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

Head of IT (Not-for-Profit sector) - Lewes / Brighton

£45000 - £50000 per annum + 5 weeks holiday & benefits: Ashdown Group: Head of...

PE Graduate?

Negotiable: Randstad Education Sheffield: Are you a PE graduate looking for a ...

Primary Teacher

£90 - £135 per day + travel expenses: Randstad Education Newcastle: Key Stage ...

Humanities Teacher

£100 - £150 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: Permanent Teacher of Humaniti...

Day In a Page

Read Next
High and mighty: Edinburgh Castle and city skyline  

i Editor's Letter: We're coming to Edinburgh

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Members of the community farming group at work in their community fields near the town of Masi Manimba, Bandundu Province, DRC.  

The five biggest myths surrounding overseas aid

Billy Hill
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

What is the appeal of Twitch?

Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

A dream come true for SJ Watson

Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

Paul Scholes column

Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?