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Opinion

Paul McNamee: This is why words matter

Jane Beaton raised over £25,000 in 70 days to get a copy of The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris into every primary school in Scotland. And her incredible achievement stirred something

It started as spur of the moment decision. A woman called Jane Beaton was so taken by The Lost Words, Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris’ book about disappearing words from nature, that she wanted to get a copy into every primary school in Scotland.

Using crowdfunding, Beaton, clearly a determined woman, set about raising £18,000 to get the book to all 2,681 schools. They raised over £25,000 within 70 days. Beaton is now aiming to go beyond primary schools.  It was a remarkable, noble plan, and an incredible achievement.

And Beaton has stirred something. There are similar initiatives in Wales and many English counties too. The book has grown.

Macfarlane, one of Britain’s greatest nature writers and a regular contributor to The Big Issue, has said he and illustrator Morris were “overwhelmed” by the response. That’s hardly surprising. Their book is in the vanguard of a noteworthy double change.

First, the aim of the book, to reintroduce nature words that were being lost from a generation of children as other words competed and pushed them aside, is connecting and working. And – more tellingly –they are showing the wonderful, visceral and sometimes life-changing power of books. When a book connects it opens up something that never closes.

World Book Day is this week. It’s a construct, of course, but it’s an important one. It aims to encourage potential readers wherever they are.

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Frequently, for many, access to books  and their cost is an issue. It is why we at The Big Issue started our Big Books Giveaway. We invited groups across Britain who were doing incredible things in reading groups for people at a range of levels –from preschool to adult literacy organisations – to get in touch, tell us what was needed, and we then tried to get those books to them. We’ve sent out around 1,000. I’m very proud of this. All of those groups told us how important it was to have books in hands, how in simple ways the tactile nature of new books brought a physical joy, one that many would not have enjoyed before. They told us how owning a book for some people – including many children who had never owned one before – could recalibrate everything.

In Britain there is still a curious suspicion of book reading, that is somehow lofty and a bit elitist. This is the very greatest codswallop. Books change lives. Early literacy benefits increase life chances that can help people move out of poverty, and can aid health and wellbeing. And books – and this is over often overlooked as we try to justify reading on more serious grounds – are fun to be inside.

So read. Just read.

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