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In English, your object of study is the literary text, and reading the primary texts will take up a major part of your study time. You will of course have experience of this from your school or college studies but this may have been far more guided and structured, not to mention the fact that the texts themselves may have been shorter or read over a longer period of time. Reading for pleasure will also be a familiar activity to you, but this is approached differently to an academic reading of the same text, which may be enjoyable, but primarily aims at analytical pursuit of a specific issue or question.

Academic reading: Primary texts

When reading for academic purposes, it is helpful to spend a little time reviewing what you are looking for before you start reading. If you have a set essay title, you could unpack the question before reading. If you will be setting your own question, you could review any lecture notes on the topic and identify any fruitful avenues of inquiry. Bear these in mind as you read, so you can maintain a thoughtful distance from the text, rather than becoming immersed in it as you would do if you were reading for pleasure. This critical distance creates a space in which your ideas can emerge and you can find an academic response to it, rather than simply whether you enjoyed it or not (this is a valid response, but not necessarily an academic one).

Reading with a pen, or taking notes of your responses or instances which bear on your ideas, can help you focus and keep a distance. If you find that your response to a text is becoming too disjointed with this approach, then you could undertake a quick first reading to gain an overall impression. This initial reading then forms the context for a second, more targeted, analytical reading of the relevant sections of the text in depth. People's preferences vary as to whether they want to undertake some secondary reading beforehand to guide their response, or whether they prefer to approach the primary text with an open mind. Experiment with both approaches to see which suits you best.

Choosing your copy

When choosing your copy of a primary text, consider your note-taking preferences. Do you prefer to annotate the text (in which case you will need to purchase your own copy or photocopies) or are you happy to take notes separately (in which case a library copy may be appropriate)? Other factors include cost (if buying your own copies of books throughout the course), access (if you are using library copies, of which there may be limited numbers), and convenience.

The edition you choose is also a factor, if your reading list does not specify a particular one. Some may be translations, or have modernized spellings. The critical apparatus (introduction, notes etc.) may be extensive or minimal, and you may find this a help or a distraction. Any primary work which has been modified in any way or has extra supplementary material added by an editor may no longer remain ‘neutral’; someone has added their own voice to the text and this may influence you. The quality of the critical apparatus, particularly the introduction, may vary. Introductions frequently offer textual analysis as well as historical context, and should be treated with the same critical awareness that you extend to any other secondary literature such as journal articles or scholarly books. The date of your chosen edition may also therefore impact on your decision, as it may be somewhat outdated.

Primary texts can also be read in electronic format, for example, on an ebook reader or computer. Many of these may be free, or cheaply available. Some formats may allow you to annotate the text or search the text. However, you may find that ebooks are harder to gain a quick visual overview of the book or your place in it, and page numbers may not be included, causing problems with locating passages and referencing them. Be careful when citing an electronic version of a primary text. Some providers, such as LiON, use out of copyright editions as their source text (which may be old, nineteenth century editions which were cheap, poorly edited or textually suspect), and unreliable methods of data entry and checking. Never cite from such a source unless you are very certain of the editorial status of the text, but check against a more reputable print edition. 

Finding primary texts

Primary texts can be found in a variety of ways: via using the library catalogue, browsing the physical shelves of the Library or a bookshop and online, as electronic text as well as through online booksellers. 

Using LibrarySearch, the online catalogue for Cambridge Libraries:

  • If you know the title of the book, you could type or copy and paste it into the search box.
  • You might alternatively enter one or more keywords into the search box. You might include the author's name; a word from the title of a primary text; or choose several words. Your first set of results will be more relevant if you choose keywords or search terms that are distinctive.