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Amongst certain types of families, there is a desire to encourage their children to read the best literature from a young age. If they do not read then they should be involved in some other way and come to know the best writing– meaning the writing that has been most durable – over time.

This motive seems to come from the best of intentions. An appreciation of fine writing, along with music and food, are the qualities that make for an enriching life. It’s a good start to have some sense of what these books are, where they come from and what they have to say. They also promote mental faculties, such as reasoning; develop the vocabulary and understanding of other people.

Humans are status seeking and this type of formation, or engagement in the education, is subliminally a means of giving the child an advantage. It’s not a Nash equilibrium, strictly, but it is competitive, although no one would admit it publicly.

This insight came together a couple of weeks ago when I read an actor’s piece extolling Shakespeare. The idea he was pushing is that parents engage children in the plays. Once they had experienced the plays, he reasoned, the children would be excited, thrilled, charmed and swooning all at the same time.

His own appreciation had come late, as he admitted, because he had been a poor student, and so it was that when he came to acting, he fell completely for the work. He was now committed, like a person who finds religion and want so convert everyone they meet. This is not unworthy feeling.

It can be slightly oppressive. Somehow, though, if it wasn’t literature, it might not be so lofty to tell parents: ‘Engage thine offspring with the Bard! For in him, they shall revel in all that is great!

If it was a father’s deep commitment to football, or cars, and it was those passions which were engaged, it might be seen as a hobby, which had been thrust on junior, and which, due to respect and devotion, she was obliged to enjoy. She might. I knew someone years ago who loved pre-war Bugattis because her father collected them. In this case, pre-war signified before 1914.

Anyway, back to writing.

There a couple of concerns with this engagement. The first one that comes up is that unless it’s the real words, not some diluted version, or a modern day, ‘based on’ with contemporary language, it doesn’t count at all. If it ain’t in iambic pentameter, it’s not the real thing. The second thing is that much of the work is not suitable for anyone under 15; not suitable as current guidelines and censorship would have it. Take Titus Andronicus, a thudding stupid play, which is exceedingly violent; its only quality is the invention of violence, which would get a R-rating as a movie. Maybe not a good idea to read that one, or at least half a dozen others of the same ilk.

These aspirations do seem restricted to the English-speaking world. A quick search amongst blogs and articles in France does not show French parents wishing for the same engagement as the Rosbifs. Obviously French children would be more involved with Molière. It might be so, just not easy to find; or they might be more equivocal on the subject and like Molière know that the wisdom of youth is to know how to enjoy its charms.

Guy Cranswick
10th April 2014