Should we dictate which books our children read?

FEW BOOKS in our lives will have the same kind of impact and influence as those we study as school texts. Few works will ever again be dredged like this, for meaning and symbol, structure and characterisation, cultural values and moral crises, poetic devices and dramatic effects. Few will be ploughed over so many times, in such detail, chapter by chapter, scene by scene. Few will be surrounded by so much argument, or rendered down to a formal game of right questions and answers, designed, as they say, to satisfy the examiners.

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape