I disagree with Peter Hitchens on the merits of The Great Gatsby but I was amused by a classically bold and terse description of its enduring appeal…
It survives because it is on a lot of school and college reading lists, mainly because it is short.
Hyperbole, yes, but it strikes me that Hitchens is right to say that literature that tends to be promoted to young people is often brief: Gatsby, yes, and also Lord of the Flies, The Catcher in the Rye and Of Mice and Men. Such books all have features that appeal to young minds but I don’t think it is being overly cynical to propose that they have virtues for educators such as easily summarisable plots and limited casts of characters. What is interesting, though, is that from genre novels from those of Tolkien to King to “Young Adult” works such as those of Rowling or Meyer, the books young people tend to choose to read are big, thick, messy banquets for the imagination. This inspired me to ask myself which of the heftiest offerings of literary fiction might appeal to teenagers.
Let us not hurl people into the deep end. I remember grappling with Proust when I was doing GCSEs but I got no further than Michael Palin in the Python sketch. Finnegan’s Wake also found its way into my palms but my interest died like a blown lightbulb. Young people are often ignorant and impatient; which is the inevitable flip side to being keen to learn.
Dickens is worth a mention. He is, of course, no stranger to the syllabi but some of the selections from his ouvre have been questionable. We were set Hard Times in GCSE English, which, for all of its merits, felt like wandering into the middle of an argument between strangers. The vivid sprawl of Great Expectations might have been more inspiring. Moby Dick is a tome I would offer for consideration. Its language is hard to comprehend at first, of course, but this has never stopped kids from reading A Clockwork Orange, and half of the fun of discovering Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was looking up what all of its strange terms meant. Its visionary verve always excites me, and I can’t help thinking that its study of anthropomorphism could be interested to those who have been raised on Pixar.
Catch-22 is a predictable offering. Young people love the “sour jokes” that once turned off critics. As they become older and more knowing, I would be tempted to recommend Earthly Powers. Much of Anthony Burgess’ voyage through the twentieth-century would fly over their heads – no shame in that; it still does over mine – but the comic richness makes it a pleasure to travel with and the in-jokes and name-dropping offers one the chance to follow other paths of exploration into great lives and great books.
I am departing from my mandate of literary fiction, but a final book that I would recommend is The Bible. I was a Christian until the age of 15 yet I rarely looked at the thing. Perhaps I assumed that it was like reading a manual after you have already worked out how to use the computer. As a nonbeliever, I would hope that people approach religious texts in the company of their critical faculties but it remains true that the King James Version is the most ambitious feat in the English language, and that its stories and teachings have inspired more thought than those of any other text. I remember of friend of mine, who was no more a fan of literature than he would have been of the Church, turning pages of Revelation and saying, “This is wild stuff.”