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.