Preaching to the Converted?

Recently, together with an associate reading consultant, I gave a talk to parents on children’s reading. The focus was on reading to children, listening to them read, encouraging them to read independently, and talking with children about reading. The aim is that all these elements come together to inspire a new generation of lifelong readers – children who grow into adults who love to read. This is important, not only because reading is a pleasurable thing to do, but because of its many life benefits – reducing stress, imparting knowledge, teaching empathy, improving academic attainment, teaching critical thinking, etc.

So, it was sad to have research published last month showing that parents and carers dedicate more time to screen time than to reading to their children – and that parents are so tired that they frequently skip pages when reading a story out loud.

When did we become so bad at time management? Between work, managing a house, looking after children, caring for elderly relatives, waiting for a late train, sitting in traffic, catching up with friends, answering emails, it often feels as if days fly past with barely a moment to wee, let alone time to stop and pick up a book.

But maybe it’s more than that. It’s not actually that we’re pushed for time – after all we have appliances to do so many things for us, conveniences all around us, making the duller parts of our lives easier: we don’t even have to travel to the shops anymore – they come to us. So I would argue it’s not that we’re pushed for time, it’s that we don’t see reading as a worthwhile spend of our time. Even with the benefits pointed out to us (increased cognitive development, slower heart rate when reading, increased sensitivity to others, vocabulary acquisition, etc), we don’t pick up a book and read because the process takes a considerable amount of time in the doing of it, and the aftermath also uses time as we reflect and think about what we’ve consumed. We’re in a rush to keep up, a rush to see things, a rush to live – and reading doesn’t suit that sensibility. It seems easier to scroll through a vista of tweets or ‘posts’ than it does to read a chapter.

Whether you argue that screens have dented our ability to concentrate, or whether you argue that there’s too much choice in our leisure time, it does seem that our ‘value’ of the arts has diminished. The governments here (in the UK) and in the US have clamped down on arts funding; we are closing libraries and making librarians redundant at the same busy pace with which we do everything else, there is less money in education, so the first things being cut are access to music, arts, the theatre – I know of schools with 20-minute transport links to central London that haven’t offered their students any arts outings in four years of schooling. This is mirrored by the drop (to its lowest level since GCSEs began) in students taking art and design qualifications. In fact, the number of students taking design and technology has fallen each year since 2003. Cultural institutions such as the V&A are now trying to address this issue, which is laudable, but we need to have a serious think about the cuts in education that are devaluing more creative subjects.

And if we value our books and our literature, then why do we demand discounted prices? Why shop on Amazon for the book at its cheapest retail price rather than pay the price printed on the book? This is something that Philip Pullman has been in the press for recently, already decrying the discount on his as-yet-unpublished Book of Dust. We need to have a deep hard think about what price we pay for quality. Since the end of the net book agreement in the 1990s, are we at risk from devaluing literature? If we all wait until a book is on the 99p Kindle offer at Amazon before we buy it, who sees any profit? Lower prices and discounts certainly begin to push out independent presses, small agencies, and less prolific, less well-known, but ultimately talented authors.

Are we paying for the experience a book gives us? In which case, it’s awfully good value to buy hours of reading time for a paperback price of £6.99, assuming that an average book takes about four hours to read. Or, are we paying for the effort that went into producing the book – as in West End theatre in which the high ticket price is justified in the spend on actors’ time, costumes, production etc? In which case, we would be paying sky high prices for a piece of literature. Donna Tartt says she takes about ten years to write a book – imagine how eye-watering the price would be, especially when you add in her books’ production and printing costs.

Of course, there have been weigh-ins on both sides of this debate. Lauren Child, the new children’s laureate, at The Bookseller’s Children’s Conference in September, suggested that the price of books was actually too low – although of course it’s worth bearing in mind the many many people who don’t consider buying books at all, because they don’t have the means. In The Times on 30th September, Julian Rivers, formerly the Marketing Director of Dillons, sought to defend discounting, saying that it led to increased book sales, and not just of the discounted titles, although personally I reckon Dillons still decry the people who physically browse in the bookshop and yet search Amazon on their smartphone for the book at a cheaper price.

Children’s books in particular have become part of this ‘value’ debate with the recent slew of celebrity books in the genre – particularly with the latest furore surrounding the domination of World Book Day 2018 titles by celebrities and brands. I have written about this before, but it does downplay the whole genre of children’s books when they are viewed by the wider public as being an extension of a celeb’s brand, rather than a genre of literature in its own right.

There are some excellent children’s books by celebrities, (I’ve reviewed some very favourably on this site), but having them saturate the marketplace, or dominate the WBD titles, does mean that the perception may be skewed. Shouldn’t we strive to give children the very best books we can, (they are our future book buyers), and from a wide diverse range of authors, not just those we see on TV? Diverse authors in terms of culture, background, upbringing, debuts, career authors etc. Of course the WBD organisers argue that pricing a book at £1 and giving children an opportunity to buy a book for the first time is their remit – and that having a celebrity on the book makes it more likely that a first-time book buyer will spend their token, but I think the question we have to ask in the long-term is  – what is the industry trying to do? Do we want children to consume celebrity culture, or do we want to inspire in them a lifelong love for reading and books? Can one lead to the other, or does a celeb book just promote the celeb’s other endeavours? How can we best ensure a broad range of quality children’s literature – with pictures, with comedy and literary merit, with prose and poetry, with darkness and light.

It’s time to think about how much value we place upon books and the act of reading.

If reading sends blood to parts of the brain that weren’t previously in use, if it reduces stress, imparts knowledge, and teaches empathy for our fellow humans, all of which scientists prove, then shouldn’t we be at least paying more attention to it, giving it the time it so clearly deserves?

So, don’t skip the pages – they may hold the answer to your future time management, or they may give your child the spark of joy they’ve been looking for – but most of all, carve out the time to read just a page or two a night. Those words probably took the author hours to craft.