Book clinic: what can I read to look cultured when I go to Cambridge?

Zadie Smith and Martin Amis will give you something interesting to contribute to any conversation

Q: What books should I read before I start university? I am going to Cambridge and don’t want to seem uncultured compared with all the posh people!
Post-A-level student

A: Johanna Thomas-Corr, critic and writer, writes:
As someone who was intimidated by all the private-school kids at my university, I wish I had known what they seemed to know: that essays needn’t be a chore. Martin Amis’s latest collection, The Rub of Time, covers everything from John Travolta and porn to Donald Trump and Princess Diana and displays the kind of brainy swagger that you’ll encounter a lot. Or try Feel Free, a collection of thought experiments by state-school student and Cambridge wonderkid Zadie Smith about Renaissance art, Jay-Z, climate change and Prince’s dance moves. She makes thinking fun.

To my mind, Colson Whitehead is writing some of the most adventurous, mind-expanding fiction of any living author. His genre-bending, Pulitzer-prizewinning novel about slavery, The Underground Railroad will make you think anew about the way our society is structured.

If you want to feel more worldly, get hold of Tim Marshall’s book Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps that Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics, one of the most accessible and thought-provoking books about how geography shapes ideology. It will give you something interesting to contribute to almost any conversation.

You might also dip into Engines of Privilege: Britain’s Private School Problem by David Kynaston and Francis Green if you need some empirical data about how unjust our education system is.

And I’d beg you to read The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst, one of the most perfect novels of the 21st century. It’s about the perils of trying too hard to ingratiate yourself with the upper classes. Always be yourself, because if you don’t, you’ll only waste years later on trying to unpick a false and limiting identity. Work hard, have fun and don’t let anyone make you feel you’re an impostor.

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Johanna Thomas-Corr

The GuardianTramp

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