You HAVE to Read This

The importance of reading, and ideas of what should be read, have changed a hell of a lot since I was young. Blogger Benjamin Brum took off from an article by a policy maker about how much kids should be reading by the time they’re 11, and posted his personal list of what you should have read by the time you’re 18. Out of his list of 50 books, I’m unfamiliar with almost half of them (or with their authors). A lot of that ignorance is simply a matter of generations. They simply weren’t around when I was young. But I have a feeling that many of them won’t be around in another generation or two.

More important, as a sign of change, is that even with some classics like 1984, Brave New World, and Pride and Prejudice sprinkled in there, the list seems to be predominantly books for children and young adults. If this is the current standard for literacy by the age of 18, we’re in trouble. By 18, I had read complete sets of Mark Twain, Jack London, Edgar Allan Poe, and the complete works of Shakespeare. I’d also read all the major works by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, a good chunk of other Russian greats, and most of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. Of course I didn’t neglect the enormous swashbucklers like the Count of Monte Cristo, and my reading cut a wide swathe across English and European literature.

More important still, is that none of those books were assigned reading. I read for pleasure, starting with the ample library my parents provided and went on to plunder the shelves of the public library as soon as I was allowed into the adult section. I realize my appetite for books was unusual, even back before television and the internet, and I certainly wouldn’t set myself up as a model. But what passes for basic literacy today is scary. Just as most of our young people know practically nothing about other nations, they know practically none of the classics or the literature of other nations.

It shouldn’t be necessary to set up lists of books that should be read by this or that age, or before you die. The fact that there are such lists, and a lot of them, tells us two things. 1. That people need to be told what to read. 2. That most of what’s considered important to read these days is ephemeral, easy to get through, easy to absorb, easy to forget.


6 thoughts on “You HAVE to Read This

  1. I did point out in my post that the list was a personal suggestion and wasn’t complete or meant to be definitive.

    Children should be encouraged to read. Good stuff, bad stuff, rubbish, pot boilers and classics. I offered the list to stimulate discussion and most of my choices were books that have meant something to me. If you asked me to write a list to hand to Michael Gove to use in schools, then I’d probably write a different list.

    Also, I didn’t expect my post to get Freshly Pressed. The response has been overwhelming and wonderful. People from around the world have chipped in with their ideas, provocations and memories of being a child reader.

    1. I hope you didn’t think my post was critical of you, personally. Your list is similar, not in the specifics, but in the type of books, to a lot I’ve seen, so it’s representative of the trend over the last 50 years or so.

  2. Oh, Catana, things are different now. When you and I were kids, you either sat at the kiddie table or the big table. Besides, if we told the truth, part of the reason that you and I hung out at the public library and read the classics was because we didn’t have a cryin’ dime in our pockets. Nowadays, kids have prepaid Visa cards. Supply and demand.

    After my first babysitting job, I bought fingernail polish, Vampirella comics and Mad Magazines. 🙂

    1. So true about the dime. Once I was old enough to go downtown on my own, I discovered the dark, dusty, creepy second-hand store on a back street that probably wasn’t the safest place for me to be. But they had books! Cheap! I never recovered from that.

  3. I have to admit we have ficotin reading lists at our school which is in sections – one half to support the curriculum the other divided into genres and covering a range of styles and includes the classics. They are merely a guide. Many children feel a little lost once their favourite series finishes.
    I don’t much care what they read as long as they READ (hard porn, etc excluded). That’s the crunch point. I don’t care if it’s fiction or non-fiction, paperback, newspaper or magazine. It matters not if it is made of paper or electronic – the important thing is to create the love of the written word. Once they have that there’s very little to stop them.

    1. I wish I could believe that once kids are hooked on reading, they’ll expand their tastes. But a lot of what I see on the web says it doesn’t always happen. I’ve seen too many posts, discussions, etc., that tell me otherwise. A lot of young writers started with fantasy, write fantasy, and are completely unfamiliar with anything else. For most people, reading is nothing more than entertainment, so they have no motivation to seek out anything that will challenge them or expand their knowledge. The number of books being sold is presented as evidence that people are reading. Well, yes they are. So why do we have a population that’s ignorant of science, ignorant of what’s going on in the world outside their own environment? Books aren’t much more than an adjunct to TV.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s