Tony Little (interviewed by the New Statesman in May 2013), in his last term as headmaster of Eton before retirement, has published a list of books that “every bright 16-year-old should read”. It includes classic novels such as Gulliver’s Travels and Heart of Darkness; foreign fiction by Mikhail Bulgakov and Italo Calvino; a “cultural history of the infinite” and a recent history of the first Crusade. Such lists are bound to be idiosyncratic and it is easy to find omissions and oddities: female authors are woefully under-represented; some titles are unrealistically highbrow; the selection of English-language novels is solid but staid. But more important is the larger question of how teenagers’ reading should be encouraged and widened.
In 2006, the then poet laureate, Andrew Motion, included Don Quixote, Ulysses and Paradise Lost on his list of ten essential books for schoolchildren. In 2011, Michael Gove, then education secretary, made headlines with his pronouncement that those aged between 11 and 18 should read 50 books a year. It is right to aim high and to encourage reading, one of the wonders of being alive. Yet the current school system, with its emphasis on utilitarian matters such as testing and results, is not well equipped to nurture a love of literature. Today’s 15- and 16-year-olds are more likely to be drilled with extension classes and GCSE exam practice than encouraged to take on extracurricular reading. Even if the reading bug is caught, public libraries, hit hard by spending cuts (more than 300 have closed in the past five years), are not always available.
Book lists such as Mr Little’s generate debate and are to be welcomed. But we must create a culture in which all teenagers have the opportunity to read and discover the best that has been thought and written, not just the privileged few who attend the top fee-charging schools, with their fabulous resources and well-stocked libraries.