Essential reading: a pre-university books list is much-needed

Matthew Reisz welcomes an academics’ list of vital texts for those entering higher education

April 14, 2016
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'I've read almost all of those': is bibliomania a thing of the past?

Unlike other “solitary vices” of adolescence, reading can often become a lifelong passion.

There must be many academics among those who always have a book to hand, take far too many books on holiday and regard reading almost as central to their lives as eating and breathing. Yet, as we explore in a lead feature in this week’s issue, such bibliomaniacs are increasingly living a different world from their students. The Communist Manifesto is short, fiery, designed to be read by the ordinary working man and of vast historical significance. Yet students on an MA course in history, according to a friend of mine, strongly resisted her suggestion that they should have to read all of it.

For those of us who have always found reading one of the prime pleasures in life, this is pretty startling and depressing. Several of the academics I spoke to were very eloquent about why it represents a significant loss to the educational process when students fail to engage with extended arguments, read around the core texts or reflect on the history and ethical dilemmas of their disciplines. To try to do at least a little to foster a lasting bibliophilia in the young, therefore, we asked a larger group of academics from a wide range of disciplines each to recommend a single book for sixth-formers soon to go to university.

Our criteria were deliberately vague. We were happy to hear about a book that would “help potential students hone their critical thinking, prepare them for independent learning, understand the basics of scientific (or social scientific) method or even negotiate the social and sexual minefield that lies ahead”. We couldn’t have been more delighted by the range of responses. Our list, which is also published in this week’s TES (read by schoolteachers), takes in escapism and heavyweight philosophy, political polemics and coming-of-age novels, warnings about lecherous professors and encouragements to “relish every opportunity for love, adventure, roving and enjoyment”.

I wish I’d known about some of them before I went to university and, though I found love and much enjoyment, largely missed out on the “roving” and “adventure”. As with any such list, half the fun comes from arguing about some of the more unexpected suggestions and grumbling about what has been missed out. Yet we very much hope there is “something in there for even the most bibliophobic of 18-year-olds”.

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