The Two Most Useful Books & Apps for Eng Lit Students

National Library of Wales – Reading Room

Some of us really do love the idea of libraries and their endless rows of books. Take the National Library of Wales, for instance, with its cavernously inspirational reading room, and when you need a breath of fresh air, uplifting views of Cardigan Bay – it’s hard not to feel one is on the very tip of Mount Parnassus in such a location. There’s something enthralling about piles of books. 

But we’re also loving a more minimalist aesthetic, which declutters and is portable, saves the trees, and in these straightened times, offers value for money. Bookish and fusty or slick and a bit too Steve Jobs-ish? Your reluctant columnist sets out answer the question – app or book?

Chris Baldick’s Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms was the most useful book I ever bought for my own A level studies, and probably for my degree. I have yet to discover which pupil I lent this great book to (it was at my current school) but it’s one of the few books which I’ve missed. Hundreds of terms are explained, clearly and succinctly, and examples given. Readers are introduced to much more than useful terms for slinging into essays in the vain hope of impressing examiners; I also found it really helps to explain much literary theory in simple, easy to follow ways. As a book, I was amazed to discover that it’s available at just £5.99 on Amazon (a snitch – I paid more for it in 1991 though was even more amazed to find my edition is now worth £31 second hand – give it back whoever has it!) The iPhone app version is £8.49.  App or book? Well, for portability, the app wins hands down. It has a very simple interface and is easily navigated but it could have done with being a bit more like Wikipedia, perhaps with random ‘terms of the day’ or similar. It’s based on the premise that users will be primarily looking up specific terms, which I certainly wasn’t always doing. So for hours of browsing and really wanting to learn about a subject, get the book. Keep it by your desk or bed and read! (NB the app is marketed as the ‘Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms’ – it’s actually based on the Concise edition.)

App Score – 6/10 (could be better designed; great information).

Book score – 10/10

Either way, the concise edition will do fine, including for university level.


The Oxford Companion to English Literature really is authoritative and wins over the convoluted, overly detailed entries in Wikipedia hands down. Newly updated, the seventh edition is edited by Dinah Birch. Kept by a desk, it’s almost as good as the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. It’s especially useful if you are poor at remembering the names of characters, require a considered introduction to an author or want a plot summary. Again, the app has a number of problems. Browsing is not encouraged by the design – it’s much more about searching for particular entries. So if you have the space, the book is best (and it’s more comprehensive) but on price the app wins – £8.49 for the app, but a wapping £35 (reduced to £20 on Amazon) for the book. That said, bear in mind that the app is based on an older concise (and therefore shorter) edition.

App score – 7/10.

Book score – 9/10 (sorry but the price is a bit steep!).

The book version will see you through your degree; the app through your A levels.