Law and Conversation

June 6, 2011

Books to read before you’re 21

Last week I wrote about some recently posted reading lists. One was from the Sky Arts UK program, “The Book Show,” which posted a list of Books To Read Before You’re 21. The program’s managers solicited ideas for that list from noted authors who have appeared as guests.

Here’s a view of my thoughts as I browsed that list:

1) Wow, what great books!

2) Gee, I’ve always considered myself pretty well-read, but I don’t think I’d read most of the books on that list before I was 21.

3) Hmm, I see a number of books on this list that I’ve read only recently, and it’s been a while since I turned 21.

4) Oh, dear, there are a number of books here that I haven’t yet read!

5) Hmmm again–I’m seeing very few books on this rather long list that I’d think would be suitable for or commonly read by kids under 10.  Maybe five or fewer for kids under 15. And not a single Newbery Medal winner!

The books on the SkyArts list include Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables,” John Updike’s “Rabbit” tetralogy, and James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” Most of the others, like those, are very complex works that are suitable for adults and mature teens but not for children.

Given that this book list is for young readers–yes, 21 is still pretty young–I wonder why the contributors to that list didn’t include more children’s and YA literature? Were they zeroing in on 21-year-old readers to the exclusion of the 20 years in the rest of the category?

A tiny handful of contributors did recommend books for the younger set. There’s one Beatrix Potter story, “The Tale of Tom Kitten,” and one by Dr. Seuss:  “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!” A.A. Milne’s “Winnie The Pooh” made it on, and so did T.H. White’s “The Once And Future King.” Certainly, Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” can also be read and appreciated by preteens.

To my disappointment, the contributor who recommended “Tom Kitten” apologized for her recommendation, saying she feared it would lower the tone. To the contrary! Those who haven’t read Beatrix Potter, Dr. Seuss, or Winnie The Pooh since they were children might not remember them well, but all of those works are complex, can be read on more than one level, and are as enjoyable for adults as for children. In fact, I’d include the complete works of both Potter and Seuss on any list of books that everyone should read before 21.

Readers, are you as disappointed as I am not to see more classics that can be read and enjoyed by young children on this list? Should everyone have read Joyce’s “Ulysses” and Updike’s “Rabbit” tetralogy before their 21st birthday?

Please rejoin me in a couple of days, when I’ll have three recommendations of my own (besides all of Beatrix Potter and all of Dr. Seuss) for classic books that everyone should read before turning 21. Hint: none are by James Joyce, John Updike, or Leo Tolstoy!

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