Classics Cannot Be Compulsory

Children ‘should read classics’

Children should be made to read classic literature by Dickens, Shakespeare and Joyce, according to authors such as JK Rowling and Philip Pullman.

The writers were among those asked by the Royal Society of Literature’s RSL magazine to name 10 books children should read before leaving school.

Poet laureate Andrew Motion picked such challenging works as Paradise Lost, The Odyssey and James Joyce’s Ulysses.

But Nick Hornby was one of several authors who refused to take part.

“I used to teach in a comprehensive school and I know from experience that many children are not capable of reading the books I wanted them to read,” he said.

“I think any kind of prescription of this kind is extremely problematic.”

Rowling’s list includes such classic works as Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe and David Copperfield by Charles Dickens.

She also recommends such 20th century novels as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger and Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.

Pullman’s selections included a range of children’s books, among them Emil and the Detectives and Where the Wild Things Are.

But he also includes Romeo and Juliet, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Coleridge and the First Book of Samuel, Chapter 17 (the story of David and Goliath).

‘Cultural vandalism’

Andrew Motion’s heavyweight list also includes Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady and Shakespeare’s Hamlet – which also features on Rowling’s list.

“I see no intrinsic reason why children shouldn’t read these works,” he told the Guardian.

“I find it maddening that these books should be dismissed as elitist. That way cultural vandalism lies.”

The poet Wendy Cope joined Hornby in refusing the task, while novelist Ben Okri chose to contribute a 10-point list instead.

His advice to children includes: “Read the books your parents hate” and: “Read the world – it’s the most mysterious book of all.”

Other authors polled include the former Children’s Laureate Anne Fine and the biographer Victoria Glendinning.

I’m with Nick Hornby on this one. I’ve learnt literature for SPM and STPM, and though I was at the age where I could be compelled to learn something I don’t particularly want to, I did not enjoy it as much as I do with leisure reading and am turned off those texts for life, with few as exceptions. Imagine how much more trouble a teacher faces with younger children!

The only compromise I can come up with is this: in the variety of texts students are exposed to in literature or English classes, only 1 out of 3 texts can be a classic. Only advanced literature classes can make their syllabus consist fully of classics, but there should also be a literature class specially for contemporary fiction that children may enjoy, to cater to students who aren’t so literally inclined yet have some sort of interest. In the long-term, reading classics can be cultivated.

What do you think?

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Linda
    Jul 18, 2007 @ 03:56:05

    I wonder what kind of a reader I would be if I had to *reflect* on every book I read in school. This is my personal ax to grind. Kids need to select, reject or embrace any literature that they can.

    I just loved to read as a kid. I think I might have hated it if I had to always keep a response journal.

    Please post on my blog when you get your new url.

    nylusmilk: i’m glad you feel the same way as i do, because i feel strongly about it too!

    okay, will do that. thanks. 🙂

    Reply

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