Charles Dickens novels
Of course Michael Gove didn’t actually ban any American books from schools, but that didn’t stop a good argument about British and American literature. Rita weighs in…

Two contrary news stories from Britain caught this librarian’s attention recently as they both have to do with books. First was education minister Michael Gove’s supposed banning of American novels from the school curriculum in favor of British literature; and second was the venerable Man Booker Prize opening the competition to American authors for the first time. The Man Booker Prize, of course, reflects the nation’s literati, by whom Mr. Gove has been widely condemned as a philistine.

It turned out that Gove had done nothing of the sort and the story was another media fuss about not much, but it nonetheless led to some strong arguments about the merits of British versus American literature. From across the Atlantic cultural divide it was hard to feel sympathy for either side in the argument. Banishing Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird would surely be chauvinistic, but the outcry from so-called educators that inflicting Shakespeare and Dickens on young people would be “crushing” and “boring” shocked this British educated expat.

I’ve long believed in the superiority of my English education, partly because it seemed free from the culture wars that plague American schools, so I was horrified to think that Britain might be engaging in patriotic book-banning. Every year the American Library Association (ALA) celebrates Banned Books Week, encouraging libraries across the nation to oppose censorship by displaying books that have been banned, mostly by school districts in response to complaints. The ALA list of Top 100 Banned or Challenged Books in the first decade of the 21st century includes many classics. And yes, both Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird are on the list. In Texas, where Christian conservatives took control of the school board, they are busy diminishing Thomas Jefferson’s place in history (he promoted separation of church and state after all) in favor of teaching that America is God’s chosen nation. Slavery and civil rights are downplayed, while Confederate generals and the right to bear arms take center stage. And of course there is the long-running battle across America over teaching creationism in science classes as a valid alternative to evolution.

Viewed through the gauzy veil of nostalgia my education in the 1950’s and 60’s was a ‘Govian’ ideal. I never read an American novel but I did read Middlemarch (apparently Michael Gove’s favorite book), I labored through Bleak House, read Chaucer in the original Middle English, and tackled a new Shakespeare play every term. History was a heroic tour of why “Great” comes before Britain. Although it was the twilight of empire our teachers didn’t acknowledge the fact. Our world maps were still reassuringly stained with imperial red. Anti-Americanism was practically a religion, summed up in the last line of 1066 and All That: “America became Top Nation and History came to a Full Stop.” Perhaps it was the disconnect between this education and the reality of the changing world around us that made my generation rebel. For the classics didn’t narrow our minds, they expanded them and enabled us to move beyond the world we inherited from the generations before us.

As librarians and sensible parents everywhere know, once you introduce children to the pleasures of reading they will explore the world of books on their own for a lifetime. I started out with the complete oeuvre of Enid Blyton, the Just William books, and Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazon series. I dipped into my father’s bookcase and discovered his collection of Billy Bunter books. In school I read the British classics but on my own I discovered a New World. The very first American novel I read was Moby Dick and I’ve never forgotten the strange, mesmerizing experience. I alternated chapters with reading Paradise Lost, the set book at school, and forever after the characters of Satan and the Whale are linked in my imagination. I shocked my English teacher by recommending Madame Bovary to the class. She cut me off and explained that it was on the “index” of books Catholics were forbidden to read. At home one evening I was reading William James’s The Essence of Humanism, another forbidden book, when our parish priest stopped by for a visit. I hastily slipped it under the sofa cushion. So might an American young adult today hide a “banned” book under her pillow.

I hope the efforts of any book banners on both sides of the pond come to naught, but I really think Mr. Gove is right in suggesting that at least some British classics be taught in British schools. It is quite shocking to think that this is controversial. He will be glad to know that here in America British Lit lives on. Shakespeare and Dickens are staples of high school English classes. And on that list of 100 most banned books there is only one British classic, Brave New World.

As of yet American educators have not retaliated in the Book Wars by suggesting that American young people read only American classics. Nor have the arbiters of American literary taste suggested that we reciprocate for American inclusion in the Man Booker Prize. Ian McEwan and Hilary Mantel will not be getting a Pulitzer or a National Book Award any time soon. I am actually opposed to including Americans in the Booker for pragmatic reasons. To American readers, particularly the anglophiles who flock to our public libraries, the Booker is the Holy Grail of British writing, the essential guide to new British fiction. Book clubs across the nation compile their reading lists from the year’s literary prizewinners, with the Man Booker short list providing the essential British ingredient. Americans don’t need yet another recommendation for The Goldfinch, a novel that incidentally reveals the influence of Dickens on every page.

Rita Byrne Tull is an ex-pat librarian who lives in Maryland.

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  1. Frank Key on Wednesday 4, 2014

    The story of English education told through the observations of two sixth-formers, forty years apart.

    I recall a boy a couple of years older than me at my grammar school suggesting that, if one intended to read Eng Lit at university, an essential preparation was to read the complete works of Shakespeare.

    On Channel 4 News, in a piece about the latest Gove non-brouhaha, a girl opined that it was bit much to expect her to read two classic novels as part of the course.

