How many of us love a good read? When teaching a child to read, what are we aiming to do – equip them with a key skill for life or encourage a love of reading?
Obviously both are important. What we should be doing as teachers is encouraging a love of learning, and within that a love of reading – reading for YOU, not what others deem to be appropriate to read. The point of reading is to excite, enthral, understand and entertain. What the best fiction offers is an insight into humanity from a range of fictional characters in all manner of different settings, and sometimes this hits a chord in one person where it leaves another cold (more of this in our next post on reading). As teachers, we may choose books to read to our children, or may choose books that might be interesting for them to study, but ultimately, in the choices that we make for them, we are trying to encourage children and young people to make choices of their own, even if it’s not the choices that we might make. This is as it should be with all things, and not just reading.
“No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”
The Times Educational Supplement (TES) has released a list of the top 100 books chosen by teachers through an online survey. Most favoured on the list are the perennial tomes of “Pride and Prejudice” and “To Kill a Mocking Bird” with J.K. Rowling’s heptalogy of Harry Potter books coming in at Number 3. Other expected texts in the Top 10 are “Wuthering Heights”, “1984” and “The Hobbit”.
It’s an interesting set of books for a number of reasons. According to Gerard Kelly, the list is “a masterpiece of erudition and entertainment”. He continues to say that “it could be one of the few things that Michaels Gove and Rosen agree on.” – We wait to hear Mr Rosen’s comments on that.
Yet the list does throw up a series of questions, some of which are written here.
- How come so many staple school examination texts are in this top 20?
- Did teachers respond with their favourite book or one that they felt they ought to choose?
- Were the books chosen as ones that teachers believed that children and young people ought to read?
- What does this list say to us about what we should be offering to children and young people?
- What is the difference between reading a book and knowing a story?
- Would a poll of 16-18 year olds arrive at the same list of books?
- What is it that makes a good book?
- Why do we read?
“There’s a time for daring and there’s a time for caution, and a wise man understands which is called for.”
Without being too harsh on our fellow professionals, it would appear that the “favourite” books have had quite a significant standing in the English Literature curriculum over the decades, with the exception of Harry Potter. Whilst many of these books are indeed a good read, there’s a certain amount of predictability in what was chosen. Even more worrying, such a list might allow Michael Gove to feel vindicated about his addiction to classic texts and authors. Is it just a tiny bit possible that we, as a nation of readers, have become indoctrinated into what we are expected to read rather than what we actually love reading?
“But only in their dreams can men be truly free. Twas always thus, and always thus will be.”
Wuthering Heights is a brilliant book. Some of the descriptions of the feelings that the characters endure during times of unbearable grief are heart-rending, and have lasted in the mind of this particular reader since first reading the book in triple English on a Thursday afternoon. I would possibly choose this as one of my favourite books but it isn’t the easiest of texts, and I’m not sure I would want to inflict my choice as a “must read” on my children. Yet it has to be said that I probably wouldn’t have chosen to read this had it not been part of my English Literature A-Level course.
So one to Mr Gove then? Well not quite! The strength of feelings that this book arouses is similar to other books I’ve read – some of which are mentioned later in the 100 favourite books, like “A Time Traveller’s Wife”, and others that don’t get a mention, like “On Chesil Beach” by Ian McEwan or “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Milan Kundera. Neither of these is deemed as “classics” yet they’re equally important to me because they mean something to me; they resonate with me and the time when I first read them. Both of these books that I might choose as favourites are technically brilliant as far as the writing is concerned and therefore “fit for purpose” to study in exactly the same way as “Wuthering Heights” is, if that was the sole purpose of reading – which we most certainly don’t think is the main purpose of reading. So no, not one to Mr Gove as there’s just as worthwhile contemporary books available for study these days.
