forster to give us a ball at Meryton?”

“With great energy; but it is always a subject which makes a lady energetic.”

Elizabeth is trying to bait Darcy into individualizing her (“uncommonly well”), and is doing so with the suggestion of flirtatiousness (“teasing”). Darcy acknowledges her question, but then almost immediately removes himself from the equation by making an aphoristic statement. This push and pull is not a “setup” in Austen’s work, it’s the meat of the story.

4. Although she is sometimes criticized for only portraying the upper class, dinner-party culture of Aristocratic England, the context actually helps her readers find specific distinctions between characters. Since all of the characters are attempting to emulate a certain type of speech, small deviations from the norm emphasize distinction but permit the illusion of gallant merrymaking alive.

To write like Jane Austen, force your reader to make the distinctions instead of pointing them out to us. Readers who pay little attention to your work may not notice the grudges and love affairs implicit in dinner table conversation, but the lion’s share of the reward goes to those who invest their eyes and ears into the dialogue.  As John F. Burrows puts it in his essay, “Style”,

“Jane Austen displays a characteristic preference for ‘shallow modelling’ Since this allows the reader’s attention to be concentrated on subtler differences of attitude among her characters.”

Subtlety is key. Use language that leads your readers to the “little things”, so to speak.

5. The traditional Austinian heroine (or in some cases, hero) must often overcome their own delusions and eventually get a “reality check” that turns their life around. As I mentioned before using, Free Indirect Discourse can make help frame your characters as narcissists, social justice warriors or paranoiacs, just to name a few examples.

Emma Woodhouse sees herself as heroic for matchmaking, but her abidance to social hierarchies causes her to malevolently shun the poor Miss Bates. On the other hand, Catherine Morland from Northanger Abbey is so caught up in Gothic fantasy that she fishes for any creak, bump or flutter in the night to arouse her senses:

Human nature could support no more. A cold sweat stood on her forehead, the manuscript fell from her hand, and groping her way to the bed, she jumped hastily in, and sought some suspension of agony by creeping far underneath the clothes. To close her eyes in sleep that night, she felt must be entirely out of the question.

Catherine only feels fear because she wants to. Austen shows us that her fear is caused by her wish to be scared and nothing else. To write like Jane Austen, always look for these power-of-suggestion personality traits in people. A good example, from the point of view of a writer, is that many of us say we write more than we actually do. Exploiting such dissonance is funny.

6. Secondary characters in Jane Austen’s novels are often defined by the upward or downward mobility within the strict hierarchical system of Aristocratic British life.

Although this may seem a little dated, shows like House of Cards and The Wire contain dozens of secondary characters whose primary conflict in the story is such mobility. To use Emma as an example, the title character tries to set up her friend Harriet with Mr.Elton, but she does not realize that he is actually chasing her (and the supplementary dowry). Elton, a rakish vicar, is primarily defined by his social motives above anything. Again, you don’t need to make every character extremely complex, but having secondary characters of the sort reasserts the tensions of social life, even if existence seems “easy”.

Thanks to The Cambridge Introduction to Jane Austen and Project Gutenberg for references.

If you have any feedback, or any suggestions yourself, feel free to leave them in the comments.