It may be a bit premature to be talking about Christmas, but I suppose the supermarkets are already well into their advertising campaigns and Black Friday is upon us. Something to give us some proper pre-Christmas Christmas cheer, though, is that Judith Kerr’s typically delightful new picture book, Mog’s Christmas Calamity, has raced to the top of the bestsellers, selling an extraordinary 29 copies per minute.
Another Judith Kerr classic no doubt.
Speaking of classics, last week major publishers committed to make 100 works of classic literature, such as Great Expectations and Pride and Prejudice, available to secondary schools at vastly discounted prices – this in response to the government’s “wanting every pupil to have the chance to be taught and read a wide range of literary classics which can inspire a life-long love of reading”.
Providing the opportunity to read these books is clearly a fantastic first step. The second part – encouraging students actually to read them and inspiring that life-long love of reading – is more challenging.
Students need access to books if they are to read them. Having the classics in school and local public libraries is excellent, but we as parents can probably be doing more to provide access at home – particularly important when it comes to these books, since children and young adults may need longer to read them than the school or local public library can allow.
But how many of these 100 classics do we have on our bookshelves at home? The publishers haven’t announced which particular titles they’ll be offering, but they will all be free of copyright – that is, more than 70 years have passed since the death of the author. We’re talking about Victorian or pre-Victorian literature. So, how many on our bookshelves? Two? Five? Sitting at the far end of a shelf up in the attic, those black spines marking them out as ‘serious’ and ‘academic’, next to that hefty (and dusty) Collected Works of Shakespeare. These books most likely stored from our school or university days, with a mix of nostalgia and gentle aspiration to re-read them “one day when we aren’t so busy”. And we’re unlikely to be looking to add to this token library of classic literature – for your next holiday, will you be buying Jane Eyre, Middlemarch or Vanity Fair to take along for the trip, or will it be the latest Grisham, Keyes or Fielding?
Students will have to study at least one Shakespeare play and one 19th century novel while they’re at school. Many won’t be enamoured with the prospect. I remember dreading reading Far From The Madding Crowd for my O-level English Literature exam. It had that academic spine (in this case orange), the text was small and the cover carried an oil-painted rural landscape that seemed to have little relevance to my life. Most importantly, I hadn’t taken this book off the shelf voluntarily – it was compulsory reading. “Groan, do we have to read this?” we chanted. But we knew we did – it was for an exam.
Fortunately, we had a great teacher. She watched the dismay on our faces, smiled and proceeded to talk about the book passionately, telling us what a great story it was – action, romance, suspense, complicated characters we’d find really interesting – and all still as totally fresh and relevant as when it was written – “You’ll see”. With these warming words, I went into the book with an open mind. I started reading and was suitably gripped from the start.
Helping students find a ‘way in’ to a classic work of literature is crucial if they are going to view it as anything more than something to be endured for an exam. And the same applies for any subject matter which requires a certain level of concentration and perseverance. Whether it’s English, maths, history, geography, modern languages or Latin, the best teachers and tutors are able to encourage their students to put aside those negative preconceptions and first impressions, and take a leap of faith. They bring their subject to life. They help their students see that what at first seemed abstract and impossible to grasp is approachable and rewarding. A slow-burning pleasure even.