This brings us onto the question about what children and young people might actually choose in their list of favourite books. This is important. As we have just said, there’s a possibility that us adults might be slightly indoctrinated in what we choose as our favourites, often without even realising. Young peoples’ thoughts on the matter might be slightly more pure, though obviously limited due to their maturity and years alive. Contemporary books might be more prevalent. Reading in a different way through Manga style “graphic novels” might also feature on the favourites but we ignore their choices at our peril. We have to ask why we would encourage reading for young people if we then glibly ignore what they would choose as exciting and invigorating text.
“You must strive to find your own voice. Because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all. Thoreau said, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Don’t be resigned to that. Break out!”
One of the teachers polled actually said, “Do you want the real answer or do you want the one I should give?” As they say, you can take the woman out of the school but you can’t take the school out of the woman. Even those of us who haven’t been in a classroom for the past few years are still teachers. We still think like teachers. We still make choices based on our role as teachers because it’s now instinctively ingrained within us. Even when making a choice as wide and variable as choosing your favourite book, some can’t divorce the personal from the professional. Therefore there’s every chance that some of the books listed here are ones that teachers think children ought to read rather than necessarily being their favourites. And thus, we continue to pass on expectations of what is a good read rather than what we feel, what we genuinely think or indeed what children and young people really think and feel and want.
It all comes back to the purpose of reading. Why do we read, and what makes a good book?
Another quote from the report on the survey says “What you’re trying to do, as an English teacher, is to find the book that individual children will love and treasure, and that will open up the whole world of books for them.” Dr Marshall of King’s College London continues to say that “Imposing a curriculum of 19th-century books on them is slightly rigid. You won’t find out what children really love” and “books do a whole lot of different things for people”.
In this world where there is so much choice available, our decisions on what to read are as varied as what we choose to eat or what music we decide to listen to. The range is enormous, and different types of reading material are valuable in different settings and for different people. What we should be doing within schools is encouraging this eclecticism and promoting individuality. I doubt there’s another human being who would choose the same 10 reads as me. Ever tried to make a list of records for “Desert Island Discs”? My choice is highly unlikely to be identical to another’s. My choice today is highly unlikely to be identical to the choices that I made a year ago, and yet, if you believed the Top 100 music lists of all time, we’d all be carrying “Bohemian Rhapsody” off to our desert island!
“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer. That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”
One of the joys of reading is to lose oneself in a story. Having looked at the list of books chosen in this survey, I was interested to see many that I’d read, including one that I am currently reading, but there were also some that I hadn’t read yet knew the story. In the 21st Century, most of the books on this list won’t be read by children but the stories will be known through television and film. Here’s another thing for Mr Gove to consider. What is more important, the knowledge of a story or immersing yourself in the language, the characters and the situation of a good book?
“Now we all have a great need for acceptance, but you must trust that your beliefs are unique, your own, even though others may think them odd or unpopular, even though the herd may go, “that’s baaaaad.” Robert Frost said, “Two roads diverged in the wood and I, I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.””
Knowledge isn’t everything. The Reduced Shakespeare Company has proved that you can condense Macbeth into a three-minute monologue and get the basic gist of the story but the loss of flavour and fascination in the words of the script are more or less removed. Watching “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” was quite excruciating such with its divergence from the text and the loss of the incredible soulfulness of the writing, and yet, in the main, it stayed semi-faithful to the main story.
Stories are good, be they written or reviewed in another media, but the real joy of reading is the solitude of the relationship between the reader and the writer, which varies according to the recipient. A story in itself sometimes isn’t sufficient, though we would certainly say that there’s space in the world for the oral tradition of storytelling. This can be compelling to all and should be maintained in conjunction with the written form.
Look, for example, at the brilliance of a good teacher, like the one portrayed by Robin Williams in “Dead Poet’s Society” that was coincidentally on television last night. John Keating was so passionate about reading, and instilling the love of reading was done as much through the spoken word as reading. We would all do well to consider some of the quotes from the film that have run through this post when thinking about what we really want our children and young people, how we encourage them to be readers for life and why we would choose to do that.
“Seize the day. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” Why does the writer use these lines? Because we are food for worms, lads. Because, believe it or not, each and every one of us in this room is one day going to stop breathing, turn cold and die.”