Philip Hensher: If only they had read 10 books...

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The Independent Online

The Royal Society of Literature, very concerned about the state of literature and reading in schools today, has invited some of its most eminent fellows to suggest a list of 10 books which everyone should, on leaving school, have read.

It had a mixed response, quite a lot of people saying that they couldn't really supply a list; perhaps they saw that an educational system addicted to imposed syllabuses might easily seize on a choice which, really, was only put forward on a whim.

But some writers, bravely, have put forward lists. JK Rowling's list was, frankly, odd, and included Robinson Crusoe, a book which many people now find quite a hard nut to crack, and Catch 22, which I know at 18 I found almost impenetrably tough going.

Andrew Motion's gone for the going-down-in-flames option, working on the principle that the young can read even the greatest of books; I agree in principle, but I honestly think it is only going to be a rare 6th-former who reads Don Quixote and Ulysses to the end with understanding and enjoyment.

Philip Pullman's is the most lovable list; yes, I quite agree that everyone should read Tove Jansson, though I'd go for Moominland Midwinter or the heartbreakingly sad Moominvalley in November rather than Finn Family Moomintroll.

Lovely to see him recommending, too, Norman Lindsay's The Magic Pudding, a book which used to be universally read and loved, with its foul-tempered pudding Sam Sawnoff the Penguin and all those glorious pudding-thieves. That's more like it.

While we're bickering over what should, or shouldn't, be on such a list, there's an important point here which is in danger of being overlooked. The RSL's exercise is being carried out at a time when the ability to read a book from beginning to end is no longer being taught in schools.

The examination system, even when it turns to literary subjects, now concentrates on "snippets". The teaching of foreign languages, in decline as it is, is much less interested in literary uses, and students don't routinely read a whole novel in the way that they used to. I had to read the whole of Madame Bovary for French A-level; does anyone still do that?

The result is that it is perfectly possible to finish a secondary education without really having to read a book from beginning to end. That is certainly the case with people who don't specialise in literary subjects, and it becomes less of a requirement even with those who do.

We forget, I think, how demanding it is to read a whole long novel for the first time, and if you don't acquire the habit at school, then it doesn't seem likely that you'll acquire it as an adult.

Making sure that every child who could actually read was reading books from beginning to end as soon as they were able is a kind of duty of the education system, and ought to be taken for granted once they get to the point of public examinations.

Of course, one could start playing the game oneself, and suggesting the 10 books which run to my own taste (Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust, definitely). But at present, it just seems absurdly ambitious. Frankly, we ought to be happy when we get to the point where everyone who leaves a British school has read 10 books from beginning to end. We seem rather a long way from that situation at the moment.

The movie, not the message

The Oscar nominations have disappointed quite a lot of people who wanted to see the fine John le Carre adaptation, The Constant Gardener, up for Best Picture.

As my colleague Yasmin Alibhai-Brown put it the other day, the Academy seem determined to go for "the shagging cowboys" as represented by Brokeback Mountain, right.

I don't have any doubt that The Constant Gardener is an important film; it managed to treat Africans, for once, with some respect and left an honourable residue in the country in which it was filmed.

Some of the reasons behind the Academy's choice of Brokeback Mountain don't bear much examination either - look, he's had to kiss another man, poor sod.

But on an aesthetic level, it's just an immeasurably superior film; the magical purity of the dialogue, the visual force, the expert manipulation of the emotions.

In the end, this is not an award for the year's most admirable message.

* "Oh my God," I said. "The Euromillions prize - it's up to £125m. I'm going to buy a ticket."

"What would you do with the money?" my boyfriend said.

"Well," I said, "I'd give you a million quid."

"What?" he said, and was off into a blazing row about my not giving my boyfriend enough money out of the prize money I hadn't won and wasn't going to.

Someone explain to me the rationality of this. When the prize money was only, say, 50 million quid, I couldn't be bothered to buy a ticket, though it is more than I could ever spend.

When it gets to the point of being twice as much, and no more likely, then I start to get terribly excited and buy a ticket.

It makes absolutely no sense, even to me; after all, you can have just as good daydreams thinking about spending £10m as about an equally unreal £100m.

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