A 7-Step Guide to Reading Lists

Image description: a student calmly reading from a large pile of academic books

The inquisitive reader may be wondering: ‘what is a reading list?’, or ‘what do I do with one?’ For humanities students this may be the bane of your existence; for the science student, a mysterious entity. Either way, worry not—no one really knows what the purpose of a reading list is. That’s why I’ve written this simple and easy to use guide!

So, you want to be a model humanities student? You’ve received a reading list from your tutor, and, after dunking it in your sixteenth coffee of the day, want to know what to do with it? Here is a step-by-step guide to acing that reading list!

Step 1: Slim it down

It may be hard to believe, but reading lists are actually far too long as they are, so the first step for any good student is to cut away the surplus. And by goodness the excesses are numerous!

So, pull up the faculty wide reading list, and ensure your tutor’s list is shorter. Otherwise, cut any readings which aren’t on the faculty’s reading list—and a couple that are, just for good measure.

Step 2: Beware the books

When a reading list prescribes a whole book, there can only be one explanation: the entire topic and essay title would be easily resolved by reading the entire book in depth. Every student has dreamt of reading that VIB (Vvery Iimportant Bbook) on the reading list—but be honest: it’s not going to happen. So if there are any whole books on your reading list, you may as well give up before you’ve started.

Instead, an appropriate substitute is the book review which pops up above the online book after a quick search on SOLO. Normally only two or three pages long, a book review makes for the perfect reading: you’ll know enough to waffle on in your tute, but not enough to actually have any understanding of the topic at hand. Need I say more?

Step 3: The tutor’s markings

Tutor’s reading lists often include some fun little markings and comments to accompany your sense of dread. One common example is the asterisk, which officially indicates important readings. —but as any good student will know, what this really means is that any reading without an asterisk isn’t worth reading—they can all be immediately cut.

Some particularly vibrant tutors may go so far as to use a double-asterisk to mark the absolutely vital readings. Students should remember that what this really means is that anything with a single-asterisk isn’t worth more than a cursory glance—and obviously, don’t waste time with non-asterisked options.

Another favourite is the marking “OR”, which suggests you read either of options A or B. Obviously, if neither is absolutely necessary, there’s no point reading them. These can be ignored too.

Sometimes a tutor will suggest you skim-read an item, or skip certain sections. TheseSuch items are clearly not of any relevance, so you shouldn’t waste your time on such frivolity. But make sure not to miss where a tutor has specified that the student need only read one specific section of the reading—this means that you can skip 90% of the waffle and get straight to the good bits! The best student will sometimes make up such comments themselves to save time.

Step 4: Don’t waste time looking around libraries

In the coronavirus lockdown, the student’s laziness is genuinely excused: can’t be bothered to go to the library? Worry not, for everyone is stuck at home. But even when lockdown cannot be used as an excuse, there are plenty of alternatives to actually going to a library.

No student should ever (Bod forbid!) go to a library to find an item on the reading list—the only acceptable libraries are your college’s library, or perhaps the Radcliffe Camera (for flirting, obviously). The Philosophy & Theology library is too far away, the Taylorian is always shut (and you may end up trapped in the maze that forms the reading rooms) and the Old Bod is a conspiracy theory invented by tutors to pretend Oxford students do work. The Law library is like a prison, the Classics library too stuffy, the English library too far, the Oxford Union library too expensive, and the Social Sciences library too depressing.

If coronavirus is no longer an excuse, there are a dizzying array of excuses at one’s disposal: ‘all the books were on loan’, ‘there wasn’t enough time to recall it’, ‘the book was lost’, ‘I got lost’, ‘aliens abducted it’… Your overworked tutor couldn’t care less. For the model student, ‘the book was coffee-stained’.

Step 4½ (optional): Book hog

Alternatively, the very best students may instead predict which books will be needed before the reading list is released. After that, take out all copies of all potentially relevant books before your tutorial partners can, and refuse to share them—after all, “if I’m not reading it, no one will!”

Obviously, don’t waste time reading them—but do remember to tell your tutorial partners in passing just how fascinating that book on the reading list was—“you know, that book which was absolutely essential to this week’s essay?” Then, feign ignorance when your tutorial partner complains about their inability to track that book down.

Step 5: SOLO search

Hopefully you’re now only left with a few items. You must then enter the confusing world of SOLO.

Having searched for the article at hand, you’ll have to rephrase your search at least three times before eventually finding the relevant search results. After that, you’ll have to trawl through irrelevant book reviews (which annoyingly look exactly the same as the actual book on SOLO—and, for some reason, appear before it?), old editions (look out for that pesky 11th edition), resources which are only physical (see Steps 4 and 4½), and those random but completely unrelated medical journals which always seem to pop up.

But be warned, if it’s ProQuest, just bin that item: it’s doubtful whether less user-friendly software could have been designed. I just want to use split-screen and copy over some notes!

Step 6: Reading..?

When it comes to online journal articles, make sure to skim read the abstract to ensure it’s actually relevant. In 95% of cases, the article will turn out to be irrelevant, so move on.

In the rare event that an article is actually relevant, read the introduction and the conclusion at most. Then, add three items from the article’s bibliography to one’s own bibliography. A particularly strong student may choose to copy the second line of the article as a ‘thoughtful’ quotation.

The procedure for online/physical book chapters is pretty similar, although they’re often more relevant. Look to the “further reading” or “relevant literature” section for the best references to steal.

Step 7: The name-dropping tutor

Every student will come across that one reading list which includes a reference to their very own tutor. Far from a narcissistic self-validating cry for help, this is in fact not-so-secret code for “we’re going to spend the tutorial discussing my book/article in detail”.

Seeing this, a good student will completely ignore the essay title and other items on the reading list altogether, and instead drop everything to be the first to take the tutor’s book out of the library. Cancel all your plans for the week, read the tutor’s work in agonising detail and write detailed notes of at least the length of the tutor’s work.

Good essays will be nothing more than detailed book reviews wholeheartedly praising the insight of the tutor and their fascinating argument. The strongest responses will note with which scholars their tutor most vehemently disagrees, and will namedrop such scholars as representing ‘preposterous’, ‘academically woolly’ or ‘agonisingly stupid’ positions. 

It’s that easy! So go forth and tackle that reading list with confidence, knowing at the end of the day that none of it really matters.


Image Credit: UBC Learning Commons via Flickr