Middle son is 14 and likes to read on holiday. Since he was little, he’s enjoyed reading favourite books over and over again, hence Harry Potter’s series was read 15 times over, and The Lord of the Rings and His Dark Materials received similar treatment. He reads books to a pulp. But this summer, he did something new – he asked me to choose some books he might like. I felt a little sense of dread as I looked at my bookshelf. Get it right and he’d trust my judgement, get it wrong and the Hunger Games would come in for its tenth reread. Unlike Michael Gove, I don’t really care if my child is reading Twilight or Middlemarch, but I do care that they read – not to add lists to a future university application, but so their futures are filled with the pleasure that books can bring. So I looked at the shelves, and then rang eldest son.
Eldest son is/was a voracious reader but unlike his brother, raced through to the next book as fast as he could. Reading for him was like a competitive sport – he wanted to have read as many as possible and was less likely to fall in love with one. Still, I figured he’d be more in tune with the taste of his brother. ‘Catcher in the Rye’ he said without hesitation, so that went in the bag. I knew middle kid liked the film ‘Life of Pi’ and reading the book might appeal to his tendency to repeat, so that went in too. He thought Twilight was ‘alright’ so linking to the vampire theme, I added ‘The Historian’ and then on a whim, ‘The Kite Runner’. He loved them all and each one opened up discussions over Greek salads and souvlaki about the many more books he might read. He’s looking forward to John Irving, Harper Lee, Jane Austen (on his brother’s recommendation, not mine) and Amy Tan. Few of these books would appear on a literature canon, but they’ve been chosen for HIM, based on what he has enjoyed and themes he has engaged with. And so this is what I learned…
Reading is like spinning a web – things connect. It turns out that one of the things he enjoyed was learning about other places – India, Istanbul, Afghanistan and what life is/was like there. So I can now recommend all sorts of books which are set in other countries and cultures. He liked the first person narrative style of The Catcher in the Rye, so I can recommend books with similar voices. His canon will link to his interests and it may be that this crosses over to the classics. But choices will be personal and linked to what he has enjoyed so far. This is how readers are created. One thing leads to another.
And this is why I resist and will continue to resist the idea that some books should be read by everyone. Because we all have different webs and it makes the world a more interesting place. By all means let’s introduce children to great literature, but let’s do so by finding their individual ways in. Let them personalise their web; find their connection. The result is that when they’re grown, you can argue over whether Lear or Hamlet is greater, whether Anne trumps Charlotte or whether Pip or Nicholas captured our hearts. We can have these discussions because we had the freedom to find our favourites, not have the same texts thrust upon us. Our literary heritage will be very much poorer if we reduce our children’s reading to prescribed lists of recommended texts; creating straight paths rather than a web. There’s something very controlling about that. We need, in schools, to find out what makes children tick and find books that feed their interests. We need to know the children. And we, as adults, need to read and read widely so that recommendations can flow.
This is one thing I learned on holiday.