Wednesday, May 16, 2007

167 Not Necessarily Great Books for Teen Boys

Britain's Department of Education is spending some time, and a good bit of money, in another effort to encourage teenage boys to read books for pleasure to the same degree that British teen girls read them. Part of that effort has resulted in a list of 167 books that are thought to be the kind that will encourage boys to keep reading for pleasure past the age of 11.

But over at the Guardian Unlimited, columnist Nicholas Lezard is less than impressed with the list and, in fact, with the whole effort.
Boys don't read enough, you see. So Alan Johnson, education secretary, and librarians from the School Library Association have given us 167 "top books for boys". The resulting list is a pile of cack - sub-Tolkien and not-really-books - studded here and there with gems.

You have to get to number 14 on the list, as it appears in the Times, before you get any fiction (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams). Then you get a wodge of classics - Robinson Crusoe, King Solomon's Mines, Northern Lights, and Frankenstein.

The last of those shows that someone hasn't got their thinking cap on, for Frankenstein is a dull and confusing work. At least it will familiarise them with 19th-century style - and put them off it forever.

Great Expectations is a much better read - but it's presumably too long for impatient little hands to hold. Treasure Island and Kidnapped are there, but - unbelievably - Robert Louis Stevenson's version has been passed over in favour of a graphic novelisation of the story.
There are plenty of books here that I've never heard of - and one or two that haven't even been published yet. The ones I've never heard of are presumably recent publications that librarians have seized on after boys cited them as being marginally preferable to a poke in the kidneys with a stick.

Some of them may be quite good - but by being there, they've knocked something else off the list. While the quality of the books may be debatable, therefore, their position in anything that might be called a literary canon is not: they're not in it. There's no sense of continuous heritage, of anything timeless, or which might alert these putative boy-readers to the fact that once upon a time, books relied on a good, moving story and weren't packaged with raised lettering on the cover and a picture of weaponry, or dragons.

It makes me wonder: what's so good about reading anyway? And what's so good about forcing an intimidatingly long list on reluctant potential consumers, when so much of it is either garbage or stuff they'd have read anyway? And if they're not inclined to read, so what?

The only book I really want them to read and absorb, now I come to think of it, is the Highway Code, so they don't run me over when they grow up.
Lezard has an interesting take on the declining rate at which young men read for pleasure and on the likely success of this particular list to do anything to solve the problem. Books are competing with so many distractions these days that I'm sometimes surprised that young people read at all anymore. What with homework, after-school sports programs and classes, video games, iPods, the internet with all of its My Space and YouTube clones, television trash shows, etc., when is a kid supposed to read a book? There are only so many hours in the day. While I agree with Lezard that this particular list (click on the above link for the complete list) leaves a lot to be desired, I do see the necessity of including the types of books that can compete directly with all the distractions in a kid's life today. Maybe, with a little luck, even the junkier books on the list will keep the boys reading long enough for them to discover what else is on offer in the book world. I'm keeping my fingers crossed on this one.


  1. Again with the "boy" books. Girls should note that they are no longer permitted to read "Frankenstein" or "The Hitchhiker's Guide to The Galaxy". They'd better stick to Jane Austen.

  2. I suppose these things run in cycles. All the effort that was poured into bringing up the self-esteem of women and girls seems to have left boys in the least that's how the experts seem to perceive the situation. So now we'll see them over-compensate to get the boys caught back up and then we can start working on the girls again. You just have to shake your head sometimes. :-)

  3. As mum-of-reluctant-boy-reader, I've written about this before on your blog.

    All i can say about lists, is, unless the book has a knock me dead openign paragraph, and an equally action oriented second para, it ain't gonna cut it with the able to but won't reader!

    "But Mum, video games ARE reading! "

    "But mum, I read ALL day at school! I want to play...or I want to veg out!"

    I used to use books (still do) to escape to other worlds. And reading WAS "vegging out". Maybe video games do the same....except they don't have the same insight to the human condition; that's the boys' loss, and society's loss.

  4. "But Mum, video games ARE reading! "

    Sally, I love that one. :-)

    I share your concerns and wish I had the answer. I'm really afraid that boys especially, but even girls, have so many distractions these days that reading books isn't even a tiny blip on the radar screens of most kids anymore.