It’s an inescapable truth that many children do not read books. Surveys reveal that a very large number of homes and families do not own books. Parents who don’t read bring up children who don’t read. That cycle has always been with us but the arrival of new forms of tech in the past 30 years has accelerated it. Now, many young people who might have been readers in the past spend those hours staring at screens, whether it be smartphone, tablet, laptop or TV with games console.
So there are fewer and fewer readers. Of course, some people read on screens and Kindle users love the fact that they can take lots of books on holiday this way. But young people don’t have the original type of Kindle and if they do read via their phone or other web-linked device then they will be subject to notification distraction. How can they become absorbed in a great story when their phone is buzzing with Instagram posts?
As more and more people abandon reading they are cut off from the profound benefits that books bestow. Reading brings knowledge, understanding, insight, awareness. It allows pondering, deliberation, careful consideration. Reading gives the reader an opportunity to step into another’s shoes, visit another place, experience another time, feel another culture. It develops empathy, that most vital of human qualities.
But reading needn’t be heavy. It can be fun, exciting, exhilarating, adventurous, downright terrifying! Fiction, fact and poetry can lift our spirits to extraordinary heights as well as make us weep. Books can spur interests that we never knew we possessed – you turn a page and there is something you’ve been looking for for years. Or the reader is simply inspired to take up a new challenge or join others in a new cause.
These things happen from the start of a life. From a baby seeing pictures and hearing words associated with them (and therefore accelerating its language development) to toddlers giggling at a silly rhyme to juniors going on a mystery journey in a short novel, to teenagers reading about what it’s like to grow up in a dangerous slum on the other side of the planet, the reader develops, grows, learns, sees, thinks, begins to understand. Imagination is expanded.
Within the brain, new neural pathways are formed, cell activity is fired as the mind puts together the strands of sensory and mental experience derived from the written page: squiggly black symbols need to be processed and interpreted; context needs to be established; meaning needs to be explored and weighed against knowledge and experience; questions need to be asked (‘what’s going to happen next?’) and emotions need to be activated and evaluated. This is the mental equivalent of good exercise. For fitness read intellectual progression. On my school author visits I simply tell the kids that reading makes them clever.
It’s my view that if we had a true reading culture in this country then we would have a more informed, less superficial society. I think voters would be less likely to elect populist leaders who appeal to people’s basest instincts, or put up with political systems which encourage greed and materialism. I think we’d be fairer, more tolerant, more interested in social justice and community. It’s my view that many of the problems we currently have are rooted in inequality and I believe that a nation of readers who have developed empathy and understanding since childhood would not allow this division to go on, causing increasing amounts of resentment and animosity.
It’s sad that there is no political will to do something about our descent into the superficiality and rancour partly instigated by technology. The media seem to have no interest in recognising the vital importance of reading books, not just in making us better informed but in reducing stress and helping address the rising tide of mental health issues. The education system is so under pressure that teachers, even those who know the enormous value of reading, barely have time to promote it. Libraries, which should be at the heart of a reading culture have been ruthlessly sacrificed. The tax which Amazon owes could keep them all open.
The book could bring healing but it remains on the shelf, gathering dust while everyone squabbles.
For anyone who doubts the power of reading, here is some research evidence: