Dear Beautiful Mentors,
What books did you read to prepare for MAPH? What do you wish you read? What are some of your favorite books? What should I read this summer?
Beautiful Prospective Students
Strategically reading for your thesis:
While you definitely want to make sure you have a relaxing summer, it can also alleviate future stress if you start thinking about and reading for your thesis.
The summer before MAPH, I knew I wanted to write about Virginia Woolf, but wasn’t sure exactly which novel or set of novels I wanted to work with. I decided to re-read my favorite of hers, The Waves, and consider what kinds of questions I might want to ask about her work. Heavily annotating and thinking about possible research topics helped me to formulate the major questions I was interested in pursuing in Woolf’s work. Although I ultimately ended up writing about Mrs. Dalloway and Between the Acts, my work over the summer influenced a lot of my thesis ideas.
If you’re working on an object by a particular author, director, philosopher, artist, etc., consider looking at their other work to get a better sense of their oeuvre. The MA thesis is about entering a critical conversation, so having a sense not only of the secondary criticism on your object, but also of the other objects that might have influenced it, can majorly help how you set up your argument.
So: read a novel, find a painting, read an essay in philosophy, watch a film – and think about the questions that that object makes you ask. Even just starting to investigate potential thesis topics can be hugely beneficial come winter, and can make the thesis feel a lot less daunting as you enter the MAPH year.
P.S. I would also highly recommend reading something fun. Anything non-academic, that wouldn’t necessarily classify as literature, that is still equally as intellectually stimulating. For instance, this summer I’ve been reading Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels series. The MAPH year is full of amazing but intense reading, so make sure to read something purely for your enjoyment. Also recommended: The Argonauts, The First Bad Man, and The Complete Short Stories by Clarice Lispector.
As the less studious mentor, I didn’t actually read anything before MAPH that helped me in any physical or academic way. About a year before, while I was applying I was trying to hit the books pretty hard. However, once I got in touch with my MAPH cohort, and some of the cool people in the office (that’s me now!) they just told me that they did an immense amount of pleasure reading. So I guess for all of you, that’s something that I would heavily suggest. I know that it’s late July/early August and that MAPH comes soonly, but seriously, take a minute and read something that has absolutely no precedence over your academic life. Read a romance novel, maybe a science fiction novel, or a young adult novel. Read something that you’ve never read before, and even if you hate it, try to get through it just for the experience. I spent the last three months before MAPH reading absolutely nothing but ridiculous little novels and I loved it! It was great to take a deep breath for my brain before the really hard, but exciting, work of MAPH begins. Some of my favorite books right now are Kindred by Octavia Butler, This Bridge Called my Back edited by Cherrí Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, and Danger in a Red Dress by Christina Dodd.
That being said, once I got here there was some stuff that hit me like a bag of rocks, academically. By that, I mean that the academic environment here was so unlike what I was used to and I kind of wished I had read more seriously. If you want to get started on reading and preparing yourself academically, I would suggest reading the current, serious academic criticism in your field. If you’re thinking about your thesis already, or just trying to narrow your academic interest it might be a good idea to go cruising around on JSTOR and look for current (last 10 years or so) articles about your academic objects, whether it be literature, art or movies. Try to think about a new idea about those artifacts. Who knows, it might lead you to some interesting thoughts concerning what you might want to write your thesis on.
A lot of the ideas I have around what stuff you could/should read is really situation specific. If you want to read academically, read some stuff that you’re not familiar with. If you’re not good at historical context behind your objects, read that. If you don’t have a theory background, maybe get into that a little bit. Read your lack this summer, and see what the year brings you.
Another idea is that you could read some of the stuff from the big names around UChicago, like Lauren Berlant, Elaine Hadley, and Maud Ellmann. And then when you see them, you can swoon.
A faculty member knew that I would be reading chapter 2 of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit for Core so he recommended I read Chapter 1 to prepare. It’s the type of text that is not particularly long, but it’s worth reading repeatedly to begin internalizing theory that resists the way many of us have been trained to think. That was the only academic work I did to prepare for MAPH. I think it’s also worth reading a few things that you want to read, because for the next 9 months or so your reading will largely be decided for you. So I read the “Masters of Rome” series by Colleen McCullough (highly recommend for anyone vaguely interested in the history of the Roman republic. It’s incredibly well researched historical fiction). And then I read Venice: A New History by Thomas F Madden. I was on an Italian history kick I suppose. Oh, and then I read Ready: Player One by Eric Cline, because I am a nerd.
As for favorite books to recommend for personal reading…. I like Jonathan Lethem a lot, especially Motherless Brooklyn and Gun, with Occasional Music. Also Carlos Ruiz Zafón writes a series called “The Cemetery of Forgotten Books” that is very good, the first one is called The Shadow of the Wind. Finally, you’re about to move to Hyde Park, so Devil in the White City is probably worth a read. I’ve been here for a decade and haven’t read it though, so…..let me know what you think?
Let us know in the comment section what you are reading! Hegel? Virginia Woolf? Octavia Butler? Calvin and Hobbes? Whatever it is, someone somewhere is doing their dissertation on it. As always, feel free to stop by the MAPH office or check in on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We would love to meet you, you don’t have to have an agenda to come in/comment/engage.
Coming soon….what to do in Chicago before you are forcibly led to the library and locked in for nine months!