When I was in my early teens my mum gave me a copy of A Tale of Two Cities for either Christmas or a birthday. I read it but it didn't make much of an impact on me. Although I was an avid reader throughout my youth I don't think classics really touched my radar. I think I rebelled against them, probably due to the fact my paternal grandfather had bookshelves stacked high with Dickens, Milton, Fielding and Shakespeare. Who doesn't instinctively feel as a kid that they should be the exact opposite to their family?
Of course, I was exposed to Shakespeare throughout my schooling and appreciated the tragedies enough to see Hamlet and Macbeth on stage at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. I studied the first chapter of Great Expectations for my GCSE coursework and looked at Tess of the D'Urbervilles for an A-Level module. I think Tess proved to be the breakthrough text. Certainly, when I got to university I was more than happy to find myself on a Victorian fiction unit. I remember vividly sitting and reading Jane Eyre in the lounge of my student accommodation, curled up on one of the cheap Ikea chairs and gazing up once in a while to look at the view of Lincoln Cathedral. Jane Eyre was followed by Wuthering Heights then the full text of Great Expectations and other selections. Although these books were part of a syllabus, reading them wasn't a chore (perhaps reading Middlemarch was though). I was then (and still am) a rather shy girl, reluctant to speak in seminars, but I really did enjoy the literature. I hadn't come to the texts on my own as such, but I'd found enjoyment in them because I'd been able to look at them as something other than the books my grandfather enjoyed.
Reaching conclusions about your tastes on your own is satisfying. Most people, unless they're exceptionally eager to please, can't get enjoyment from acting to suit others. When you finally sit down and consider the things you like, there's a certain thrill in knowing that these tastes are yours alone. They may be influenced by the prejudices and encouragements of your past but, if you have even a smidgen of self-awareness, you can pinpoint why you like them and not why people you've known like them.
Look at me and Victorian fiction. From being ambivalent about A Tale of Two Cities I've progressed to studying a minor author at PhD level. Classics of all eras find their way onto my reading piles. I'm intrigued by the literature and culture of the nineteenth-century in particular but I count Tom Jones and Mrs Dalloway amongst my favourite books. But I read them because I want to, not because somebody stern wants me to.
We've got a serious problem in Britain at the moment. One in three children live in houses without books. This is a nightmare and I dread to think where it'll leave us in a few decades. But I don't think pushing so-called 'good' literature on them from a young age is quite the way to go. Some will be receptive to it but a lot won't. It might put them off for life. When I was younger I loved Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl and whatever mystery books I could get my hands on. I happily read tie-ins with my favourite television shows - Sabrina the Teenage Witch springs straight to mind. That's a great way to get children from screen to page without much of an effort. Then perhaps when they get older they'll go looking for fiction they might enjoy themselves. Perhaps they'll even discover Charles Dickens, Emily Bronte and Wilkie Collins on their travels... Ah, well, an academic can dream.