“access to the best that has been thought and written …” Michael Gove
I’ve always been wary of the notion of a literary canon: a list of the best that has ever been written. In part, my concern stems from worries about who gets to decide what is ‘best’ (Mr Gove, apparently). I also fear that, since women and minorities did not have an equal chance of publication until relatively recently, the ‘best of’ list will consist mostly of dead white men. (Thus sending a subconscious message to any girls who might dare dream of becoming a writer.) But mainly my concern stems from the idea that we can say what is ‘best’ when it comes to fiction. Because ‘best’ implies a value judgement, and my values may not be the same as yours. Are we talking about the ‘best’ in terms of what we might call literary merit? Do we mean ‘best’ in respect to a novel’s political or social impact? Are we looking for books that live on in the public consciousness, long after they were written? Do we want the ‘best’ in the sense of inspiring children to love literature? What kind of ‘best’ is best?
Now it appears that, when Mr Gove talked about giving children access to ‘the best that has been thought and written’, he actually meant ‘in the 19th Century’ and ‘if you venture into the twentieth century, then only by the writers of the British Isles’. But if you’re going to say that you want ‘the best’, and you narrow that with geographical and historical boundaries, you are hoist by your own petard. Because it appears that Mr Gove didn’t mean ‘the best’, he meant ‘what I personally believe is the best’. In truth, I’m not that concerned about my own children. They read widely already. It would take a damned awful book to destroy their love of reading. But I worry about those children who do not come from a background where they read for pleasure. Because books are not medicine: you can’t feed a child a dose of Dickens or Austen to overcome social disadvantage. You are more likely to perpetuate the gap if you tell children that only some authors are approved as being ‘good for them’.
Books act as a window into another world. They give us access to other lives, to other ways of living and different ways of thinking. When you inhabit a story character, you are transported into another time and place. It doesn’t matter that the characters in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies are all boys, when I read it I was Ralph, desperate for a sense of order and democracy. It doesn’t matter that Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is set in the southern states of the US, when I read it I was Scout, confused and devastated by inequality and hatred. To my mind the ‘best’ books are those that we can inhabit. Those books where, when we finish reading them, we are not quite the same person as we were when we started. And I believe that knowing which books will achieve such a miracle is the skill of the English teacher, in their own context, and for their own students. So why not let the teachers decide which books are ‘best’ for their students? Now that’d be a novel idea.