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!