Books are important. Some people feel that the habit, the skill, the pleasure of reading is under threat and that what is threatened is more than just something to pass the time. Britain’s chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks has written: Until recently, national cultures were predicated on the idea of a canon, a set of texts that everyone knew. In the case of Britain they included the Bible, Shakespeare and the great novels. The existence of a canon is essential to a culture. It means that people share a set of references and resonances, a public vocabulary of narratives and discourse.” The implication is that when this set of references begins to disintegrate then the very fabric of the culture itself will begin to disintegrate.
There is no doubt but there is uneasiness among us about the coherence of our culture today – in both these islands. It is debatable whether or not the weakening of this canon is a factor. But it is worth debating. The increasing dominance and impact of aural and visual media seems to be the main agent in supplanting our attraction to the written word on the page. Can these media give us what the written word on the page gives – a time and a space for reflection on what we absorb? Perhaps. But until we know that what we might be losing can be sacrificed without risk, it behoves us to do all we can to keep the canon of great books, great music and great art which help define what we are and who we are. In this task the educational curricula of the home and the school are the central pillars.