"I thought I had the solution in Lent, reading books..."instagram/muhammedsajid.n

Your time in Cambridge is more than your Tripos reading. I can confirm that it’s helpful to know what’s going on in lectures, and it makes supervisions much less awkward to know the topic. But it’s not the be-all and end-all. I found the idea of open, self-guided study a difficult concept to grasp when transitioning from A-level to Cambridge (with a year abroad in between to boot); imposter syndrome was something I felt long before I knew about its infamous name, and I attempted to resort to the security of a comprehensive syllabus and reading list. As I quickly learnt, though, there was no such thing as a single reading list. It turns out that a Cambridge degree doesn’t begin and end with having read everything on your subject in the library, cover to cover.

In September last year, I sat down to do a diagnostic test for my ab initio Russian course, only to realise I was supposed to have done the first six units of a grammar book that I’d never heard of beforehand. Cue utter panic. I then trawled through the MML website for other things I had missed — the core reading lists — and got through a fair amount of it through sheer stress before arriving. I reached Cambridge distinctly more stressed than necessary, only to discover that most people were in the same boat as me.

“I was haunted by the sensation that I had to be constantly reading relevant books to my course.”

After starting the year in this brilliant fashion, I continued to feel overwhelmed by the amount of reading there was expected for each lecture (primary and secondary), and then the additional suggested readings for essays. The amount of literature involved in a language course did, admittedly, surprise me. I hadn’t investigated the course in detail before applying, and got quickly used to feeling an acute sense of panic when, for instance, faced with 12 chapters of a book to read before bed, and the supervision the next day.


Mountain View

Me, God, and the English Tripos

I was haunted by the sensation that I had to be constantly reading relevant books to my course. I thought I had the solution in Lent, reading books for Tripos in bed at night to relax. However, I now have the sneaking suspicion that this wasn’t helpful in the slightest; I wasn’t relaxing, nor was I actually taking in anything useful.

I eventually realised that driving myself into the ground for several months at a time can have iffy consequences for my health (I lost my voice twice, in both Michaelmas and Lent; something my housemates enjoy bringing up). Even if the pressure never lets up, you have to. During lockdown, I put aside the ominous emails from the Russian department comparing our language skills to a demanding houseplant (i.e. needing constant attention) and instead made the effort to read completely irrelevant things, from a discovery of Percy Jackson (legendary) to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (problematic).

Indulging in this kind of reading is in no way beneficial to my degree, but it’s not supposed to be. I can get lost in these books in a way I can’t with dry Russian history tomes. Far from worrying about which dates to remember, I can instead consider whether Stieg Larsson meant to sexualise the mundane in women in every other sentence. This wonderfully unproductive bedtime reading will, I imagine, last until the first night back in college, after the inevitable 6pm buttery call and a harried return to my desk. Nevertheless, having taken time off during lockdown stands me in better stead to face the chaos of term.

“Reading for pleasure may fall somewhat by the wayside in term, but it can provide the opportunity to take time on your own during the whirlwind of the infamous 8-week term.”

You will need to remind yourself frequently of why you committed to your degree, especially when submerged, mid-term, in a coffee-fuelled essay crisis, disassociating to the Mamma Mia soundtrack (or maybe that’s just me). Similarly, remind yourself to take time away from your work. This separation between your course and interests is vital, and there are hundreds of other things to fill your time around your reading — reading that you can adjust to suit your interests. Ronsard’s million-or-so sonnets and I parted ways in Michaelmas, never to reconvene, and I was all the better for it. This highly individualised approach to learning only benefits your time at Cambridge. Make sure to mix this with a handful of sports, social events, and the odd spot of soul-searching (all not productive for your course, but very far from counter-productive).

Reading for pleasure may fall somewhat by the wayside in term, but it can provide the opportunity to take time on your own during the whirlwind of the infamous 8-week term. You certainly can love what you study, but having some long-cherished YA books on hand for downtime is never a bad thing, even — especially — if it doesn’t relate to your Tripos in the slightest.