There's no such thing as the wrong sort of book

Share

Good old Tories, astutely tapping into the real fears faced by modern parents about the dangerous world that confronts their children. In a speech on Thursday about education, Michael Gove laid out just one of the nightmare scenarios that keep parents awake at night: "You come home to find your 17-year-old daughter engrossed in a book." So, which book would be acceptable: "Twilight or Middlemarch?"

If you're one of the 90 per cent of parents who would be pleased to come home and catch your 17-year-old reading anything, stop! You are wrong. "Too many children are only too happy to lose themselves in Stephenie Meyer," said the disappointed Secretary of State for Education.

"There is a great tradition of English, a canon of transcendent works, and Breaking Dawn is not one of them." Neither was Middlemarch the minute it was published of course, though it became quite popular, Virginia Woolf praising it in The Common Reader as "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people". Er, not 17-year-olds, then. But what would Virginia Woolf know?

When I was 17 I had not yet read Middlemarch, but I was devouring Thomas Hardy, the Sweet Valley High series, Paul Gallico, Angela Carter, The Blue Fairy Book and everything by Sylvia Plath (obviously). I remember finishing Ariel while hiding in a corner of a local bookshop; the others I borrowed from the library, taking out the maximum number of books allowed on my child's ticket every week when I was growing up.

Unfortunately, libraries will be a historical concept as alien to most 17-year-olds as the works of George Eliot by the time Mr Gove's government has finished with them. A total of 146 libraries were closed from 2010 to 2011, and a further 201 in 2012. The Penguin Classics edition of Middlemarch costs £7.99. The minimum wage for under-18s is £3.68 an hour. Even one of Mr Gove's fantasy 17-year-olds could do the maths: most teenagers cannot afford to lose themselves in the transcendent works of the English canon. Most are lucky to have the luxury of getting into reading at all.

Becoming a lover of books is a privilege that opens up a lifetime of possibilities, and that should be available to every child. It is ludicrous to suggest that becoming obsessed for a time with a modern series of Young Adult fiction might crush a fledgling reading habit. But being told that what you're reading is Wrong just might. Having no libraries in which to find the books might do, too.

Teenagers, I promise you that Middlemarch is a remarkable novel that will probably blow you away when you get around to reading it. Please don't let Michael Gove make you think that it is only weirdos like him who enjoy the "canon". And parents, don't be disappointed if you come home to find your teenager reading. Unless of course they are into the Young Conservatives Handbook.

Katy Guest is the Literary Editor of The Independent on Sunday

twitter.com/@katyguest36912

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Research Manager - Quantitative/Qualitative

£32000 - £42000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Piper Ryan Randall leads a pro-Scottish independence rally in the suburbs of Edinburgh  

i Editor's Letter: Britain survives, but change is afoot

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Some believe that David Cameron is to blame for allowing Alex Salmond a referendum  

Scottish referendum: So how about the English now being given a chance to split from England?

Mark Steel
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam