Readers of Spotlight may remember being invited in 2018 to send in their favourite excerpts from literature that they enjoyed studying here at Oxford and perhaps from more recent reading as well. You responded with diverse selections from over 2000 years of literatures in English (the old phrase "Beowulf to Virginia Woolf" hardly covers it!). We thank you warmly for your wonderful suggestions, and we thought you might like an update on LitHits, the project behind that invitation.
LitHits was founded by Faculty member Professor Kirsten Shepherd-Barr in order to bring literature to general readers in ways that fit in with their lives—whether a commuter in transit or someone waiting at the doctor’s office, a teenage reader intimidated by the length or perceived difficulty of novels, a once-eager adult reader who can't find the time for a book, or someone who just wants a bit of guidance through the dense thickets of literary history. LitHits gives you a brief, unabridged excerpt from a work of literature, introduced by 2-3 sentences setting the scene and allowing you to dive right in to the text. This light-touch curation is at the heart of the project and connects directly with the Faculty’s expertise across the whole of literatures in English. The LitHits app simply asks readers how much time they have to read (in increments of minutes) and what they are in the mood for reading, then provides a selection of passages to choose from, instantly delivered to your phone, tablet, or other device.
LitHits takes on two great bogeymen of the digital age: cynically-used book-sales algorithms and flash-in-the-pan hashtag discourse (or ‘doomscrolling’). In their place, the app offers free and unexpected literary discoveries, and a rich reading experience that turns on just a page or two of text. Our database of curated excerpts now spans over 250 ‘hits’, ranging from 2-30 minute reads. Some have been recently featured on our related project, The Ten-Minute Book Club (https://www.english.ox.ac.uk/ten-minute-book-club), which was coordinated by Dr Alexandra Paddock with input from colleagues in the Faculty.
Launched in 2020, it has shown us that users love encountering literature in this curated, ready-to-read format while preserving the integrity of the text. For the Ten-Minute Book Club, the weekly selections represented the temporal and thematic range as well as the diversity of work taught within our Faculty curriculum.
This meant that readers were introduced (or re-introduced) to such works as Katherine Mansfield's The Fly, Elizabeth Keckley's Behind the Scenes, and James Joyce's Ulysses alongside curatorial notes contributed by Faculty members. The selections on TMBC reflected the commitment to diversity and inclusivity within both LitHits and the Faculty, in innovative, cross-period ways. Resources for the Ten-Minute Book Club were created by Great Writers Inspire, Writers Make Worlds, and LitHits, supported by the Faculty of English and the Humanities Division.
LitHits also explored new ways of connecting to potential readers last summer when we participated in two weeks of micro-internships arranged through the university's Careers Service. Dr Daniel Abdalla, Dr Paddock, and Prof Shepherd-Barr worked with current BA and MSt students who were passionate about reading, technology, diversity, and access. These students helped to enhance our library of excerpts and further develop some of our current capabilities; they also helped us to see new possibilities that would incorporate aspects of audiobooks and even AI to help scale rapidly the time-consuming process of human curation. Previously, in 2019, we had a similarly productive experience working with a group of MBA students at the Saïd Business School who, as part of their final-year project work, helped us develop our business plan and carry out market research.
We have been fortunate to be able to work with such enthusiastic, creative students across a wide range of fields and interests, united in their love of literature and commitment to outreach, diversity, and access.
In 2020, LitHits received a Highly Commended award in the Inspiring Leadership category of the Vice-Chancellor’s Humanities Innovation awards. The core LitHits team consists of Prof Shepherd-Barr, Dr Paddock (DPhil in English '17); David Gilbey (CEO); and Dr Abdalla (DPhil in English '21). Initially supported by university innovation seed funding via Oxford University Innovation, the project is currently working to attract investment to finish building the LitHits app and launch it on Google Play and the App Store.
We would welcome any suggestions about fundraising, as well as further suggested excerpts to add to our library. We have also begun generating a weekly newsletter showcasing ‘hits’ from our library—you can subscribe to the newsletter. In the longer term, we hope to benefit the Faculty by generating income to support activities such as innovation projects, outreach and access, and postgraduate scholarships.
If you would like to know more about our work or get in touch with us, please do visit our website at https://lithits.web.ox.ac.uk or feel free to email us: email@example.com.
By Daniel Abdalla, Alexandra Paddock, and Kirsten Shepherd-Barr