Asked by the Royal Society of Literature to nominate his top 10 books for schoolchildren, Britain’s Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, has suggested Don Quixote, Ulysses, The Waste Land and Paradise Lost.
“Of course it’s a high ambition,” he told the Guardian. “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.”
Former teacher JK Rowling’s suggestions seemed all (of course) terribly commonsensical – the sorts of books you hope that everyone is still reading at some point in their school life. But she doesn’t include any poetry at all.
Philip Pullman astonished me by choosing The Magic Pudding, beloved of all small Australians. He suggests, very sensibly, a range of myths, legends, fairytales, and ballads, but he’s rather keen on Coleridge, saying that it had been a “mesmerising” experience when a “wise and far-seeing teacher had, without explaining anything about it, read it aloud to my class when I was about seven”.
I remember it as unrelenting agony, in spite of a wonderful teacher. Same goes for Milton. And I was much older than seven. I think that’s a form of child abuse, myself.
Still, Pullman does admit: “Other writers have gone for the great works of western literature on their lists. I do think it’s a little bit ambitious to expect schoolchildren to read Don Quixote and Ulysses.”
Perhaps. Just a little bit.
Some will, of course. I don’t see any reason why a 16 or 17 year-old might not enjoy The Odyssey, if it was presented the right way. Ulysses I’m not so sure about. In fact, I’ve blocked out reading it altogether.
And I’m with Motion on all the poems, although I might have added Browning for a bit of drama.
I can still recall the days in Form Five I spent reading Prufrock (and I still remember most of it) and The Wasteland. It was life-altering. We had the enormous Norton Anthology of Poetry (Donne! Marvell! Owen! Auden! Langston Hughes!) thrown at us, and I found other stuff in there I’d never have seen otherwise.
I certainly read all of Motion’s list in either school or the first year of college (when I was 17) so it’s not impossible. For some.
But of course the problem with these kinds of lists is that everyone leaps to defend the lowest common denominator: I’m sure Andrew Motion wasn’t imagining six year-olds ploughing through Paradise Lost. The argument, surely, is that all children ought to be given access and encouragement to read the breadth of English (and other) literature, without being forced to endure classmates reading Don Quixote out loud every Wednesday afternoon for an entire term. That way lies oblivion – and possibly the opposite effect to the one desired.
In defiance, Carol Sarler comes out as “one of the great unread” in The Times:
“Motion’s own list included hurdles for children such as Homer’s Odyssey, Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady and James Joyce’s Ulysses … if we are to give Mr Motion the benefit of all doubt and believe that he honestly seeks and finds pleasure in, say, James Joyce, then I shall say this: if you want fewer adults such as me, not reading books at all, you need fewer adults like him, stuffing them up the noses of children.”
Perhaps if Motion had been asked to provide a list of the ten books most likely to encourage kids to read, and keep reading, he might have chosen differently. So, perhaps the question ought to have been: which classic, familiar books can introduce young readers to literature and history (and not turn them off reading forever)?
I also note that none of these books have been written after the 60s – surely something essential has been published in the last forty years? Which reminds me, my brother told me this anecdote about Joseph Heller:
A journalist asked him why he hadn’t ever written another book as good as Catch 22.
Heller replied, “Who has?”
Anyway, here are the lists:
Wuthering Heights Emily Bronte«
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Roald Dahl
Robinson Crusoe Daniel Defoe
David Copperfield Charles Dickens
Hamlet William Shakespeare
To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee
Animal Farm George Orwell
The Tale of Two Bad Mice Beatrix Potter
The Catcher in the Rye JD Salinger
Catch-22 Joseph Heller
Finn Family Moomintroll Tove Jansson
Emil and the Detectives Erich Kastner
The Magic Pudding Norman Lindsay
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Where the Wild Things Are Maurice Sendak
‘The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens’ (or other good anonymous ballads)
First Book of Samuel, Chapter 17 (the story of David and Goliath)
Romeo and Juliet William Shakespeare
A good collection of myths and legends
A good collection of fairytales
The Odyssey Homer
Don Quixote Miguel de Cervantes
Hamlet William Shakespeare
Paradise Lost John Milton
Lyrical Ballads Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth
Jane Eyre Charlotte Bronte
Great Expectations Charles Dickens
Portrait of a Lady Henry James
Ulysses James Joyce
The Waste Land TS Eliot
Here’s mine (but I’ll change my mind in a few hours):
If This Is A Man
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Pride and Prejudice
For Whom the Bell Tolls
The Little Prince
The Eagle of the Ninth
(For Australian or Kiwi kids, the lists would be slightly different)
Young adults ought to be able to read The Sheltering Sky, Brideshead Revisited, I, Claudius, and Ragtime.
Damn – now I’ll be making lists in my head all night.