Human beings have long loved a list, from Homer’s inventory of a thousand ships to the catalogues of feminine beauty modish in the Renaissance. These exercises in cultivated obsessive–compulsive disorder shape and stabilise the world about us. Still, there are lists and lists, and this apparently primal human urge has been usurped by many PR companies and television executives eager to proclaim a top 10 of everything. The phrase “nation’s favourite” has become one to fear, with Four Weddings and a Funeral among best films and the Duchess of Cambridge topping best-dressed lists.
As far as literature is concerned (and one uses this term loosely), the subgenres include: things read when small, things for the small read when big, things bought at airports, things advocated by Richard and Judy, and things that have been on the goggle box. All of which enables the sort of travesty whereby, as in May, The Da Vinci Code can be declared “Scotland’s favourite novel“.
Which is why a list of the perilously prescriptive 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die – published in its second edition this month – becomes all the more culturally valuable. To be sure, its novel focus makes pre-18th century works thin on the ground, while some of the more recent musts seem a tad middlebrow. But it remains a glorious cross-cultural repository, up to speed on the last two years’ output. Every school, if not every home, should have one.
In my first secondary school library lesson, we were handed a catalogue of books we would be expected to be acquainted with year-by-year from Jane Eyre to Paradise Lost, taking in a wealth of novels, poems and plays in between. It was unfashionably prescriptive, unapologetically canonical. I loved this list. It introduced me to illicit adult worlds, freeing me to think in ways prohibited in the more conservative realms of history, geography and, not least, religious studies.
The canons I encountered then, and later at university, had already been expanded to include former aberrations: women, gay, working-class and non-white writers; literary theory rigorous in the checks it placed on anachronistic complacencies. However, outside academia, the supplanting of a canon with the notion that all artistic expressions are equal has proven a regressive rather than an emancipating phenomenon.
Michael Gove has lamented that, in 2010, fewer than one in 100 teenagers who sat the most popular English literature GCSE based their answers on novels published prior to 1900. A mere 1,236 out of 300,000 students read Pride and Prejudice, 285 studied Far From the Madding Crowd, while 187 completed Wuthering Heights. More than 90% of answers were based on the same three slim, 20th-century tomes – Of Mice and Men, Lord of the Flies and To Kill a Mockingbird – all of which justly appeared in the age 11-12 section of my old school reading list.
One does not have to be a Tory to fear a society that lets go of its literature. Indeed, the study of English literature itself started in working men’s colleges as a poor man’s classics. It was once a socialist rite of passage to “better oneself” via books, be one DH Lawrence or Jean Rhys. Such liberational narratives did not come of reading potboilers, but were the product of the best writing this nation had to offer. It was the lesson of such endeavours that a knowledge of Chaucer, Shakespeare, that great fiction the Bible, and tales of Greece and Rome were necessary to understand – and assume some sort of command over – our own culture.
The most dangerous way in which canons involve social exclusion is in dispossessing the majority of said cornucopia. Even the heroine of the grotesquely illiterate Fifty Shades of Grey has read some classic fiction: unlike too many of her real-world acolytes.
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