In praise of Primo the great

Readers were invited to respond to our literary canon for sixth-formers. Hilary Wilce analyses the reaction
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The Independent Online

So, thumbs up for Primo Levi, thumbs down for Virginia Woolf! Droves of Independent readers wrote to tell us what they thought of our top 20 books for today's well-read sixth-former. Responses came from school pupils and Oxford dons, and from the United States, India and Russia.

So, thumbs up for Primo Levi, thumbs down for Virginia Woolf! Droves of Independent readers wrote to tell us what they thought of our top 20 books for today's well-read sixth-former. Responses came from school pupils and Oxford dons, and from the United States, India and Russia.

What leapt out from all of them were two things: how vividly people remembered books that had touched them at school, and how passionately they wanted today's pupils to have the same experience.

Many broadly agreed with the list, which tried to reflect today's international world, although some wanted more English classics - Chaucer, Milton, Pope, Blake, Hardy, the Brontës - while others wanted child-friendly writers such as Tolkien and Philip Pullman, or contemporary ones such as Zadie Smith and Monica Ali.

"Where is the innovation and experimentation?" lamented one correspondent. "Where are the biography, travel, historical, adventure, mystical, romantic, short story and sci-fi genres?"

A number of readers pointed out that European literature was poorly represented, and wanted to see Flaubert, Camus, Mann or Grass included, although everyone applauded the inclusion of Primo Levi. Others argued for more books reflecting on social situations ( Catch-22, A Clockwork Orange), more African and Caribbean writers (Selvon, Phillips, Levy), or a Scot or two (Burns, Robert Louis Stevenson). A couple of correspondents wanted a book from the Bible, and several argued for Greek myths. But when it came to individual books, the gloves really came off - "No The Wind in the Willows? How COULD you!".

Several readers wanted George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, instead of Animal Farm - "How did he get it so right? Is this the New Labour manifesto?" - while others thought that Norwegian Wood was Haruki Murakami's "worst book", and that Lord of the Flies was "overrated and underwritten". Beckett, said one reader, is "horribly obscure", and wanted to see a Stoppard play there instead. And, oh, how people loathed Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse! "You must be joking... this endless drone about upper-middle-class people sitting around doing nothing in particular is the last book I would recommend to anyone - let alone inflict upon school children."

Jane Austen got a surprisingly bad rap, too. The 400 members of the National Academy of Gifted and Talented Youth's online reading group apparently deem her one of their least-favourite authors (teen writer Malorie Blackman is a favourite), while another correspondent had ritually burned his Northanger Abbey after exams. When it came to Shakespeare, readers wanted to see Macbeth("boys might like it"), Henry V, Hamlet, or a comedy, instead of our King Lear and Romeo and Juliet. And with Dickens, they wanted A Tale of Two Cities or Nicholas Nickleby, not Great Expectations.

A student correspondent said that The Catcher in the Rye had touched everyone in her class, maybe because of "the way our teacher read it to us with all the accents"; and there was a fierce plea for Heart of Darkness as a novel that captures young minds. Another fond memory (from Harvard) was of Auden, "the highlight of my A-level English classes, and still inspires me today". In fact, lots of people wanted more poets - the poets of the First World War, Philip Larkin, Emily Dickinson, Dylan Thomas and Ted Hughes.

Here are some other writers that people felt were missing: Galsworthy, Shaw, Huxley, Forster, Fowles, McEwan, Barnes and Spark. Then there were the Americans: Bellow, Steinbeck, Poe, Miller and Twain. Individual favourite novels included Farenheit 451, Scoop, Heart of Darkness, The Grapes of Wrath and The Color Purple.

Quite a few people banged the drum for classics such as Middlemarch, War and Peace, Ulysses and Moby Dick, but since these are also long books, they are probably unrealistic on a school list. In fact, many correspondents were keen to point out the limitations on teaching today, the tests and targets, and the illiterate young: "Our students are surrounded by wall-to-wall music and constant visual stimuli, not to mention mobile phones, and the thought of a 300-page novel with difficult vocabulary is hardly the most enticing prospect."

Teachers argued that they needed freedom to choose what to teach, and there was a plea for "a kind of literary speed-dating", an anthology of one-page tasters of writers, and notes to put them in context. But many wanted no lists at all. Lists were "another example of the tick-box culture", fostering snobbery and feelings of inadequacy, and removing the excitement of discovery.

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