The Importance of Reading Around a Subject

    By Cara Forbes

(English Literature and English Language tutor at The Edge Learning Center)

Literature allows us to understand political changes, cultural movements and ideas that influenced particular cultures at a particular time. Reading around a subject provides us with a more enriched and deeper understanding of an author’s viewpoint. Context is imperative in determining the meaning of a literary text.

filling-in-a-jarEnglish Literature essays need more than simple reproduction of facts. Whether you’re studying poetry, plays or novels, deepening your understanding on the literature you have read will strengthen your perspective.  Whether you’re taking IGCSE or IB, exploring the text in context can heighten your awareness and appreciation for the subject.

Reading around a subject is like filling up a jar in stages. Firstly, your jar starts off with big rocks of information. However, these big, uneven rocks fill up the jar leaving unanswered gaps. So, you put in small stones of detail which fall between the big rocks. When the small stones fill the jar, fine sand of specifics filter and fill in the unclaimed areas of the jar. In short, reading around a subject helps you fill in the missing gaps you didn’t realise were there.

Further key points to consider:

  • Reading around a subject lets you know the subject, rather than just the facts.
  • As Literature explores different human beliefs, ideas and societies, it allows people to learn about where they came from and how past events work to shape different cultures.
  • It allows us to soak up the climate of the times through language, characters, tones and setting.

Sometimes literature can be abstract, so let’s take a look at some concrete examples from the iGCSE and IB curricula.

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

canterbury-pilgrimsChaucer’s work provides us with a reliable source of knowledge of medieval society. The tales tell of a group of pilgrims travelling together on a journey from London to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. Written in Middle English between 1387 and 1400, Chaucer’s social commentary addresses themes of religion, social class and convention as well as relativism and realism.

1599 by James S. Shapiro

Written in a year in the life of Shakespeare, 1599 is a snapshot of Shakespeare through some of the key settings and problems of Elizabethan England. With the author at our side, accompanying us and explaining how contemporary events affected the plays that Shakespeare was then working on. You don’t see much of Shakespeare himself, however during this year he began to write works of increasing complexity. He subtly appears, adjusting sonnets and re-working his play Hamlet. The author reveals that Shakespeare always ‘kept a lock on what he revealed about himself’. Reading 1599 will certainly help broaden your perspective and no doubt tempt you to have a go at picking the lock for yourself.

Poetry by Carol Ann Duffy

The current poet laureate focuses her poetry on certain aspects of society in our modern age by communicating sharp social criticisms from the perspective of different social and economic viewpoints. Her poetry often subverts the reader’s expectation and therefore breaks tradition by highlighting aspects of society that are often overlooked. Her common themes include feminism, alienation and nostalgia, public faces, private lives, politics, religion and relationships. By using shocking and unexpected forms and context, she gives voices to those who would not normally be heard and gives insight to an alternative way of thinking.


Animal Farm and 1984 by George Orwell

Understanding the extreme political events of Europe and Orwell’s personal experiences in Spain, allow us to interpret both 1984 and Animal farm and how they were shaped by twentieth century society and Orwell’s ideology. By exploring the context behind these novels, it allows us to comprehend certain ideas that may not be clear without considering the time in which they were written.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie

Learning about the background of the Cultural Revolution is crucial to understanding this text, especially as it is one of the few works in literature to address the period. The novel is more concerned with human relationships than its political issues, however Sijie subtly weighs in on the human rights abuses which were consequences of re-education in Mao’s China. Political questions are considered in the novel, however they’re examined through human behavior and relationships.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

The Nigerian author wrote this post-colonial text in 1958, (two years before Nigeria gained independence from the United Kingdom) but the story is set in the 1890s, and details the initial destruction the white colonisers inflict on a traditional farming village, and the subsequent civil unrest this causes in the community. Having deeper knowledge of the social, cultural and religious implications of colonialism allows readers a greater understanding of the historical events texts may reference as well as greater insight into the central conflicts in the novel.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley


In the novel, Frankenstein, Shelley embedded controversial topics and touched on religious ideas. We learn about the trepidation concerning man’s overreaching ambition and the battle between science and nature that dominated Britain in the Victorian era. Here, we learn not to disregard a particular influence or aspect of the text, and subsequently we see the true value that context provides.

By exploring themes that provoke human emotions, reading context can manipulate our thoughts and encourage us to consider alternative opinions. Furthermore, reading around the history and context in Literature can aid in broadening and stimulating your ideas.

Vary your approach; read anything from cereal boxes to Chaucer, but do read, and make sure your jar is always half full.