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
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