20 January 2018

Beware Must-Read Lists

There’s one in today’s paper. Ten Books Every Child Should Own. It caught my eye immediately, as it was supposed to. But did it catch my eye for the intended reason?

I’m wary, if not downright cynical, about any such list, further fuelled by the fact that the headline had transformed by the inside page into Ten Books Every Child Should Read, which doesn’t mean the same at all.

My schooldays were scarred by the annual reading list, a wall of A1 sheets blocked in a neat hand to give each book’s title diagonally along the top and each child’s name horizontally along the left-hand side. A line of empty squares stood ready to receive a coloured star. Horrors such as Tom Brown’s School Days still haunt me.

In my teens The Little Red Book by Mao Tse-Tung (as he was known at the time) was the rage among my contemporaries. No one mentioned the word famine, never mind the deaths, upward of 30 million people. If you hadn’t read the book you were an unenlightened no one. Thankfully, the only books I could afford were to aid my employment prospects; everything else was borrowed from the library, and mine didn’t stock that title. I still feel a twinge of guilt for those 30+ million when I recall the preening, long-nosed glances my lack of reading the book attracted.

Likewise, I’m sure Mein Kampf was on someone’s must-read list, as were (are) the writings of Stalin, Marx, and the host of other the-end-justifies-the-means exponents. And this is my point: anyone – anyone – who waves a must-read list under another’s nose is waving it for a reason. Better to identify the reason before contemplating the titles, or attempting to imply the non-reader socially inadequate.

Today’s vaunted list, Ten Books Every Child Should Own [Read], is being used to publicise a writer’s recently published novel. There y’go… cynic that I am. I only hope that the majority of readers of the column hold a similarly cautious view and don’t rush to force the list down the throats of their unsuspecting offspring. There’s no faster way to put a child off reading. 

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