On reading and ‘classics’

  Ok, I’ve always been a bit of a rebel and I’ve never really liked being told what I have to like, so whilst enjoying my Saturday lie-in this morning and scrolling through Twitter, my blood pressure became more than slightly raised when I read through this list of 100 classic books that – according to the government – our young people should be reading. 

https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-classic-books-in-schools-initiative-launched

Now, it seems to me, having worked in education for nearly 15 years, that the problem isn’t the books that young people are reading, but that increasingly they are not reading at all. Dropping The Mayor of Casterbridge in front of little Freddy from the rough estate up from the road and telling him that he will surely love reading now he has access to the classics, is absurdity at it’s finest. I don’t want children to love the classics, I just want them to read and most of all I want them to enjoy what they are reading. And what makes something ‘classic’ anyway? Is number one that it should be written in the 18th or 19th century?

I’ll admit it, very few of those 100 books do it for me, and shock horror, I haven’t actually read all of them. I really shouldn’t be allowed to teach English at all. And yet I am a voracious reader, I’ve always loved books and have read thousands upon thousands of them. As a child, visiting the library on a Saturday morning was the ultimate in happiness. I’ve lived and loved through the characters I have met in books and the places I have visited. 

But most of my favourite books were written after 1940 and, even more shock horror, not all by Brits. I vividly remember sobbing when reading Stephen King’s, The Shining because I was so utterly scared. The Catcher in The Rye, On The Road and One Hundred Years of Solitude are in my top 5 – none are written by Brits. 

Young people today, through no fault of their own, live in a society that has become so technologically advanced that it can be noisy. What do they naturally do to block out the noise? They only pick out the bits they want to. Whether it be Xbox games, Snapchat, Facebook, whatever, they spend their time concentrating on the bits they want to and block out the rest. It’s leaving them with a weaker contextual knowledge of the world, ironic considering that access to anything they want is at their fingertips. But it’s how they survive. 

So, somewhere along the line, reading has gone by the wayside. Not all children don’t read, there are some fabulous books out there for young people (just see The Carnegie shortlist each year) and they sell, so kids are reading them. 
But it is becoming a battle for English teachers everywhere and the battle will not be won by slinging a 150 year old classic at them. 

I want children to read, but I want them to read what they want to read. Like I did, I want them to read books so that they can travel around the world, meet new people, be inspired, become tolerant and learn how to fall madly in love. And I want them to do that in their own way, with characters and scenarios they can relate to. 

Ultimately, I want them to read do they can survive in life and so that when they need to escape from this world, they can pick up a book that can take them to somewhere where they will always feel loved and happy. 

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