Diane Coyle’s question – what should the well-read student read? – has prompted some good answers, not least her own. But for me it raises a question: are there some classic books which are age-specific – which youngsters might love but older folk not, and vice versa?
Here are two examples from my sixth-form years. For my English A level, I had to read Middlemarch. It inspired me – to drop my plans to study English at university. God it was turgid. But it’s quite possible that its themes of disappointment and mediocrity would chime better with the middle-aged – though I’ve yet to summon the appetite to find out.
Then my history teacher, seeing that I was a gobby socialist (what – you’re surprised?) urged me to read Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty. His motives were entirely correct: one must read to challenge one’s prejudices, not confirm them. But I couldn’t get to grips with it. Maybe Hayek’s key insight – that our knowledge is tightly bounded – can only be learned properly at the School of Hard Knocks and formalized by reading after that bitter experience. Perhaps some things can’t be understood by cocksure youngsters, and nor should they be.
I suspect that two other writers I admire – Michael Oakeshott and P.G. Wodehouse – would have left me cold had I tried them when I was young.
The converse is also true. Some books are more suitable for youngsters. To a certain type of 16-year-old, Thus Spake Zarathrusta is a fantastic read. The older reader, however, thinks that someone should have had a quiet word with Mr Nietzsche. I suspect the same goes for Ayn Rand.
And I remember reading Crime and Punishment in almost one sitting as a teenager. But I was disappointed when I re-read it in older age (The Brothers Karamazov, on the other hand, remains my favourite novel.)
This thinking leads me to two principles that should inform our suggestions for what bright young people should read.
One is that readability matters. Books, at that age, should be fun to read. For me, this makes Diane’s suggestion of Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding a brave one: it might work brilliantly, but might not. I’d also quibble with her recommendation of Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. Much as I admire his work, and think behavioural economics and cognitive biases very important, I found the first few chapters of that rather dull. I’d prefer to recommend Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, which is a livelier read.
For the same reason, if I had to recommend a work of political philosophy, I’d plump for Nozick’s Anarchy State and Utopia on the grounds of readability. Most of you – and me – would find Rawls or Sen’s ideas more congenial. But let’s face it, they’re not exciting reads.
Young people will discover soon enough that most people – not least those who claim to be intellectuals – are tedious bores*. There’s no reason why they should learn this earlier than is necessary.
Secondly, books should alert youngsters to the breadth of ideas out there without necessarily flatly contradicting them. In my youth, Sabine’s History of Political Theory and Russell’s History of Western Philosophy did this. I like to think that Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue might have a similar effect, with a twist, today.
You might object here that the books we should advise youngsters to read are those we agree with. I disagree. The point of education is not to turn out a generation of mini-mes. If your ideas are worth having, intelligent and curious young people will eventually discover them for themselves.
I must, however, caveat all this massively. I have little experience of young people: for obvious reasons, few people would me anywhere near them. My question to those who do have such experience is: how wrong am I?
* In their defence, this might (in a few cases at least) be because, as Isaiah Berlin said, there’s no reason to suppose that the truth, if it is ever discovered, will necessarily prove interesting. I worry that a lot of the advice I give readers in my day job is boring and repetitive.