‘No frigate like a book’

Howard Jacobson, surprise winner of the Man Booker award for fiction, comes out against relevant reading in a Sunday Times interview.

I don’t think people are being taught how to read. I saw Michael Gove being attacked for saying that children should read Dryden. Well, children should. I read Dryden. I can still quote you Dryden. [He does so, at length.] The minute you give children books that are ‘relevant’ to them, you are depriving them of a real education. Reading is about discovering other lives than your own.”

Via Norm Geras, who recalls his teenage preference for books about escapes from German and Japanese POW camps.

I liked fantasy, adventure and historical fiction.  I read science fiction too. And biography and history. I loved Dickens. Books about girls who lived in boring suburbs were just about the only books I didn’t read.

About Joanne


  1. I’ve used that same quote for the same argument. Back in the dinosaur era, when I was in school, education was supposed to expand horizons instead of constraining them.

  2. What? You didn’t love Beverly Cleary???

  3. I had to Google “Dryden” and while I don’t have any particular objection to schools teaching his poetry, he wouldn’t be on my list of “must teach” poets. Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, Blake, Longfellow, Tennyson, etc. would be much higher.

  4. In A Preface to Paradise Lost, C S Lewis contrasts the characters of Adam and Satan, as developed in Milton’s work:

    “Adam talks about God, the Forbidden tree, sleep, the difference between beast and man, his plans for the morrow, the stars and the angels. He discusses dreams and clouds, the sun, the moon, and the planets, the winds and the birds. He relates his own creation and celebrates the beauty and majesty of Eve…Adam, though locally confined to a small park on a small planet, has interests that embrace ‘all the choir of heaven and all the furniture of earth.’ Satan has been in the heaven of Heavens and in the abyss of Hell, and surveyed all that lies between them, and in that whole immensity has found only one thing that interests Satan. And that “one thing” is, of course, Satan himself…his position and the wrongs he believes have been done to him. Satan’s monomaniac concern with himself and his supposed rights and wrongs is a necessity of the Satanic predicament…”

    One need not believe in a literal Satan, or for that matter be religious at all, to see the force of this. There is indeed something Satanic about a person who has no interests other than themselves. And those educators who insist that everything be “relevant” to the student’s day-to-day life are encouraging this mindset.

    I suspect that many of them are projecting the narrowness of their own souls onto others.

  5. David Foster: interesting comment.

    I love what Jacobson has to say about teaching.

  6. It’s interesting, but the books I found most “boring” as a kid and a teen were the ones that most mirrored my own experience. To this day I’d rather read about different historical eras than my own, or people with very different lives. The problem with only expecting people to read stuff “just like” their own lives is that it would seem to encourage a sort of self-absorption.

  7. Richard Aubrey says:

    It is interesting that educated folks with middle-class values are deciding what’s relevant to a black inner-city kid, the child of Southeast Asian refugees, the child of Hispanic agricultural workers.
    To be “with it” and show the most sensitivity, I suppose the books chosen would reinforce the stereotypes of the kids’ experiences.

  8. If I recall correctly — and I sometimes do — Bill Bennett once noted that most kids (but especially boys?) are fascinated with space travel and dinosaurs, which are not found in most neighborhoods.