Imagine you’re tucked up in bed, fairy lights on with a mug of tea in hand, or you’re seated on a bench completely oblivious to the rush of today around you, and that familiar feeling of when the book you’re reading fills you with a sense of insight and edifying pleasure, returns. It’s simply the best, isn’t it?
Any English literature student, like myself, will know that your books are your babies. Looking at my bookshelf now whilst writing this, every single text holds a significant meaning to me. Some hold certain memories, some were gifts, some I can relate to in strange but satisfying ways, and some I’ve excitedly found at the back of the Oxfam shelf. My experience and course so far at Durham has allowed me to extend this shelf and therefore these attributions in a glorious way, but for a long time last year, there were a few lonely books that didn’t do that for me – Epics.
That familiar feeling of when the book you’re reading fills you with a sense of insight and edifying pleasure returns
I would approach these texts over and over again, ready to battle against the complexities of Homer, Virgil and Milton, but it was a struggle. It was then during an agonising late night Billy B session where I was hopelessly trying to gather analysis for a presentation I had to do on The Odyssey, when I came across a review for The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood. It instantly stood out. I spent the following days reading this book and something just clicked.
This was a book that showed a completely different side to the Penelope portrayed in The Odyssey, and most importantly, it gave her a voice when she didn’t previously have one. The whole book just screamed feminism, allowing readers to witness Penelope’s story behind Odysseus’ famous journey through Greece, and what she actually got up to. Instead of seeing Homer’s compliant and domesticated Penelope, there was now a new, mettlesome heroine jumping out of the pages at me – and it was brilliant.
I like to think of this event being the moment where my love for my course and my utmost appreciation for being here at Durham, fully consolidated itself. I of course already felt extremely fortunate for my position, but there were certainly moments of worry and doubt regarding whether I had made the right decision. All in one night, I found a style of writing I loved, a literary focus that fully interested me, and essentially, a reassurance that I fitted in at Durham. Homer’s epic was now a seamless read, and I was over the moon.
As my first year progressed, I found it incredibly gratifying to find books that offered various insights into texts I struggled with. I read Lavinia by Ursula Le Guin, an incredible tale that tells the story of Virgil’s princess, who is also not given a voice in the original epic, depicting her taking full control over her own fate. Pat Barker’s novel The Silence of the Girls undoubtedly also comes to my mind, another inspiring book that focuses on the torture Briseis entails at the hands of the Greeks.
Sometimes you have to view something through an alternative light in order to achieve the desired outcome you need
I specifically want to highlight these three novels as they each have showed me that despite certain difficulties, especially if those difficulties entail a rather harrowing text on your reading list, you have the capability to turn this around. The whole experience, and the literary journey I went on last year, has taught me that sometimes you have to view something through an alternative light in order to achieve the desired outcome you need.
Looking over right now, I am delighted to say that my bookshelf has many new additions that weren’t there this time last year, including three very special epics that have completely captured my heart.
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