Education secretary Michael Gove thinks children should read 50 books a year. What a strange thing to say!
The obvious points have mostly all been made. Alan Garner, quite rightly, questions the advisability of “turning books into numbers”. Also, many can’t help wondering why this minister who wants children to read more is part of a government that is closing down public libraries. True, I personally have grave doubts about the current state of our public libraries, but if one’s aim is to promote literacy amongst children, restoring them rather than closing them down might have seemed more reasonable. (Although, to equivocate somewhat on the point, I can’t help wondering why it is that all those kids I see flaunting expensive mobile phones should plead poverty only when it comes to buying books.)
But at least we have an education secretary who recognises the importance of reading whole books, from cover to cover: in a time when children can apparently gain GCSEs in English by reading merely a few excerpts recommended by the National Curriculum, and without having read a single book from cover to cover, the recognition of reading entire books is welcome. But, as Philip Pullman asks, where are they going to get all these books from? Buying 50 books a year does add up in terms of cost.
Philip Pullman believes – I think rightly – that children should be encouraged to read all kinds of books, including “rubbish”; but he adds the vital condition that this “can only happen when there are plenty of good books as well”. Yes, quality does matter. For, if we are serious about teaching literature to children, we have to teach them of the heights that literature can achieve – indeed, the heights that literature already has achieved. Otherwise, what’s the point? Of course I wouldn’t want to deprive any child of the Beano annual. (Although, given my own regard for the Beano, I certainly wouldn’t class the Beano annual as “rubbish” – quite the contrary: given the choice between the Beano annual and some piece of classic tweeness such as the Beatrix Potter tales, or such execrable tomes as The Secret Garden or Little Lord Fauntleroy, I certainly know not merely where my own preferences lie, but also where one may find the greater aesthetic satisfaction.) But I digress. To return: I wouldn’t dream of depriving any child of the Beano annual; and neither would I want to deprive any child of real rubbish, such as those awful teen vampire novels that seem to be flooding the children’s shelves these days. By all means, let the children read whatever they want, short of pornography. But unless children also come into contact with the best that literature has to offer, it is hard to see how they can ever come to know its true value. And what is the point of teaching literature if children never come to know that?
Some time ago, when various worthies were asked what books they feel children should read at school, the then Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, selected a list of ten titles representing some of the very highest peaks of Western literature. (Or, rather, he picked nine such titles, plus Jane Eyre, which, enjoyable though it is, and even rather fine at certain points, does seem to me to sit rather uneasily in such company.) Motion was much ridiculed for this at the time, I remember. Does he really expect children to read such books? Does he have any idea of what it is like in the classroom, with teachers struggling to impart basic literacy to children? And we got also the usual unthinking penny-in-the-slot criticism: “Motion is merely showing off.” Of course, for a Poet Laureate and biographer of Keats to show off his literary erudition is a bit like a brain surgeon showing off his expertise in brain surgery: it is somewhat superfluous at best. And why Motion, or anyone else, should want to show off erudition in a society in which erudition is generally derided rather than admired remains uncertain. But one cannot these days so much as mention one’s love of serious literature without at least someone somewhere reckoning that one is merely “showing off”, so I suppose one has to live with it.
But Motion’s intent in making this choice seems clear. Being a chap who is rather good with words, he explains himself better than I possibly could:
“Of course it’s a high ambition,” he said. “But I see no intrinsic reason why children shouldn’t read these works. They are wonderful, profoundly democratic works of art, but because some of them have a reputation as difficult they are put in a box and called elitist.
“The minute you do that, the backbone of culture is removed. We admit there is a problem at the moment with knowledge and I feel absolutely no embarrassment about naming these as sine qua nons. I find it maddening that these books should be dismissed as elitist. That way cultural vandalism lies.”
Indeed, that way cultural vandalism lies, and in the five years since he first propounded that list, we have gone even further down this road to cultural vandalism, without anyone appearing to notice or to care much even if they did. Of course, one takes Nick Hornby’s point that not all children are capable of reading such books, but to conclude from this that such books should be taught to no child seems to me a grotesque non sequitur. If one thinks that it is important to teach literature to children (and I appreciate that not everyone does), then I cannot see what possible objection there can be to teaching the best, at least to the more able pupils.
In this context, there is a rather interesting feature on The Book Show on the Sky Arts channel in which various literary guests are asked to choose a book they feel everyone under 21 ought to read. The question as posed is a poor one: there is no book everyone should read, even if everyone were to have the same high ability in literary matters. But most people making this choice seem to assume that we are talking not about “everyone”, but about the ablest. And, seen in this light, it is an interesting question, as it effectively asks the guests which of their own literary values they think most worth passing on to the next generation. So it is not surprising to see here the sort of title that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Andrew Motion’s much derided list – Middlemarch, War and Peace, The Odyssey, etc.
What would be my choice for something such as this, I wonder? I think I may choose something like Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. It’s not necessarily because it’s my personal favourite novel – Bleak House, War and Peace and Ulysses are still fighting it out for that one – but because it is one of those books that demonstrate how vitally important literature can be: The Brothers Karamazov addresses directly some of the most vital issues concerning human existence – issues which, until I first read this book as a teenager myself, had never so much as occurred to me; and suddenly, I found new intellectual horizons coming into view. And it was exciting. Dostoyevsky has a wonderful ability to make ideas appear dramatic and exciting, and I realised on reading this book that intellectual enquiry need not be dull or dry. Quite the opposite.
The Brothers Karamazov also demonstrated to me that works of literature can transcend differences of time and of culture, and that, with a little expenditure of imagination on the part of the reader, the past need not be a foreign country. (And indeed, foreign countries need not be foreign countries either, for that matter.)
Finally, I think I’d like to recommend The Brothers Karamazov to bright youngsters for the perhaps rather curious reason that it is difficult. At a time when English classes seem to be fobbing off even the brightest kids with books that are easy to read, and, hence, easy to teach (that is, when pupils are compelled to read a book in its entirety in the classroom, which is not often the case), this book provides evidence that there is a profound enjoyment to be had from grappling with difficulty rather than from avoiding it. Once a bright teenager has thrilled to The Brothers Karamazov, she or he will be unlikely to be put off other books merely on the grounds that they are “heavy going”. They may even find themselves attracted to some of the titles in Andrew Motion’s list!
But sadly, we are a long way from that right now: the teaching of literature in schools remains a problematic area, mainly, I suspect, because we no longer believe that literature embodies values that are worth propagating to future generations. But if we do believe this, then we must seriously re-think how we teach literature, and why, and also, I think, what we teach. For we have come a long way down that path of cultural vandalism that Andrew Motion talked about, and if we are to find the right path again, the whole area needs seriously to be rethought. And prescribing the number of books to be read while simultaneously closing down public libraries does not strike me as indicative of any serious thinking. Or, indeed, of any thought at all.