It started with Ladybird books, which looked so pleasing to the eye lined up neatly on the bookshelf above my small toybox. I knew each of their stories by heart. My avid reading, however, was inspired by Enid Blyton. My father, the educated reader I looked up to and wished to emulate in so many areas of life, did not seem to approve of Enid Blyton. He did approve of me reading; I was never denied my choice of books.
I expanded my interest to Frances Hodgson Burnett, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Susan Coolidge, Ruby Ferguson, Helen Dore Boylston. I lapped up CS Forester, Jules Verne and Conan Doyle. I discovered the small library near to my primary school and devoured anything and everything that I could find in their childrens section. I immersed myself in new worlds and dreamed of being anyone other than who I was.
When I moved on to Grammar School I needed my books more than ever. I discovered Tolkien, but also a slew of writers of popular fiction; best selling thrillers that were easy to read and romances that fed my burgeoning, dreamy desires. Once again my family showed some disapproval of my choice of reading material, but did not interfere. I frequented the book sections of charity shops and read voraciously.
By the time ‘O’ levels were on the horizon I was a true lover of books. I had opinions that I had no difficulty expressing in essays, a growing vocabulary. I enjoyed English literature, but not the school lessons or the set texts that we were required to dissect and analyse. I preferred Wilfred Owen to Wordsworth; struggled to memorise ‘The Merchant of Venice’ by dull, old Shakespeare; found Dickens ridiculous with his over the top characters; disliked the foolish women of Cranford who never seemed to do anything. When my sister, who was studying for English ‘A’ level, showed me Chaucer I determined to give up the subject when I could.
I did not give up on books though. Alongside my favoured modern writers I read Jane Austin, Thomas Hardy, George Eliot and the Bronte sisters. I discovered George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Virginia Woolf. I tried Dickens again but still disliked him. I tried Shakespeare and came to realise that I enjoyed watching his plays but not reading the texts. I have read some of the ancients, Virgil and Plato, but have not yet attempted Chaucer.
I read widely, books by both living and dead authors from countries near and far. I read popular fiction alongside the more obscure titles that I make efforts to seek out. I still know little that can beat a quiet afternoon spent immersing myself in a well written, fictional world.
I was lucky. I grew up in a house filled with books amongst a family of readers. Not every child has that advantage.
The current Education Secretary, Mr Gove, wishes to raise standards of education in British schools. Following a review of the GCSE English Literature curriculum, the set text list is to be revised to ensure that more British authors are studied. The new GCSE course content will include at least one play by William Shakespeare, a selection of work by the Romantic poets, a 19th Century novel, a selection of poetry since 1850 and a 20th Century novel or drama. About three-quarters of the books on the list are from the “canon of English literature” and most are pre-20th Century. The Department for Education wishes the exam to be “more focused on tradition”.
Mr Gove studied English at Oxford and is reported to personally dislike Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’, which has been dropped by GCSE exam boards along with ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’ and ‘The Crucible’. Mr Gove has stated in a speech that he is disappointed when he hears of teenagers reading the Twilight books rather than something like Middlemarch. The message that is coming across is that Mr Gove wishes teenagers to read the sort of books that he has enjoyed rather than those that they may gain pleasure from. The suggestion that books are not to be read for pleasure infuriates me. If we all liked the same sorts of books then the literary world would be a poorer place indeed.
There are so many aspects of this that anger and depress me. Schools are required to teach pupils about tolerance and acceptance, yet will now have more difficulty in presenting them with works of fiction that explore diversity and the impact of inequality. For children who have not grown up in a house full of books, the texts that they will be required to study at school are as likely to turn them off reading as to instil in them a love of literature that could broaden their outlook and aspirations.
Mr Gove is showing a narrowness of imagination, a lack of understanding for what literature can offer and achieve. He is harking back to a bygone era rather than looking at the world which today’s teenagers must inhabit and will one day rule. We need readers and thinkers, not young people who regard books as anachronistic.
I suspect that, given his inability to empathise and understand the potential impact of his policies, he has been reading the wrong sort of books. He needs to diversify his bookshelves, to get inside the heads of some fictional characters who differ from the yes men he surrounds himself with. He needs to learn to listen, to see how much damage the policies he promotes will inflict on the young people whose future he purports to wish to improve. If anyone needs to be educated on the wider benefits of English literature then it is Mr Gove.