In defence of books
The recent report regarding book ownership amongst our nation’s young people is shocking. That so many of our youngsters report not owning a book is a scandal. Booktrust have some thoughts of their own around book ownership, which I’d urge you to have a look at. But having studied a few other responses to the report, mainly on newspaper websites and message boards, I’ve found that some people need reminding why this lack of ownership is a bad thing. For me, that is an even bigger issue.
I’m stunned that we have to defend books and their value at all. Perhaps I live in a literary bubble, but I’ve always assumed that most people understand the direct connection between reading for pleasure and future success. However, it seems that I’m mistaken. From wrong-headed decisions to close down public and school libraries, cuts to literacy projects, and through to this latest finding, it seems that our nation needs a wake-up call.
If so many young people don’t own books, then they have no direct relationship with them. This is how barriers to reading (and to improving life chances) occur. That’s four million who will not reap the benefits that books bring, will grow up thinking that reading is for ‘other’ people and whose life chances are being critically hampered. This is simply unacceptable in any country that is serious about education for all.
There’s also the simple fact that those without a book are more likely to come from deprived economic backgrounds, from the black and minority ethnic communities, and other groups that are already heavily disadvantaged. I’ve absolutely no doubt about that, because I come from the same background. I’ve experienced a home without books, and watched many of my friends have their opportunities in life curtailed simply because of where or to whom they were born. It’s like some horrible cycle being repeated endlessly, and it needs to be brought to a shuddering and permanent halt.
Many have resorted to the tried and tested scapegoats too. It’s the fault of parents, and/or teachers they say. It’s an indicator that something is wrong with library provision, or with the reach and persuasion of librarians. Or it’s a natural progression, in these technologically advancing times, away from books and towards new media. Complete and utter nonsense, all of it. Books are as vital now as they were when highly educated boffins created computers and computer language. In fact, without books, those silicon pioneers would never have invented computers at all. It wasn’t a PC or Mac that dragged us here from our earliest beginnings. It was books and the education that they provided.
It isn’t the fault of library provision either – at least not in most senses. The only issue regarding libraries is that closing them down is foolish and shortsighted. Restricting their opening hours and funding smacks of idiocy. If we are serious about improving literacy in the UK, we need a vibrant, quality library service. You can’t have that if you’re killing it off.
And then we move on to teachers – those wonderfully dedicated and hard-working professionals who spend their days trying to provide better futures for our youth. What a glorious and noble thing. Yet, instead of being lauded and properly rewarded for their efforts, teachers find themselves being blamed for all manner of problems. With reading for pleasure, it’s all about not teaching the correct way or trying out fancy new ideas instead of relying on tried and tested methods. How many of their accusers actually bother to discover what’s really happening? Teachers have no control over the way they teach. If they did, education in the UK would go back to being excellent. Given the resources (time as well as money), and free from interference by whoever happens to be in power that year, I reckon our teachers would take some beating. Instead, they are taking a beating.
So are parents. The other day I heard a woman ask ‘what sort of parent doesn’t buy books for their children?’ The answer is obvious. Unemployed or low-paid parents, functionally illiterate parents, parents whose grasp of English is poor, parents who are dealing with health issues, parents who grew up thinking books were for posh people – the list goes on. Go back to the poll sample used by the National Literacy Trust who conducted the report, and find those respondents who don’t own a book. Then go and take a look at their backgrounds. If you don’t find the parental issues I’ve outlined, I’ll eat my own foot. Without mustard…
The long-term solution is not to scapegoat anyone. It isn’t to close down the institutions that can help, or sideline them until they are effectively redundant. Every single child in the UK should own at least one book. In order to make that target, all of us need to get together and work out what kind of nation we want – literate or not? Then we need to properly fund and implement a national literacy strategy that works. It’s really not that hard, and we already have many fine organisations doing sterling work, like Booktrust, whose Booked Up programme is a stunning achievement. Yet there’s more to be done. It cannot be that four million young people in the UK don’t own a book. For the sake of all of our futures