Opinion

Paul McNamee: We’re still on the same page. Books must be for everyone

It’s clear the benefits to the reader and society are big, but opportunity is increasingly closed

libraries credit robin byles

At The Big Issue we never tire of banging on about the power of reading to improve lives.

We have lobbied for better literacy across Britain.

We have called for libraries to be kept open. We believe closing school libraries is an act of short-term cultural vandalism and cuts off a path to social mobility. If access is closed, how can opportunity be found?

We have called for independent bookshops to be allowed the same sort of tax freedoms that Amazon enjoys. We believe this would offer societal benefits and a way to help high streets thrive.

We will sound the battlecry whenever we get the chance. We carry book reviews every week. We invite people from across the spectrum to provide guides and reading lists.

And this week we open the door further again by launching a competition to find a new crime writer. This is no hollow request. We’re working with HarperCollins. There’s a two-book deal in this for the winner. It’s about opportunity for all, a door opening where it may previously have been closed, a chance to make a dream come true.

Last week an extensive survey of the reading habits of a million schoolkids published its findings. What Kids Are Reading found something that shouldn’t really come as a surprise. Reading for pleasure, for just 15 minutes a day or more, accelerates the development of children.

It’s clear the benefits to the reader and society are big, but opportunity is increasingly closed.

Despite this, there was a sniffy response to the survey from some quarters. There was a claim that teenagers are reading books that aren’t challenging enough. This is something that was ALSO said last year when the annual reading habits survey was published. What bunk.

Books must not be exclusive. They are inclusive

Any parent – of teenagers especially – will know it’s a challenge to get them into books at all. If the late-teen is idling away and reading Diary Of a Wimpy Kid or an early Harry Potter, so what?

Reading, like a lot of things, is a habit that grows through doing. And if they are reading a book that really transported them when they were younger, and they go back in there, that’s a great thing. Because something else may come.

I enjoyed reading when I was younger, but I was slow – still am. I thought because I was a slow reader that certain books weren’t for me. I was terrified by the classics, by the names of 19th-century heavyweights glaring down from library shelves.

Almost by accident, one day I started reading Resurrection by Tolstoy and WHAMMO! – I was in. And it’s a page-turner. As is most of his stuff (his stuff!). Even the hay-cutting bits in Anna Karenina. Now I can enjoy without fear AND show off. It’s a win-win. That said, Count Leo doesn’t mention Brexit, which is either a good thing or a typically treacherous
19th-century establishment treatment buckling against the will of the people kind of thing.

Books must not be exclusive. They are inclusive. They offer something unique. They open doors in the mind and lead you round corners you never thought you’d head to.

And they’ll provide knowledge and a different way of seeing the world. That’s always timely. Words change the thing.

It’s World Book Day this week. It doesn’t just have to be a day.

Open up.

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