Headmaster's Newsletter Friday 5th March 2021
At the turn of the millennium, John Carey – former Merton Professor of English and NCS parent from the 1980s – published Pure Pleasure: A Guide to the 20th Century’s Most Enjoyable Books. Based on his Sunday Times column, Carey picked out fifty of the books that he had most enjoyed, while admitting that he had left out some big-name novels, and indeed some big-name novelists – the ones that he couldn’t in good conscience recommend to the young, impressionable, and easily put off reading. What I found particularly intriguing about his collection was not so much the choices themselves – trying to narrow down literary greats to fifty or a hundred is necessarily arbitrary and ends up being a bit of a navel-gazing parlour game if we are not careful. It was more Carey’s reflections on reading, and why we should read. During this week of World Book Day, when we celebrate books and reading in all forms, this is particularly relevant, though I concede I am preaching to the converted when it comes to defending reading. If this body of parents isn’t reading, and encouraging their children to read, then I don’t know which is.
All of those things may well be, and probably are, true. But the value of reading needs to go a bit deeper than saying ‘if you read, then your future material life will be better’. There are, of course, the benefits and joys to be gained from reading well-written prose or poetry, from escaping from the day-to-day, from learning in the company of great writers through the ages. Carey reminds us, though, that honing our skills of individual judgement and empathy – and those of our pupils – help to keep societies functioning healthily. It would be an interesting experiment to track the reading habits of those members of societies where empathy has atrophied, where critical independent judgement has dwindled, and where populations are therefore more vulnerable to snake oil salesmen promising futures posited against ‘the other’, and where the words of such ‘leaders’ are accepted pretty much uncritically. My hunch is that the healthier societies, the healthier democracies, are those where reading is a high priority, where citizens delve into books to find alternatives to the ‘facts’ given to them from on high, and to the lifestyle and systems in which they may happen to find themselves. Our boys only need to walk up Holywell Street to find themselves at the Bodleian where only three and a half centuries ago books were being burned because they suggested alternative ways of running society and politics, which were uncomfortable (to put it mildly) to the leaders of the time. So while we celebrate World Book Day and its excitement, costumes, and competitions – and while we keep telling our charges that reading is good for their brains both intellectually and recreationally – we should keep our eyes on the bigger picture: that reading is what keeps our societies functioning healthily.
Have a great weekend,