A simple question

On the next pages you’ll find a question that one of Pembroke’s English Fellows, Dr Joanna Bellis, set our third year English students early in 2012. It sounds like a simple kind of question, and just the kind that you might expect to face in an admissions test. She asks her students to ‘Compare and contrast the following discussions of words and books’.

But that very simplicity also stands at the threshold of some tough challenges.  Some lie in the question itself: being asked to ‘compare and contrast the following discussions of words and books’ sounds dauntingly open. Some lie in the discussions – two densely argued and frankly difficult seventeenth century examples of English prose.  Have a look at them now if you want, but then remember to click back here before you read them, ideally at speaking pace (letting words sound in your head, establishing a rhythm as they do so, often solves problems of punctuation and spelling). And some challenges lie in the fact that the students were given only an hour and ten minutes to answer this question. How on earth would anyone – how on earth might you – set about answering this?

Don’t worry. You don’t have to, yet, though of course you might decide you might want to. But our third year students did. In the next pages you’ll find an essay by one of them, written, as an answer to this question, under those timed conditions.  It’s an example of undergraduate critical practice at its best. But before you read it, here are some thoughts on how to approach an answer to such question for yourself.

Next page: Some thoughts towards an answer

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