YOU MIGHT HAVE seen that list compiled by the BBC a few years ago, listing 100 ‘must-read’ books. I think I managed a mere eleven or twelve, which, needless to say, made me feel horribly uncultured and a questionable advocate of the English language. Then again, I wonder how many you’ve actually read – or lied about having read – or your friends have read, your parents, or even your English teacher. I hope Miss Taylor doesn’t hate me for not having got round to reading Memoirs of a Geisha just yet, or the Bible (which also features on the list).
Perched comfortably and unsurprisingly in the list is To Kill a Mockingbird, a book I would have sashayed past in Waterstones until it featured as part of my GCSEs. Resting there on my bedside table, nagging to be read and appreciated over the summer holidays, absorbed and interpreted for imminent exams made me resent it. To say I enjoyed reading the book at the time is perhaps a little too strong; I tolerated it for the sake of my education. I found the plot slow and fairly uneventful, going round in circles before tailing off into diluted dénouements. Six years on, I am glad to say I read To Kill a Mockingbird. Really glad. I would probably have gone through life without knowing the life and work of Atticus Finch if I hadn’t and, from an exam point of view, it threw up countless social and moral issues embedded in otherwise ordinary characters and goings-on, all of which still ring true today. Yet this week the Education Secretary Michael Gove has announced that the American classics will be ‘banned’ from syllabuses in favour of British authors, and I have mixed feelings.
Firstly, I don’t like the idea of ‘banning’ any kind of book. Smoking is ‘banned’. The rumours of Gove’s leaning towards the florid worlds of Dickens and Austen are logical in fostering British literary pride, but really, are they the way forward in getting hormonally-ravaged 15-year-olds to read?
At the same time even at the time of my GCSEs I wondered why we, British students, were studying either TKAM or Of Mice and Men, two great American classics. I wondered why, in a country with arguably the greatest literary heritage in the world, we were reading and analysing the literary cornerstones of our American cousins, and not our own. It’s not that I don’t like the fact that American literature is featured as part of the course – it is, after all, a fine example of the English language. What I don’t like is that for the largest part of the syllabus (the novel), the contributions of British authors and writers seem overlooked. Introducing teenagers to the issues raised in To Kill a Mockingbird is by no means a bad thing, but what’s wrong with the eerily-accurate interpretations of modern life in Burgess’ or Orwell’s works? Or the powerful characters of Woolf and du Maurier? Or, if we fast forward to more recent times, the idea of being an outcast in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time?
Perhaps I should stop complaining. Perhaps I should be grateful that schoolchildren are still made to analyse works of fiction in their exams and not the Twitter feed of Paris Hilton.