This year (2011) we learnt that there are many thousands of children across Britain who cannot read competently, that there are thousands who leave primary school unable to put together basic sentences. One in three teenagers reads only two books a year, or fewer, and one in six children rarely reads books outside of the classroom. Many parents do not read stories to their children, and many homes do not have books in them. Stories, and poems, for these thousands of children, are not a source of enchantment or excitement. Books are associated with school, or worse - they are associated with acute feelings of shame and frustration.
I think my favourite essay was the first one, Library Life by Zadie Smith. She writes about the importance of her local library to her reading life and her education. At a time when they are under threat she emphasises the lifeline that libraries are;
It has always been, and always will be, very difficult to explain to people with money what it means not to have money. If education matters to you, well, why wouldn't you be willing to pay for them if you value them? They are the kind of people who believe value can only be measured in money.
The overwhelming majority of books I read as a child came from the library, and I'm sure that being able to browse there, without anybody telling me what I should or shouldn't read, engendered the passionate love of books and reading that's such a joy to me now, and will be to the end of my life.
The other essay which I really enjoyed was The Reading Revolution by Jane Davis. Her biography at the front of the book says that she is 'the Founder/Director of The Reader Organisation, a national charity bringing about a reading revolution by making it possible for people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities to enjoy literature in a direct, personal way.'
The Reader Organisation has established groups where people meet and read together - out loud, and discuss the book or poem as it is being read. People interrupt with comments about the work itself, or with any personal feelings that the reading might've brought up. It seems to be a very, very informal and free flowing way of reading together. Groups have been established in schools, prisons, nursing homes, in hospitals, with psychiatric patients. I thought this essay was fascinating and I really admire Jane Davis, who saw a need and did something about it. She writes;
We must reposition literature in settings - such as workplaces, mental-health services, demential care homes, looked after children services - where its profound worth will be seen for what it really is: the holder of human value, human meaning, and yes, even the secrets of the universe.