In order to break the ice and to get to know my new first year students I ask them to answer on the first day a brief questionnaire, which I’ll also answer here as if this were 1984, my first year at university:

1. Have you read a complete volume in English yet? (If so, which one?): Wuthering Heights and The Go Between (chosen by my English language teacher… I had already read Wuthering Heights at least twice in translation)
2. How many books do you read every year?: 50 (I swear, I still keep the notebook where I wrote them down; now it’s 100 on average, which I believe is a minimum for university teachers)
3. Which is your favourite book (in any language)?: Wuthering Heights (still… can’t get rid of Heathcliff)
4. What book(s) you would like to read in English? Why?: Ulysses (I have read it!!)
5. Do you have a favourite fiction genre?: No, but I like fantasy very much, particularly gothic and science fiction (I still do…)
6. Which is your favourite film and TV series? Film: Blade Runner (still); series: Brideshead Revisited (well, no, now it’s The X-Files)

Now I’d like to comment on my students’ answers, which you can find complete in the .pdf document attached here. There is not a particular novelty I want to highlight, I just want to make them public for anyone interested to consider.

My first concern are numbers: 82 students registered, yes, but only 57/60 attended the first week sessions, of which just 42 bothered to answer my survey. So, message for the remaining 15/18: why didn’t you bother?? Second concern: 6 students claim to have never read a book in English… and this is the SECOND, not the first semester they spend with us. It’s true that mine is the first English Literature class they take but, why wait for the teacher to tell you when to begin? Third concern: As regards how many books they read per year, 5 confess they simply don’t read at all… 6 read five books at the most. Most students (16) read eleven/fifteen books a year – not enough, clearly. I’m sorry to say that only the 7 students who claim to read more than sixteen books a year are well equipped to face the degree’s demands with a certain ease. The rest need to make a serious effort, in some cases a very serious one. A baffling aspect is how often students claim not to have time to read… Too many classes, perhaps?

About the favourite fiction genre, this turns out to be romance (12 students), followed by fantasy (9) and detective fiction (7), though 10 students claim to read omnivorously. Their reading tastes are, obviously, much closer to those of average or common readers than to university teachers of Literature… which is why it is difficult for me to comment on them without sounding prejudiced (arghhh… Fifty Shades of Grey?). At any rate, I must say that mainstream fiction and not the classics dominate students’ readings, whereas for the next three years this should be the other way round, complemented by a good selection of contemporary literary fiction. No more Nicholas Sparks…

The list of books read in English, of favourite books, TV and films are quite eclectic, with no clear generational favourites (well, curiosuly, The Big Bang Theory is named by 5 students). Predictably, Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde and William Shakespeare are the most often mentioned classics. Yet, as I’m thinking these days of the Harry Potter elective I’ll teach next year –yes, it’s official– I can’t help noticing that Rowling’s name crops up quite often in all categories; also The Lord of the Rings, which turns out to be book most students would like to read (it’s only 5 nonetheless). Something you might notice is that even though students claim to have read in English great novels like The Grapes of Wrath or The Great Gatsby, these are not among their favourites, a list which, as usual, is a strange mixture of the popular among younger readers and what teachers order to read in secondary school (still Galdós’s Tormento?)

I’ll close with a list of safe recommendations, thinking in particular of those who have never tried reading in English, and those who read too little –all the books are mentioned in the survey:

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Animal Farm
Brave New World
Catcher in the Rye, The
Christmas Carol, A
Game of Thrones, A
Gone with the Wind
Grapes of Wrath, The
Great Gatsby, The
Harry Potter Saga, The
Homage to Catalonia
Less than Zero
Life of Pi, The
Line of Beauty, The
Lord of the Flies, The
Picture of Dorian Gray, The
Pride and Prejudice
Romeo and Juliet
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The
Talented Mr. Ripley, The
Wuthering Heights

Here are the full results: