The arrival in the White House of a man who, by his own account, ‘doesn’t have time to read’ (or, if he does, ‘reads chapters’) in place of a President well known for his love of reading has prompted me to consider the place of book-reading in our changing world.
Does it matter if you don’t have (or perhaps we should say ‘make’) time to read books?
Our annual Book Week in school last week invited us to consider the importance to us of reading books. This, in the context of rising evidence of reading culture being under pressure. For example, Kevin Stannard, in a recent blog for TES about book culture, drew upon recent research which found that 10% of the UK population do not own a single book, even as the average household was found to have eight devices connected to the internet, suggesting that reading is in decline and book culture is on the retreat nationally. The drastic decline in public libraries in recent years is surely both a cause and a symptom of the same trend.
To look around me in school, however, suggests a very different story and evidence of the continuing vibrancy of a book culture is writ large all around us. Witness just a few examples from the last fortnight; Mrs Farrar’s Class Assembly with Reception focused on the power of story-telling as a threshold into reading, moving from pictures to words, while Miss Buxton’s Assembly to Senior School shared with us the life and work of a favourite author of the seniors, the late Siobhan Dowd, as a launchpad for our annual Book Week. Jodie Welton’s contribution to the latter, reading aloud an extract from Dowd’s ‘The London Eye Mystery’, conjured up for us the pleasure, probably now experienced only as a memory for most, of being read to.
Reading is all-too-easy to characterise as an unsociable activity, in contrast to more collective endeavours, such as team sports or social networking. But this is not really the case. As C S Lewis is heard to say in ‘Shadowlands’ – ‘We read to know that we are not alone.’ In reading what someone else has written, we enter into the mind of another, forging powerful connections with the writer – even if that writer is long dead or far distant from us and our lives. Our favourite authors become like companions to us on life’s journey – and how often have we read a passage describing the thoughts, feelings and experiences of a book’s character and been struck by the feeling that ‘ah – that is exactly how it is for me too’?
Or else, reading, by connecting us with the unfamiliar, nourishes our powers of empathy. Barack Obama has said, recalling his own experience, ‘When I think about how I understand my role as citizen, setting aside being president…the most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels. It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays, but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that. And the notion that it’s possible to connect with someone even though they’re very different from you.’
Identifying with characters from books is surely a universal experience. So, the annual Harry Potter party for Y5-U3 on 2 February gave girls the chance to take on the identity of their favourite HP character while Nursery girls (and their teachers) had plenty of fun earlier in the week dressing up as their favourite story-book characters – from Cinderella to Wally.
Reading also connects us with other readers. When I think of the great array of human pursuits that revolve around the shared enjoyment of reading – book groups, literary festivals, reviews, blogs, book prizes, recommendations, literary quizzes – it is clear that, even as we have witnessed theexponential growth of digital networks, book culture remains as durable as ever and part of the very bedrock of our society. Only consider the appeal and success of Emma Watson’s feminist book club and media platform ‘Our Shared Shelf.’
Robert Macfarlane’s excellent essay ‘The Gifts of Reading’, published just before Christmas, is a moving meditation on the ability of book-giving and -exchange to bring us closer to each other, as well as enriching our minds along with our bookshelves. Junior School pupils sampled this pleasure last week when Year 3 shared their favourite stories with Year 1 while Year 5, in turn, offered their book recommendations to Year 3.
Access to reading is not, alas, a birth right – UNESCO estimates that nearly 17% of the adult population globally is illiterate, with 493 million women and 122 million young people being unable to read. Inevitably, illiteracy is both a symptom of inequality – with non-readers concentrated among the poorest and most underprivileged segments of the population – and also a cause of its perpetuation, being a major barrier to employment and social mobility.
Mark Twain, an author who has stood high on many a list of favourite authors among past generations, observed, ‘the man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.’ I pause to consider how this observation will strike the millions of our world’s citizens in the developed world, including the current President of the United States (POTUS), who believe that they don’t have time to read.
Dr Helen Stringer, Headmistress
R Macfarlane ‘The Gifts of Reading’ https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/294596/the-gifts-of-reading/