We asked intern Allegra Wozniak, a senior at Lake Forest College, to take the pulse of the next generation of literati. Her response is perfectly timed for the festive season. And stay tuned—we’ll be publishing four more installments this week. —Ed.
College is a time for two things: proving yourself and partying. Much of the time, these activities take place simultaneously. When English majors get together, they talk about the one thing that validates them among their peers: literature. Whether you’re friends with these people or a plus-one who wants to make a good impression, you’ll find that a party with college-age literature students is a fine dance of the tongue. If you can’t keep up, they’ll write you off faster than you can say, “I’ve always wanted to read that.” Sure, maybe you read The Catcher in the Rye or The Old Man and the Sea in high school, but those training wheels won’t impress anyone there. Before you get judged for not knowing your way around fiction, read on: we’re here to help.
Just remember not to underestimate their ability to talk
about literature while under the influence of alcohol.
Don’t let their stacks of Norton Anthologies or Siddhartha-inspired tattoos intimidate you. The important thing to remember is that English majors, like Ivan Osokin in P. D. Ouspensky’s Strange Life of Ivan Osokin (or Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day), tend to repeat themselves. After you’ve been around the scene for a while, you’ll recognize books and authors from the 1800s through about the 1980s that moderately well-read people throw around in an attempt to prove their literary depth. Just remember not to underestimate their ability to talk about literature while under the influence of alcohol. In some cases, this actually strengthens the logic.
So here’s part one of a five-part study guide, divided into eras, that will help you bone up on the big names and signature works so you can gain credibility among those who are desperately seeking it themselves.
Part One: The 1800s
Prove you’re serious with some meaty classics from the 1800s. It’s always worth name-checking Oscar Wilde, but you’ll really wow them with these historic heavyweights.
The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Dropping a Dostoevsky reference will get you instant respect, so long as you never, ever, confuse Crime and Punishment with War and Peace. Mentioning The Brothers K is essential because it does two things—covers you for all of pre-Soviet Russian literature while also proving that novels over 800 pages don’t scare you. This dark, character-driven story follows three brothers after the murder of their father, and explores huge questions of human existence. Their names and defining attributes are the most important things to remember: Alyosha the religious innocent, Ivan the atheist, Dmitri the sensualist.
- Say this: “Ivan really isn’t the nihilist you should be concerned about; it’s Smerdyakov that would have Nietzsche bowing at his feet.”
Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens
Don’t be that person who only knows Dickens for Oliver Twist or A Christmas Carol. Instead, discuss young orphan Pip, who comes into money and therefore, a world of adult struggle. Guilt, ambition, social class, and crime are perhaps the most easily discussed themes of this novel. You’ll earn bonus points if you mention the thematic link of child suffering shared by Dickens and Dostoevsky.
- Say this: “Romantic idealism coupled with the ironic progression of social advancement makes this Dickens’ most convincing portrait of adolescence . . . keeping in mind his original intentions of producing a more humorous novel.”
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
Know that Charlotte is one of three sister-authors, that her novel Jane Eyre is not to be mixed up with her sister Emily’s Wuthering Heights, and that when the term “Byronic” comes up, Mr. Rochester has you covered. Jane Eyre, like Great Expectations, follows the life of an orphan, but is focused more on intense emotions of sexuality and morality. One of the greatest strengths of this novel is its genre-defying range, as it could fit appropriately in a conversation about Gothic, Romantic, or even Victorian literature.
- Say this: “Red and white. Red and white. Red and white.”