The Death of a Thousand Annotations

Last week’s To Be Read Podcast was on the effect of school set texts on later reading habits. Frequent visitors will be unsurprised to know having to read certain books didn’t put me off reading, but I did notice an impact on my reading habits.

My mother worked as a librarian, so I grew up surrounded by both books and the sense reading was a good thing. By the time I reached secondary school, I read books faster than I could borrow them from the library. And this avid reading of as much as possible took in the set texts. While I didn’t love everything on the various syllabi, I sought out more books by many of the authors: sometimes discovering new joys, such as Golding’s To the Ends of the Earth trilogy; sometimes exceeding my reach, as with my first attempt at Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. I even read my way through large chunks of the English Department’s list of great works.

Where the set texts did make a difference was in which books I return to. Although I enjoyed studying most of the texts, I haven’t returned to them; which – as I read other books by the same authors – is more than a change in my taste. Something about the studying of books formally took the fun from them.

Which is one of the reasons why I studied Law and not English at University: a large part of law is the same textural analysis and defence of interpretations; but law does not drag the sheer beauty of prose into the mix.

Of course, with my weekly reviews, I have now returned to the critiquing of books. However – with no need to fit anyone else’s format or provide objective valuations – I am free to keep those reviews about how books affect me rather than why the author used peach musk instead of magnolia blush to describe wallpaper.

What effect did set texts have on your reading habits?

5 thoughts on “The Death of a Thousand Annotations

  1. It got me to read “To Kill a Mockingbird”, which was good. It also meant I had to read “The Old Man and the Sea”, which was bad. Overall, I think the set texts are detrimental. It would make more sense to encourage kids to read anything, no matter what it was, than to force them into set books that are often tedious.

    Shakespeare, for instance, suffers a lot in schools. It’s the last thing to give to a teenager with a short attention span. It’s difficult enough as an adult, but as a teenager every second word is old-fashioned and difficult to interpret.


    1. There are some books that I wouldn’t have chosen to read that had a big effect on my language skills. So – while I agree getting everyone reading is a superb goal – not having set texts might cause issues for people at the top end of potential.

      How many, and which, set texts is a trickier question. Shakespeare is potentially taught the wrong way around: teaching modern poetry, then Shakespeare’s sonnets, then the plays would ease new readers into it; rather than expecting them to handle MacBeth or another long work without context.


      1. I dunno. I have to think we’re at the top end of reading comprehension, since we both read a lot. For a lot of kids, it’d make them think all reading is “boring”. It’s why I think Twilight is good, despite its reputation, because it gets some people to realise there are books out there for them.

        And I still don’t like Shakespeare, even now, but I do like some modern adaptations 🙂


        1. I didn’t mean only set texts, I meant not having any set texts could leave some people unaware of their actual boundaries. I go out of my way to read new things, and still mostly read in a narrow area; as most teenagers will be less self-motivating than I am after many years of work &c., they probably won’t be pushing themselves the way having some set work does.

          The real issue would be separating educational quality from specialist training: so basic English teaches reading as a useful, non-stressful, thing to be able to do (which would need some examples, but could mostly be whatever the individual student wanted to read), then intermediate English expands on the concept of reading not being stressful by looking for boundaries (which would need a few set texts), then extreme English focuses on technical aspects to achieve various things (which would need plenty of set texts).

          Each student gets as much experience of a level as they need to either advance to the next one or reach the point where they will not benefit from a more academic course.

          From a student perspective, I benefited greatly from my school putting me in a class that did English in a year instead of the two the curriculum was designed for (and the same for maths), so it can work on a small scale: applying the same “develop the pupil at the right speed for them” approach on a broad scale is beyond my experience of scholastics, so I couldn’t say how you would do it.

          Conversely, finding out some things are boring but sometimes you have to do them anyway is a useful life skill, so having a few books you can’t not read could be good over the course of a childhood.


          1. What could be useful is having the students decide on the book for the whole class. You’d get groups voting for their favourite book, but the others might realise the only way to battle that is to vote for something else collectively. There should, perhaps, be a list, thought to prevent kids picking 50 Shades of Grey or Lady Chatterly’s Lover.

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