100 classic books all secondary pupils should read: the DfE’s definitive list

Erica Wagner, author and literary critic, has read 50. Mick Connell, director of the National Association for the Teaching of English has read 34. And TES editor Ann Mroz has read 41.

But, the Department for Education says, these are the 100 classic books that should be read by school pupils.

A new initiative has been launched jointly by schools minister Nick Gibb and publishers Penguin Classics, following Mr Gibb’s call for more classic literature to be taught in schools.

The 100 titles include Jane Eyre and Great Expectations, but also Dante’s Inferno, Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, and the Dhammapada.

The books include fiction, non-fiction, poetry and prose, all chosen from the Penguin Black Classic series. This means that their authors died before 1946, and the works are therefore out of copyright.

Mr Gibb has said that he hopes these books will encourage classroom discussion about classic literature. “It is important that all pupils in secondary school are taught to read and enjoy challenging books from among the world’s greatest literature,” he said.

But many well-read adults question the choice of books. “I read Great Expectations at 12,” said Ms Wagner. “Mistake!

The 1,001 Nights – excellent. Unabridged? My 15-year-old son just got hold of that and it gave him quite a shock.”

And Mr Connell – who points out that his total of 34 books would have been higher had he been allowed to include other titles by the same authors – highlights some of the authors who have been excluded.

“Where are the brilliant, contemporary writers for young and adolescent readers?” he said. “Where are the very best in modern and contemporary literature? Where is Golding, Plath, Atwood, Hughes, Heaney, Pinter, Becket, Angelou, Morrison and Mantel?

“Although I realise that they had to choose exclusively from Penguin Classics series. That’s like choosing clothes for teenage children from Marks and Spencer: a worthy intention without the slightest chance of success.”

TES editor Ms Mroz, who was formerly books editor of THE, similarly questions some of the choices. “Where’s Sylvia Plath?” she said. “If you’re trying to get young girls reading, I’d have a bit of Plath. And I’m outraged that you can miss out F. Scott Fitzgerald or Graham Greene.”

She also points out that some of author’s more-accessible books – Dickens’ Oliver Twist or Austen’s Emma – have been overlooked in favour of more-complicated ones: Great Expectations or Persuasion.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is missing too,” said Ms Wagner. “If you wanted to choose a single novel that actually changed something in the world, I reckon it would be that one. But then, no list will make everyone happy.”

Some lists, however, come closer than others. “ TES did a rather good job of publishing 100 titles for primary and secondary pupils back in the summer of 2015,” said Mr Connell. “I’d suggest you send copies to the Department.”

How many of the DfE’s 100 books have you read? Vote for your favourites in our poll.

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