One Country, One Book?

One Country, One Book?

The folks at TED do a lot of things. They do so much that I don’t really pay attention to them most of the time. But once in a while they come up with something that catches my eye. I was recently tagged in a Facebook post about this article from the TED-Ed part of TED, in which they asked educators from countries around the world to name one book that was each country’s “classic” that is taught to students.

Some things jump out of me about the list. One is that it’s heavily male. That likely reflects a historical bias, since books by men were (and often still are) given undue preference, so the books that came to be regarded as “classics” skewed male. We can, however, correct that when talking about “classics” that are “required reading,” and we should. If you can’t come up with a required reading list with a male-female balance, you aren’t trying. Another thing I notice is that most of the books deal with war. That’s not a value judgment, just an observation.

And, of course, I can’t get past the obvious: none of the books were written for young readers. It’s as if they’re saying “if the book was written with you in mind, it wouldn’t be a classic.” Okay, I’ll just flip a couple of middle fingers at that notion and move on, because I’ll just be preaching to the converted anyway.

The general concept of a “world required reading list” is interesting, though right away you can spot a problem: how do you narrow a country’s literature down to one book?

Let’s use the Canadian choice as an example: Timothy Findley’s The Wars. Let’s overlook that it’s yet another book on the list that is by a male writer and that it is yet another book on the list that is about war. Taken on its own, it was nice to see it get a thumbs-up, for a couple of reasons: first, it’s a great book (despite what happens to the poor horses); second, Timothy Findley’s fame has diminished since his death. At my day job (Cormorant/DCB) we often ask interns about their reading, and in the past few years several have said they’d never heard of Timothy Findley. And these are book people. (Findley isn’t the only writer on the “forgotten” list, but the relevant one here.)

But while I’m glad to see Findley get the nod, is The Wars representative of Canadian literature? Is any book representative of Canadian literature? Canadian literature is as diverse as this “world required reading list.” Asking someone to name one book, and only one book, as “required reading” for Canada is asking someone to give a distorted view of what Canada is.

That said, I love the spirit of the list. The list reminds us that there is more to read in the world than just what is produced in our own country, or in our own language. And in doing so, the list points to a huge gap in how we teach young people literature. When I went to school — and little has changed since then — the writers taught in English literature classes were all (or almost all) from three countries: Canada, the UK, and the United States. That was the world of literature we were exposed to. As a result, that became the base of every young reader’s knowledge, and that remains the case today. It’s a very limited view of the world.

I would love to see young people exposed to more literature from around the world. It would make them better readers and better writers, but it would also make them more aware of the world itself. Nothing takes you to a new place or exposes you to a new culture better than a book. A book does the job far better than a movie or the internet, because your mind lives in a book while you’re reading; it’s a far more intense and far more personal connection than anything you experience on a screen.

I would not, however, do so at the expense of Canadian books. In fact, I’d like to see school students reading more Canadian books. In my ideal world, there would be two required English courses every year: one that teaches nothing but Canadian writers, and another that teaches world literature — and more than just British and American writers. I’d even challenge the idea that you have to teach kids a Shakespeare play every year. That’s a lot of time sucked up by one writer. Why do we all need to be Shakespeare experts? (Maybe I’ll write a column about that bit of blasphemy one day. You can hold off on your fists-shaking-with-rage responses until then.)

Imagine what we’d end up with if we exposed young people to a half-dozen or so Canadian writers — a diverse group of writers — every year, and combined that with connecting them to the rest of the world on a deep level by exposing them to a half dozen or so international writers every year. By the time they finished high school they’d have a rich understanding of the world. We’d envy them. I wish I’d been exposed to more world literature when I was young.

Barry Jowett
Head Caveperson

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