Posted inCultures

My Degree in a Book: English Literature and Language

Illustration by Ben Beechener.

With the vast number of genres and time periods studied during an English Literature and Language course, it seems impossible to choose one book that encompasses three years of rigorous study. After much deliberation, I’ve concluded that if someone were to point Chekhov’s gun at me and force me to choose one piece of literature to encapsulate my degree and prove its merit, my only real option would be John Yorke’s masterful Into the Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them.

An analysis of the structure of human storytelling might seem like a dry read, but Yorke is quick to explain its importance: he examines the mechanics that make every narrative function. Every work of fiction – high and low brow alike – is united by the same core elements and rhythms and, once this is realised, you begin to see it everywhere from pop music to classical paintings. If there’s a story to be told, Yorke can point out how it is being given. Within the ‘three / four / five / seven’ act structure of every magnum opus and piece of idle gossip is the same beating heart. The importance of Into the Woods is in how much of life it breaks down and inspects. It sums up all of English literature as best as any book can: by looking at universal consistencies that bridge the distance between genre, culture, and time.

The way in which Yorke performs his analysis is superbly comprehensible. Impenetrable academic jargon is replaced by an assortment of easy-to-understand diagrams littered throughout every neatly-divided chapter. I’ll confess that, despite spending a good portion of my degree labouring through plays and novels, I much prefer images to blocks of text. Middlemarch makes my eyes glaze over and I find Ulysses most useful as a door stop. Seeing rather than reading about the cyclical story structure of Harry Potter or the character development in Thelma and Louise made it that much easier to appreciate how a variety of different narrative elements overlap and interact to bring each other to a harmonious resolution. More concern for making structural analysis accessible is shown in the vast array of examples from pop culture that Yorke uses: while the classics are certainly discussed (after all, no book about literature would be complete without mentioning the sacred Bard at least once), Into the Woods makes clear that the same narrative principles that dictate the rhythm of Hamlet also drive Coronation Street forward. The Hero, the Conflict, and the Resolution are immortal and universal. Yorke frames this in a distinctly non-judgemental manner: whether you have the most refined artistic taste in all of Oxford or eagerly wait for Love Island every year with the rest of us, it’s all the same deep down, regardless of its medium or the type of story it is telling. I can’t speak for everyone, but I find a real comfort in that. As a self-confessed connoisseur of ‘trashy’ literature, with Twilight in one hand and Star Trek fanfiction in the other, it feels good to know that even at my most low-brow, Yorke is fighting on my side to take the ‘guilt’ out of ‘guilty pleasure’.

And yet the real power of Into the Woods isn’t in how it equalises “good” stories with “bad ones” or in how eloquently it summarises the basic building blocks of all narratives, but rather in what happens after you finish it. Having read it multiple times over the last few years, I can attest that each time I set it back down on my bookshelf, it has made me into a more knowledgeable reader and more careful writer. Into the Woods is a book that I feel grateful to have read back in Year 12. It holds a place of honour on both my UCAS personal statement and my bedside table and I couldn’t be prouder to have it represent my subject. If you’ve ever wondered what in human psychology nudges us towards consuming the same narrative patterns and archetypes – or if you want to gain a better understanding of how to structure your own creative and academic writing – place your faith in Into the Woods. In what could have been a coldly clinical autopsy of tropes and required stages in plot progression, Yorke brings humour, wit, and warmth. I’ll let him say it better than I could: “Storytelling is an indispensable human preoccupation, as important to us all – almost – as breathing.” Well, Into the Woods is certainly a breath of fresh air and I’m sure that his contagious enthusiasm will infect every inquisitive student who picks it up.