Sometimes, writing a blog post, I can hear the faint tapping of keyboards all over the country, rattling out similar words in response to the same story. Today more than ever, I know that this will be just one post among thousands: what topic more likely to provoke handwringing from the literary-inclined than apparent restrictions on the books studied by young people?
This morning’s headline, that American books are being axed from the English Literature GCSE syllabus – on the basis that they are “really disliked” by Michael Gove, apparently – caused uproar on Twitter. Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye are among those to go, making space for more 19th century and earlier British (English?) classics.
Where to start? Not by defending Austen, Dickens, Shakespeare, Hardy, who fill my bookshelves now but with which even I – reader and bookworm par excellence (may I use French?) struggled at school. Nor by eulogising Salinger or Steinbeck, nearly ruined for me for ever by a Black Country teacher who, taking us through The Pearl, talked of “Jooooarna” till I could hardly bear to read it any more. None of them need my defence or my eulogies.
So no, it’s not the books themselves, it’s the narrowing of options that this approach seems to suggest. What are books, after all, but fragments of another’s mind? Thoughts, ideas, dreams; culture, history, geography: whole other worlds and ways of being which the reader can’t help but absorb while being drawn along by the simple pull of wanting to know what happens next.
A few months ago, with my children in Waterstones as they spent their Christmas book tokens, I heard another mother demanding that the assistant find books for her daughter whose reading age was two or three years above her actual age. She refused to countenance any of the books on the shelves which were nominally for 8 or 9 year olds. Her daughter was “past” them, apparently. She needed to move on to something harder, more advanced. She needed to progress. What matter that she might have enjoyed the younger books, might have learned something from them that she’ll never come across again?
Gove’s approach seems to echo this, to aim at a hierarchy of literature; a pyramid with just a few books at the very top. How can there possibly be a “best” of books? It suggests that once you’ve read those few, once you’ve ticked them off your list, you’re done with literature. You’ve mastered the pinnacle of all it has to offer. Why bother any more?
“But”, I hear the supporters of Gove saying (always supposing that they would forget themselves sufficiently to start a sentence in that way) “you are arguing that one book is as good as another! You and your relativism are condemning a generation of children to mediocrity! You are patronising swathes of young people by asserting that they aren’t bright enough to read the most outstanding works of literature ever written!”. To which I would reply, without too much regard to the conventions of rhetoric, “Bullshit”.
Of course I do not hold of equal value the interminable Flower Fairies books which my daughter happily seems to be outgrowing and the works of George Eliot. Of course I don’t believe that modern children are too thick to appreciate the beauty and complexity of the great nineteenth century writers. I would never suggest that they shouldn’t study them, just that this study should always be in the context of a broader curriculum. The point is that reading isn’t a competition, and certainly not a race. Books - to bowdlerise a cliche – should be for life, and education – in language and literature – should be about opening the door to that wonderful world to young people. It should be about leaving it ajar, not trying to shoehorn them through it and then bolting it forever in their face if they find that they don’t fit.
It’s important to show children how wonderful books can be. It’s important to get them reading. More important than either, though, is trying not to stop them. Tell children that “reading” means only one particular (and particularly inaccessible) type of book, and you are telling them, if they don’t enjoy it, that reading is not for them. Widening the syllabus to take in works of different styles and from different times does not equate to dumbing down, it helps young people to grasp that words and thoughts are not restricted to a kind of person they fear they’ll never be. That’s something which goes beyond exams, politics and the school gates altogether.