Books | How to be an Intellectual – A Freshers Cheats' Guide

Having fraudulently claimed that you’ve read Anna Karenina and The Communist Manifesto on your UCAS, the reality of a summer void of reading has hit home. Fear not. We’ve complied a Freshers edition of our regular Cheat’s Guide feature, a sure way to impress your peers and trick them into believing you’re an intellectual. 



The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath 

Summary: A must for the emotional, frustrated artist in all of us. Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel follows 19-year-old Esther on her journey from promising New York magazine intern to depressed, suicidal psychiatric patient receiving electroshock therapy, all the time battling the patriarchal oppression rampant in 1960s America. The novel ends on her potential release, however the suffocating bell jar of madness threatens to fall again.

Your take: As you can imagine it’s not a chirpy read, so remember to make deep melancholy statements. If you want to make your tomfoolery well-rounded, or just fancy seeing Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig in the buff, I suggest watching ‘Sylvia’, a film that explores Plath’s mental state and her relationship with Ted Hughes (this is also useful for pretending to understand the poetry of Plath or Hughes).


Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Summary: Narrator Ishmael signs up for a three-year expedition hunting sperm whale in order to cure a spell of depression (apparently the ‘in’ cure of the 19th Century). Captain Ahab, whose leg was bitten off by the eponymous white whale, heads the voyage, and he forces the crew to swear they will aid Ahab in his mission to seek revenge. After over a year of sperm-whale butchery, sailing and bad omens Ahab still insists on the hunt. He’s clearly a bit crackers. Finally, Moby Dick is sighted but actually attacks the ship, bringing the whole boat down. In a desperate final attempt Ahab strikes at Moby Dick, but misses, and accidentally strangles himself with the rope. The cheery end sees the whole crew die, apart from Ishmael who survives by clinging on to a coffin.

Your take: This novel is useful in two respects. A) Anyone who can discuss a novel about sperm whales without chuckling automatically has an air of sophistication. B) The novel’s message can be applied to real life situations, for example in order to stop a friend pursuing a ridiculous love interest: “You’re going a bit Ahab over this girl/boy, stop now before you end up strangling yourself”.

war and peace 2

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Summary: Set during the Napoleonic wars, Tolstoy follows five noble families: The Bezukhovs, The Rostovs, The Bolkonskys, The Kuragins and The Drubetskoys. The families’ lives intertwine through the course of war, featuring obsession, cruelty, death, childbirth and freemasonry. In the end there are a load of marriages in the name of love and financial survival. Obviously during the 1,440 pages of the novel it’s a little more complex, but throw in some ‘-ovs’ and ‘-skys’ and you’ll be fine.

Your take: At 560,000 words, few will care what it was actually about. In order to secure your intellectual prowess, drop in the fact that you ‘read’ this book in one sitting, “I read it on a train back from Paris”. A statement like this will not only make your peers feel inferior, will get you away from the contents of the novel and your grand sense of multiculturalism.

history of sex

A History of Sexuality, Volume 1 by Michel Foucault

Summary: Foucault argues that discussions about sex have intensified over the last 300 years and that despite other cultures having treated sex as an art form, we treat it as an object of scientific investigation. He argues that there are four main focal points: the sexuality of children, women, married couples, and the sexually “perverse.” These four points have been used to infiltrate the family and society as a means of power. We think sex is the answer to ourselves, however Foucault argues that sexuality is a social construct deployed by the bourgeoisies as a means of control.

Your take: Knowledge of an obscure text is an excellent pulling tool. Be sure to keep a copy by your bed to impress possible hook-ups, with a conspicuous bookmark placed most of the way through, obviously. Rather than showcasing your sexual exploits in a game of “I have never”, explain that sex is an ars erotica (art of sensual pleasure), which is not to be examined. People will think you are mysterious and sensitive. Plus they will definitely want to have sex with you, perfectly undermining the very point of the novel itself. Get in.


Useful Tips and Tools

The vague statement: A powerful tool for the expert faux intellectual. These should be performed with a profound look of sincerity, “what a rugged novel” or “it really reached out to me, you know?”

Subject changing: Key to skirting around grey areas of your knowledge. Person A “I’m just obsessed with Virginia Woolf”, Person B “Speaking of obsession, I recently read Moby Dick…” It doesn’t matter how tenuous the link.

Wear a turtleneck: This is a fail-safe way to make your peers and tutors believe you are more intellectual and sober than you really are. A must for attending seminars whilst hungover/still drunk.

Blaming the library: You’ve been absolutely dying to read Finnegan’s Wake but some swine has still not checked it in. Gutted.


Please note: This Cheat’s Guide is by no means restricted to BA students. BSc and BEng students should employ these tips to present themselves as a double threat, and make their arts pals feel shamefully inferior.


Sammy Gooch

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