  2. George on Wednesday 4, 2014

    “As librarians and sensible parents everywhere know, once you introduce children to the pleasures of reading they will explore the world of books on their own for a lifetime.”

    Yes, if they are bookishly inclined. Others are happy to make use of Cliff Notes.

    Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird recall to me the curriculum that wearies Henry Wilt in Tom Sharpe’s Wilt. The former I recall as having a lot of Steinbeck’s baggage without the scope or humor that often makes him enjoyable. The latter is essentially a children’s book. I would not ban either on any grounds, but I would not regret their replacement by something better. An awful lot of what is read in the middle and high schools is like that–determinedly unsubtle, hiding a boulder under the mattress in case the sleeper might not notice a pea.

    “As of yet American educators have not retaliated in the Book Wars by suggesting that American young people read only American classics.”

    I thought there wasn’t one. Or perhaps it’s like Thailand’s declaration of war in 1942–the State Department filed it and took no further notice.

  3. Worm on Wednesday 4, 2014

    I very much enjoyed ‘Of mice and men’ as a child – so much so in fact that I went on to read all of his other work, including the crappy ones

    Incidentally, one thing I have noticed since the advent of amazon and the ability to purchase books from across the pond – British books always seem to have much cleaner, better designed covers than American ones, not sure why that is. Same goes for uk versus German books too, their covers are often very drab

    • George on Wednesday 4, 2014

      American trade paperbacks often have good cover designs. American hardbacks tend to be unwieldy, as if designed to take up space. I can’t speak to the German product.

    • Daniel K on Wednesday 4, 2014

      UK freezer instant meal packaging is also much better designed than US freezer instant meal packaging.

  4. Brit on Wednesday 4, 2014

    It is extraordinary how Michael Gove has become the Guardianista’s Bogeyman. See this for example

    If widening the diet of GCSE literature to include some Shakespeare can create such a fuss then there really is nothing he can do now that won’t enrage the left.

    I can’t think of another minister in my lifetime subject to such extreme, disproportionate, irrational and continual opprobrium. It’s entirely personal (you can test this by describing a policy to a Guardian-reader to see if they approve. They will, until you attach Gove’s name to it.) An astonishing number of people who pronounce on educative matters think that Academies and Free Schools are privately funded and profit-making.

    Gove has of course only done what a string of Education Ministers of both Labour and Tory governments have wanted to do. The difference – for which history will laud him – is that he’s the first one with the hide of a rhinoceros.

    • Peter on Wednesday 4, 2014

      The irony is that the left can be just as just as enthusiastic about book-banning when it suits them. In fact, while some of the early objections to To Kill a Mockingbird were because of the references to rape and “trashy” language, most of the action in recent decades was because of the use of the N-word, especially by innocent child-heros. For examply, it was banned in Warren, Indiana in 1981 because it does “psychological damage to the positive integration process” and “represents institutionalized racism under the guise of good literature”.

      I’m still researching the ideological underpinnings of the movement to ban the Captain Underpants series and will be back to you in the fullness of time.

      • Rita Byrne Tull on Wednesday 4, 2014

        Huckleberry Finn also appears on the list of frequently banned books for profuse use of the n-word. Ironically in a book that was one of the first by a white American to give a fully humanized portrait of an African American character. Twain owed a debt to African-American language and story-telling traditions. A very interesting work of literary criticism on this theme is Was Huck Black? By Shelley Fisher Fishkin.

    • Rita Byrne Tull on Wednesday 4, 2014

      “I can’t think of another minister in my lifetime subject to such extreme, disproportionate, irrational and continual opprobrium.”

      A similar phenomenon occurs in the U. S. With respect to President Obama. If you ask Americans whether they approve of various policies in the Affordable Care Act they overwhelmingly approve. If you ask their opinion of “Obamacare” they disapprove!

      • Gaw on Wednesday 4, 2014

        I like the sound of “Gove, the British Obama”.

  5. jane on Wednesday 4, 2014

    Thank you Rita. The whole ‘book-banning’ thing was kind of made up. I am a fan of the great Victorian novel (Middlemarch being among my favourite). Gove used to write pretty good articles for the time , so he can’t be all bad. And I see what he’s driving at. i am a lover of American literature too – although I don’t make that distinction myself. I absolutely loved The Secret History, and maybe on your recommendation I will try The Goldfinch. When I finally read ‘An American Tragedy’ I was a bit disappointed. Edith Wharton is tremendous – the best I’ve come across for distilling the American motivations in life, if you see what I mean. And John Irving. But I must stop – and I have ‘Moby Dick’ started several times. It’s James Naughtie’s favourite novel – and he is very good on Radio 4′s Bookclub, so I will try again. I did O and A levels in the 70s and we didn’t do much American literature at all (I’m the same age as Gove) but, cliche though it is, a good story well told is all that’s needed. thanks again.

  6. jane on Wednesday 4, 2014

    eeek I meant to type The Times oops