Sunday, 31 January 2016

The ten books every child should read before leaving school (or why I hate English Literature revisited)

"These are the ten books every child should read before they leave school". So proclaims the headline of yet another attempt to create a new canon - this time by the time-honoured process of surveying 500 English teachers. This list (with the possible exception of Harry Potter) is unsurprising - the obvious couple of George Orwell books, Catcher in the Rye, To Kill A Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, Of Mice and Men, some stuff by Dickens and the godawful Pride and Prejudice (or Gold Diggers of 1815 as I like to call it).

It really is time these teachers got out from under their obsession with Dickens, Austen and 20th century American literature (almost all of which is much better in film than prose). And chose a different, more interesting, relevant and challenging set of texts for children to read. Is it any surprise that people are turned off reading for pleasure if the dreary existence of Lennie Small is rammed down their throats at school. I can't think of a less relevant book to a 14 year old Pakistani girl in Bradford.

And the same goes for the rest - again with the possible exception of Harry Potter. What we haven't got here is any literature that presses the sorts of button that film and TV are pressing in the minds of modern British children. And it shows, which is the worst failing of English literature as a subject, the sad narrowness of the way it's taught. So here's a two-fingered salute to the English teachers and Simon's list of ten books every child should read before leaving school (except I don't mean it, of course):

1. Neuromancer - William Gibson's birth of cyberpunk novel, a picture of the on-line world created before we were all on-line.
2. Dune - Frank Herbert's masterpiece: want to know where the Star Wars themes came from? A pseudo-religion based on mind control, a galactic empire, good vs evil, giant worms and psychoactive drugs on which everything depends.
3. Stand on Zanzibar - John Brunner takes us to an over-populated world filled with pop-up ads, drive-by shootings, suicide bombers and dysfunctional governments
4. A good translation of Beowulf - either Tolkein's prose translation or the stunning (if less true to the text) epic poem by Seamus Heaney. This is where we come from - ur-England and we should not lose it
5. The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks explores teenage violence including the eponymous wasp factory. More contemporary than Lord of the Flies by encompassing mental illness and isolation, issues of importance to teenagers
6. The Lord of the Rings - it wasn't voted the best novel for nothing and Tolkein's great work isn't merely a fantasy. It's themes grow out from the myths and legends of Northern Europe and link to the idea of quest and the powerful message that, in the end, we all have it within us to do the extraordinary
7. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy - OK the original radio series probably sets the bar too high for later books and films but the books are funny, interesting and filled with thoughts and ideas that really do speak to modern life
8. The Man in the High Castle - Philip K Dick's alternative history is brief, telling and a great reminder that we all have in us the capacity for good and for great evil.
9. I, Robot - Isaac Asimov's best robot book (and nothing at all like the film of the same name) coins the three laws of robotics which every child should discuss and debate for it really is their future now
10. Swallows and Amazons - we've sort of forgotten about how childhood should be and, more than any other novel, Arthur Ransome's tale of kids mucking about on boats in the Lake District is the best evocation of the glory years of childhood.

You can pick your own ten or a dozen or fifty. The point here is that my list is every bit as good - no better - than the list those English teachers have churned out. I think it would be great if every child read these books but I know that some would be hated - as I hate Pride and Prejudice - by young people forced to read them or told that this stuff they don't like is what we mean by "good literature". I'm sure that your list might feature a different emphasis - urban grit, mystery, romance or whimsy. There's no right answer and what we should be doing is hoping that every child reaches 18 having created their own list of ten fantastic books that really mean something, that they'll bore their own children about and maybe write up in indulgent blog posts.

Get reading folks!



Frank Davis said...

Wasp, by Eric Frank Russell

Brown on Resolution by C.S. Forester.

Alison Wilson said...

Oh man, you read my sort of books! I like every one on your list.

We were made to read Lord of the Flies at school. I hated it. I never connected with Dickens or Austen. Thankfully neither did our English teacher.

In my Higher Exam (Scottish exam system) I reviewed Brave New World and rubbished it as poor SF. I stuck up for Clarke and Asimov. I'm not sure I agree with my 16-year old self, but I must have made a good argument as they gave me an A. Then I did science rather than arts or language at Uni as it's less subjective. You know where you are with science and maths. I still read lots of novels, but still dislike many of the classics.

Anonymous said...

Everything by Hermann Hesse.

Somerset Maugham short stories.


Dr Evil said...

I like your list. Also Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Of course this will all be dismissed as non-literature by sniffy English teachers who read all their old fashioned crappy books at university. Pride and Predjudice is very dull and rather boringly written.

Jon Dennis said...

I always thought it was pretty amazing that educationalists would conclude that the best way to fire an enthusiasm for reading in the young would be to give them reading material for which the vast majority would probably have no affinity whatsoever. I guess they spent all their time thinking about the literature and little or none thinking about the kids.

It would be better, I suggest, to get the kids to read stuff they might actually like in the expectation that greater numbers would become independent readers and have some grounds to hope that a reasonable proportion would also go on to read some of the material they are currently cramming down their throats.

asquith said...

Living in Stoke, I think children here (and perhaps elsewhere, but especially in the "Five Towns"(of which there are actually six, but that's another story) should read Arnold Bennett. It teaches about the history of the city, and requires some imagination to imagine how our great-grandparents lived, a life that was in the same geographic but half the buildings don't exist and the culture entirely vanished.

It really brings history to life, Darius Clayhanger leaving the Liberal Club and joining the conservative club ("And I reckon I'm not the only one, these days") brought home how angry a lot of people who had been pillars of the Victorian Liberal Party gradually became even before 1914.

In most places there are local authors, town and country, I'm sure there are a load in Yorkshire. Would it not be possible for them to be either on the curriculum or vaguely encouraged in their places?

Joshua said...

I'm not sure that the stories of Lord of the Rings and Hitchhikers bear much resemblance to the life of a fourteen-year Pakistani girl in Bradford either, but it really doesn't matter; good literature should be able to speak to people without demographic pandering. In fact, literature that does try to be 'relevant' is almost invariably awful, or at best short-lived.

I think a lot of this comes down to taste; I found Lord of the Rings pretty hard-going to read, much as I love the films. And many people are turned off by science-fiction, however well-written.

I'm not averse to a greater diversity of literature in the curriculum, but the books that persist on English syllabuses do generally have something going for them. I didn't love Lord of the Flies, but it's a very well-crafted novel.