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

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

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
With an eye for strategy: Stephen Fry’s General Melchett and Rowan Atkinson’s Edmund Blackadder  

What Cameron really needs is to turn this into a khaki election

Matthew Norman
An Italian policeman stands guard as migrants eat while waiting at the port of Lampedusa to board a ferry bound for Porto Empedocle in Sicily. Authorities on the Italian island of Lampedusa struggled to cope with a huge influx of newly-arrived migrants as aid organisations warned the Libya crisis means thousands more could be on their way  

Migrant boat disaster: EU must commit funds to stop many more dying

Alistair Dawber
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own