As the intellectual cousin of the word selfie, a shelfie is a photograph of someone’s bookshelf. In the next few months, the FERSA blog will occasionally feature shelfies taken by graduate students in the Faculty of Education, accompanied by reflections about some of their favourite books. The first person to share a shelfie is PhD student Julie Blake. 

I’ve just moved house and right now books are less a matter of shelfies and more a matter of Asda carrier bags stuffed in cupboards. But I have organized one bookcase of PhD essentials and that’s what you can see here.

The top two shelves mostly house my data set: a pile of poetry anthologies specified or ShelfieLGrecommended by exam boards in England since the introduction of the National Curriculum in 1988. To the left of the orange research journals are books close to my heart. Glyn Maxwell’s  On Poetry is simply the best – and laugh-out-loud funniest  –  book written about teaching poetry: I’d give body parts to write as brilliantly as this. Next to that is Francis Spufford’s The Child That Books Built. I like the idea that childhood reading shapes the person, though in my case I should now either be in a crack SAS squad or in prison, having mostly read horror novels and SAS survival handbooks. Next to that is the Poetry By Heart anthology. Alongside my PhD research, I direct Poetry By Heart, a national schools poetry recitation competition I set up with Andrew Motion, the former UK poet laureate. This is the competition anthology. My name’s in it. I like that.

Before I committed to a PhD at Cambridge in poetry education I was going to read for one at Bristol in Historical Sociolinguistics so on the next shelf are key books for a journal article I’m finishing about the representation of early Jamaican Creole in 18-19th century British newspapers. There’s also a biography of Peter Mark Roget of Roget’s Thesaurus fame. “Everyone knows his name; no-one knows his story.” That’s the pitch for my as-yet-unwritten screenplay that I’m not allowed to start until I’ve finished the PhD…

Below that are my intellectual touchstones. Edward Tufte’s books on different aspects of visual communication of information are still the best: beautiful, rigorous and challenging us to think harder about how we ‘see’ information. This will be an important thread in my thesis, one that underpins the use of a methodological tool-kit I’m adapting from quantitative approaches to literary and cultural history. Stanford’s Franco Moretti is my all-time hero; his Distant Reading is quite brilliant on how literary history can be better understood by working with number and pattern. Next to him is Uncharted, a popular book about using big data for cultural analysis written by the guys who created the Google n-gram viewer (go and play with it, but don’t blame me if those three chapters you promised your supervisor by Friday don’t get written…). Then there’s Matthew Jockers and his how-to book about R-coding the quantitative crunches that Franco Moretti writes about. Me and semantic topic modelling are about to become intimately acquainted…

When I left school, a rough-and-tumble London Comprehensive, one of my teachers told me never to forget where I came from.  Maybe I took it a bit literally, but that promise BookpileJVBsmalldrives a lifetime commitment to mass education, as a teacher, a senior leader, a curriculum hustler, and now as a researcher.  It also drives my constant re-telling of the story of a day in 1979 when the curiously posh Mrs Thompson swept into our third year secondary English classroom in a state of high dudgeon and declared, “Just because you’re poor, it doesn’t mean you shan’t have poetry!”  I research school poetry anthologies because without school I would have had nothing but TV jingles. For this, Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes is foundational. In its extensive testimony, this book speaks over and over of the richness and expansiveness of people’s interior lives when they have access to reading widely, not only through schooling, but also at the many different sites in which working class people have historically had access to learning. Catherine Robson’s Heartbeats pursues a related line, insisting on the remarkable phenomenon of mass education and exploring the experience of poetry recitation as a significant everyday classroom practice in Britain and the US in the 19th century. This is an academic who cites Nigel Molesworth and Jacques Derrida in one sentence and if in my thesis I manage to do something half as good with equally good intellectual cause I will know I’m done.

Professor Robson is my number two Fantasy League Examiner. Number one is Anne Ferry, just along the shelf with her pioneering monograph on poetry anthologies. I wish I’d had the chance to meet her. I owe her a huge debt of gratitude and I should have liked to thank her.

So, that’s my shelfie. What’s yours like?


Suggested Readings from Julie’s Shelf: 

  1. Glyn Maxwell, On Poetry
  2. Francis Spufford, The Child That Books Built
  3. Motion et al, Poetry By Heart: Poems for Learning and Reciting
  4. Edward Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information
  5. Franco Moretti, Distant Reading
  6. Erez Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel, Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture
  7. Matthew Jockers, Text Analysis with R for Students of Literature
  8. Jonathan Rose, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes
  9. Catherine Robson, Heartbeats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem
  10. Anne Ferry, Tradition and the Individual Poem: An Enquiry Into Anthologies


Julie Blake is in the fourth year of a part-time PhD at the Faculty of Education in Cambridge. Her thesis will examine the nature of the poetry specified for study by some 14 million people in England since its mandatory inscription in the National Curriculum in 1988. She is interested in digital and quantitative methods, large archives, and processes of mass cultural transmission. Follow her on Twitter at @felthamgirl.

Posted by:fersacambridge

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