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March 13, 2012 | by  | in Arts Books | [ssba]

Read Books, Look Smarter

I have always had a problem with lists that confidently assert that there are “five books to read before you X”. They make life far too easy, implying that there are five incredible books that will turn even the most illiterate bonehead into a discerning scholar of the written word. As you may have noticed, if you have ever read more than five books, the idea of such a list is pretty ridiculous. Books are as varied as the people who read them, and no one can ever accurately say which books are right for you.

That said, there are certain genres of books that are great to have a read of during the early months of your university life; genres to give you a good grasp of the literary world and the books people like to discuss. Here’s my top five:


Cult books are infamously difficult to define: they tend to be written by authors with extremely fanatical followings, but rubbish sales. Perhaps the reason that they’re so difficult to pin down is that a cult author can make the transition to mainstream without much warning–a couple of years ago no one had ever heard of George R. R. Martin outside
of his ‘cult’, but thanks to HBO’s very successful Game of Thrones series, his books are now everywhere.

These authors are either very good–there has to be some reason for the love after all–or extremely weird. Sometimes both. Regardless, they’re worth a read. They’re also insanely popular at universities, so reading them while you’re here will give you something good to talk about if you’re trying to achieve a convincing air of refinement.

Recommended: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.


Before you get bogged down by essays and set texts, you really should have some first-hand knowledge of classic literature beyond the books you had to read at high school. Classic literature is an excellent starting point, largely because the term “classic literature” is so all-encompassing that there is something for every reader. Interested in crime fiction? Grab Sherlock Holmes. Interested in romance? Jane Austen is the obvious choice, but there’s a lot more out there. Adventure fiction? There’s none better than Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I could go on.

The best thing about reading classic fiction is that while people who like to think of themselves as ‘cultured’ enjoy discussing it (or at least pretend to), only a few have taken the time to actually read any of it. Reading the fiction in its original form is the best way to learn about it, giving you an immediate advantage over the coffee-swilling, bespectacled types who like to claim that To Kill a Mockingbird is one of their favourite books because they had to read it in year 12.

Recommended: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.


The trashy reputation of fantasy and sci-fi, in the age of the ‘realistic’ novel, is probably the most ridiculous slander in the literary world today. There is no such thing as a bad literary genre; just bad writers.

However, both fantasy and sci-fi tend to extremes: good fantasy is almost always excellent, while bad fantasy can be as painful as fourteenth-century dental practices. Considering how rewarding good fantasy/sci-fi can be, my advice is to do your research before you pick up any novel from these genres.

Recommended: American Gods by Neil Gaiman.


We produce a lot of fiction in New Zealand, some fantastic, some… less so. There is something deeply rewarding in reading a book set in your hometown, a place that you love, or a place that you just passed through once and would like to know more about.

Kiwi writers are writing for a comparatively small audience, and therefore tend to put a great deal of effort into publicity. Most of their book tours will take them through Wellington (particularly during Writers & Readers Week) so there’s a good chance you’ll get to see good authors speak live, providing an element of author accessibility that can otherwise be rare in New Zealand.

Recommended: Bulibasha by Witi Ihimaera. If non-fiction is your thing, The Trial of the Cannibal Dog by Anne Salmond is excellent.


I can’t stress this last point enough. Awful books teach you what not to read, and let you appreciate the good stuff so much more. Also, it’s freaking hilarious at least 80% of the time.

Recommended: Any of James McIntyre’s Cheese Poems. Or, y’know, Twilight.



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