I've been reading The Golden Compass to the kids lately, and, aside from a rather disorienting in-media-res opening that seems designed more like the beginning of a movie than the beginning of a book, I'm amazed at how good it is. Its explorations of the nature of the soul are very surprising and quite moving, even to me. And when, the other night, while the kids were in bed, I accidentally picked it up instead of the book I had been reading for class, I was struck by a wave of disappointment that I wouldn't get to continue reading alone.
Anyway, my students were a bit bored during the last class of the semester on Thursday, in part because we were discussing The Unconsoled, which only about 5 out of 35 liked. (To me, it's maddening in only the best possible way; to others, it's just maddening.) There's a section in which the protagonist, Ryder, recalls his childhood "training sessions," during which he would challenge himself to resist, while alone, the desire to go to his parents, and instead would endure the pain of separation.
I told my students that this reminded me of the scene in The Golden Compass where Lyra, its protagonist, is challenged by her daemon (in the book, this is a physical manifestation of the soul that takes the form of a companion animal from which a person cannot be separated by more than a few feet) to speak to a frightening warrior bear, and literally drags her into the conversation, causing feelings of deep pain and desolation. Both this scene and its analog in The Unconsoled are about the creation of the self via an intentional detachment from objects of love.
Suddenly the class woke up. They had all read the book, and they all saw the parallel. The rest of the session was actually pretty interesting. When I told Rhian this later that night, she pointed out that, though we were encouraged to read when we were kids, we lacked any real shared literate culture--there were not many seminal books that every smart kid read, and certainly no series as weighty as Pullman's or as widespread as the Harry Potter books. There was, say, the Hardy Boys, but those books kind of sucked, and you didn't go yammering with your friends about them. She argued--and perhaps will do so some more in the comments--that, far from the conventional wisdom that kids today are being devoured by trash culture, they are rather forming a powerful shared literary experience.
Of course, my Cornell students are a pretty rarefied group--they are all smart, and most are obsessive readers. But it seems to me that Rhian's right, that people of college age today are informed by a shared body of actually quite decent books, which they all understand and can talk about, and which form a common intellectual background that they are building on as adults. We had interesting childhoods, but I don't think we had anything quite like that.