Putin’s Literary Canon

Let us take a survey of our most influential cultural figures and compile a 100-book canon that every Russian school leaver will be required to read.” Vladimir Putin

You may not have heard about Putin’s plan to develop a Russian literary canon of 100 books which ever student leaving school would be required to read. For those unfamiliar with the problems surrounding state mandated reading, Alexander Nazaryan outlines them pretty effectively here so I won’t go into the political/national/historical side of the issue.

What gets me, apart from the above, is the psychological impact of such a mandate. I’m not a huge fan of reading by numbers, I don’t find that it motivates me and as a big fan of book topic blogs on wordpress, I’ve noticed that many people who set themselves a yearly target of books to read are already becoming stressed at “falling behind” or are worrying about “what counts”.

As a former English teacher, I hate the idea of a dictate stating that students must read x amount books from a list of y and z which is a pity, since the study of English literature generally necessitates some required reading.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m wholly in favour of encouraging anyone to become a reader. But when something becomes a rule, the pleasure is taken out of it. Though some people find a numerical target motivating, there are an equal number who will find it causes them to dig in their heels or shy away from a task. By forcing students to read from a list of prescribed books I believe that you are at risk of creating a huge number of reluctant readers.

A hundred books? That eliminates anyone who has any kind of literacy issue or comprehension difficulty (and who would benefit most from reading regularly) from wanting to read.

A set literary cannon? During The Big Read, the BBC published a list of 100 books that everyone should read. Say that this was a compulsory literary cannon and I had to read every book on there, I’d rather eat your eyeballs (not mine, I need them) than read Jane Austen’s Persuasion. And I’m something of a compulsive reader. I’ve read several (too many) Jane Austen novels and found myself irritated beyond belief in some way by each one of them. Being forced to read another (my grandmother has tried) would spoil my enjoyment of reading.

So politics aside, I think that for any government to set a list of 100 books that all students must read would do more harm than good. When their intentions are to create a forced sense of “unity” or preserve the “dominance” of a culture then you’re in trouble. (Though interestingly as a side note, that’s how the study of English literature came into being- the British government decided that it would have a “civilising” influence on the Indian population they were oppressing ruling at the time and they wanted to indoctrinate the populace with British values.)

In the immortal words of David Nicholls,

 “And Jackson, of course you should study whatever subject you want, the appreciation of literature, or any kind of artistic endeavor, is absolutely essential to a decent society, why do you think books are the first thing that the Fascists burn? You should learn to stick up for yourself more.” David Nicholls, Starter for Ten

You can control a person’s ideals and beliefs by controlling what they read.

One thought on “Putin’s Literary Canon

  1. IntrovertedAnalyst

    I find this rather ironic, given that Russia’s had a history of banning books and sending a few of its authors to prison camps and such… but regardless, you’re right. Making reading mandatory serves only to get people on Cliff Notes, as opposed to actually reading. I know there are quite a few books I read in high school that I might actually have enjoyed if I hadn’t been forced into reading them. I do think there are books that are definitely classics and that can be read to really good effect in the classroom… but making a statewide mandate is another problem entirely. Waaaay too easy to get nothing but propaganda there.

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