Even those students who, undiscouraged, continue with the game and study literature at university will probably never work as hard on a single text, an exemplary poem, play, or novel.
As for the books prescribed, they become great examples of literature, key titles not just in education but the general culture. And, with the fresh body of set texts announced yesterday by David Blunkett as part of the national curriculum requirements, that becomes truer than ever. Blunkett is being intentionally prescriptive. As with the famous 10 texts set in all schools for the French Baccalaureate, the prescribed texts are likely to become our common national classics.
Curricula always promote controversy. Inevitably the argument grows sharper at times like ours, when there is a pervasive, millennial sense of transition. Cultural identities are in confusion; in an age of populism, cultural categories - high v low, elite v mass - get fudged.
New groups and constituencies insist on their own literary self-representation, readerly empowerment. Today the whole notion of the literary "canon" is upset (not for the first time). Our idea of the classic is in difficulties.
Yet, in their own way, few lists are more canonical, few texts more "classical", than those chosen as part of the exam curriculum. For a generation they come to stand for books in general - for good writing, poetic values, dramatic principles. They act as a standard, an idea of what literature is for, how it is written, how it is read, how it affects us, why it should be valued.
I have spent most of my life in literature. Yet the books I studied so long ago in grammar school sixth-form - As You Like It, Macbeth (the two plays by Shakespeare), The Rape of the Lock and Lyrical Ballads (two "classics of poetry"), Silas Marner, The Return of the Native ("great novels") retain their central status in my mind.
That's not because, in every case, I liked them, or now think them the best in the world. They were not exactly there to be liked; they were meant to stand for literature, the tradition, the heritage. So they did, shaping my views of drama, my sense of poetry, my notions about the narrative properties and realistic strengths of the novel. They gave me my first ideas of comedy and tragedy, irony, lyricism, realism, romanticism, satire.
At the same time I had my internal set texts, a private list I made for non-examination purposes because it was radical, exciting, and helped me to become a writer. Most on my list were modem, and many American. The private list included, I can remember, Lawrence's Sons and Lovers, Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano, and the poetry of Auden, MacNeice and Robert Graves.
Time rolls; many of these are set texts themselves - following the old golden rule that the most radical and rejected works of one era become the classics of the next. Yet I still find a certain irony in the fact that many of the radical works of modernism were directly intended to challenge the idea of "the classic", and have now turned into set-text classics themselves. The Modernist avant garde is itself now history. So, when this year is done, will be all the writing of the 20th century.
For the millennium, Blunkett has "modernised" the list. Most of the Romantic or Victorian classics have gone, and we have works we call modern, meaning 20th century, Most, including Joyce, Lawrence, Golding and Greene, come from the first half of it. Fresh names and titles have been prescribed: George Orwell's Animal Farm, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, Evelyn Waugh's Scoop, the stories of Katherine Mansfield and William Trevor.
Blunkett's choices are conservative. Yet they do bring in some of the bleaker texts of a troubled and guilty century. Orwell is a formidable prose stylist (as well as the subject of an admirable biography by Blunkett's advisor Bernard Crick), reputedly disliked by Conservative education ministers; Animal Farm offers one of the most powerful images we have of the degeneration of revolution into dictatorship. Brave New World is a portrait of a scientific dystopia, distant from any Blairite or Bill Gatesian Utopia. Both comfortably consort with Golding's dismayed portrait of innocence lost in the post- nuclear age, The Lord of the Flies.
The most interesting choice is Waugh: satirist, misogynist at times, pessimist and religious. The short stories of Katherine Mansfield are exemplary, though they are classics of 75 years past; the fine tales of William Trevor seem to represent the most modem item.
The list will prove controversial. Many will ask why literary, cultural and ideological issues close to us - from feminism to multiculturalism - get no airing. As it happens, these things are not absent from the school syllabus. What I find sadder is that more recent works - the plays of Pinter, the novels of Fowles and Lessing - are not more in the foreground.
Some will ask whether in an age of cultural pluralism and decanonisation, we need prescribed texts at all. I think we do, but then I believe in literature as a fundamental institution, a form of human knowledge, a great site of the human imagination. It needs to be perpetuated, and one of the functions of set texts is to convey the moral, the emotional, the artistic centrality of literature to our lives.
These are grand aims. Yet books have to earn their appeal, by their openness, their humanity, capacity to take us in. The power of books to do this shifts in time. Blunkett's new canon is undeniably cautious, though pleasantly monumental. Yet in the end, as ever, the books that truly matter will be the ones we add to the list for ourselves: the private canon every fresh young reader needs to amass.