Reviving The Canon

image of an open book saying recommended reading

It was my last lesson with my Year 10s and I’d invited them each to get up and tell me and the class about their favourite book. Public speaking being a route to self-fulfilment (ask Dale Carnegie and Toastmasters), this was in any case a chance to practise the speaking element of the GCSE, and also to start a list for a contemporaries’ book club maybe?

The first three I called on had not read a book. I turned to one of the brighter students in the class. Mercifully, he had prepared his presentation: I shall be speaking about Diary of a Wimpy Kid. If you have no idea what that is, count yourself lucky. Astonishingly, secondary school libraries stock these “silly, popular” (I quote Wikipedia) part-comic books along with the Captain Underpants series (written for primary school level) so, not so astonishingly, that is what the kids read.

Still no surprises then to find a report this week from Professor Keith Topping stating that “Worryingly, by the later years of secondary school many students are reading books that are no harder than those in primary school.” If they are reading at all… And you don’t need to be a professor to share his insight that “good literacy is the single most important educational building block from which all other learning follows.”

Now I’ve finished weeping for the generation of non-readers we’ve raised; I’ve wiped my nose and wrung out my sleeve – I’m ready. So here goes: I would remove from school libraries all books not written in recognisable English that enables readers to establish a solid relationship with literature, build their vocabulary and an understanding of good English syntax. I would provide them with this list of recommended reading to lay down their store of cultural capital. What would you add?

Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carol

Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte

Lord of the Flies, William Golding

The Hobbit, J R R Tolkien

Treasure Island, R L Stephenson

1984, George Orwell

Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

I’d interleave those with books that can’t fail to cheer you up. (Researching such books online, a dismal slew of titles on how to overcome depression appears, ready to spoil any spirit that had the temerity to be glad. Let’s do better than that!)

Three Men in a Boat, Jerome K Jerome

So Long and Thanks for all the Fish, Douglas Adams

Anything by P G Wodehouse

Winterdance, Gary Paulsen

How to make a Jewish Movie, Melville Shavelson

Goodbye, Columbus, Philip Roth


Your Suggestions to: [email protected]

Poppy is an English Language and Literature tutor with Newman Tuition. To book a lesson with her, or one of our other tutors, please call us on 020 3198 8006 or complete the form on the Contact Us page.

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