World Book Day 2014: why you should read novels

This is the script from a whole-school assembly given prior to World Book Day, 2014:

world book day

‘Listen you little wise acre: I’m big, you’re little, I’m right, you’re wrong, and there’s nothing you can do about it’

So says the father in the film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s best-selling story, Matilda. Matilda is one of my favourite books to read to my children and one they love too. Those of you who have read the book will know that Dahl’s Matilida is ‘an extraordinary genius with really stupid parents’. The first chapter of the book is especially good and tells us how Matilda copes with her family: by reading novels from a very young age. Through Dickens, Hardy and Austen, Matilida escapes into a different place. When neglected by her parents these books are the way she learns about the world and they give a comforting message: you are not alone.

In 2014, however, it appears that the act of reading, especially fiction, may be in long-term decline. Physical book sales as a whole in the UK are falling and this is only being compensated in part by the growth of the sales of ebooks.

In terms of the types of books sold, novels seem to be losing out to non-fiction. The best-selling book in the UK in 2013 was Sir Alex Ferguson’s ‘My Autobiography’ which sold over 800,000 copies, comfortably outselling the best-selling novel of 2013 – Dan Brown’s Inferno.

Perhaps underlying this is the observation made by author Philip Hensher that ‘people are no longer ashamed to say they don’t read fiction’. In fact some almost see it as a badge of honour to say ‘I don’t read novels’. To me this fixed mindset view of reading is at least as damaging to people and society as those who say ‘I’m no good at maths’.

The other side to this is that though many people are still buying books, it appears that actual book reading may be in decline. A recent survey indicated that many people lie about the books they claim to have read in order to impress their peers, the most read/unread book being 1984 by George Orwell.

On this theme of the decline of reading, the author Ruth Rendell recently said something that would likely strike a chord with anyone who has travelled on London Underground recently:  “The thing that makes me think that it is on the decline is that it is quite common now to get on public transport in the evening and not see anybody reading a book and probably 20 years ago half of the people in the carriage might have been.”

Among children the trends are also not looking good: A national literacy trust survey in 2012 found that just 3 in 10 youngsters read daily in their own time, down from 4 in 10 in 2005. Alarmingly, 17% of the 21,000 children surveyed said they would be embarrassed if their friends saw them reading a book.

So what would cause a decline in reading books, especially fiction? Well it is hard to ignore the rapid, perhaps exponential, growth in the range of activities competing for a share of our leisure time. With time-shifted television, You Tube clips, WhatsApp and Flappy Bird all available on mobile devices it is easy to lose hours, weeks, months of free time without picking up a humble novel.

With so many distractions that are designed specifically to hold our attention we need some strong arguments to motivate ourselves and others to value spending time reading novels.

Fortunately there are some very compelling arguments to encourage us to do so. I divide these arguments into two groups. Firstly we have the pragmatic, practical arguments. These are based on the premise: ‘if you do this, you get this’. In a way they present a transactional view of reading which may sound a little grubby but the truth is that these points are well worth considering:

Firstly, National Literacy Trust research indicates that reading outside of lessons is closely linked to strong academic achievement and that those who do this on a daily basis are thirteen times more likely to read above the expected level for their age.

Furthermore, in September 2013 a study by the Institute of Education examined the reading patterns and academic performance of 6,000 students over time. It found that reading for pleasure between the ages of 10 and 16 had a very large impact on performance in spelling, vocabulary and, remarkably, maths test results. The impact of reading for pleasure on academic achievement at this age was four times greater than the impact of having a university educated parents.

Finally, in this vein, a favourite Cambridge-based writer of mine, Robert MacFarlane said: “every hour spent reading is an hour spent learning to write”.

In a world where the ability to communicate is increasingly valued by employers, you should not miss out on an opportunity to develop your writing skills.

The second set of arguments takes a different approach. They seek to encourage you to see the intrinsic merit in reading fiction and therefore might encourage you to begin or perhaps rekindle a long-term love of reading. These arguments are perhaps best articulated by writers themselves:

Author Neil Gaiman said:
“Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.” 

And Alan Bennett, through his creation Hector in the play, the History boys said:
‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something — a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things — that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out and taken yours.’

I can’t be sure if these pragmatic and emotional arguments will encourage you to read more fiction but I hope you will consider it. When I was a teenager at school I, like some of you, didn’t read any fiction at all and it wasn’t until I shared a corridor at university with an English undergraduate that I was persuaded and I  discovered what I had been missing out on. It was like a new world opening up for me.

My experience was described beautifully in Stoner by John Williams, a formerly undiscovered 1960s novel which became a surprise best seller last year. The writer, Julian Barnes, said the following about it:

“The key moment in the book is in the first chapter when Stoner, who has come from a rural background and is studying agriculture, has to take an English class and he is given Shakespeare’s 73rd sonnet to read.

“And he is asked what it means and he can’t answer: he can only say ‘it means – it means’ and yet something has happened within him.

“It is not that he has understood, it is almost that he has an epiphany because he hasn’t understood but he knows that if he can understand he will understand literature and if he understands literature he will understand the world.

“That is Stoner’s epiphany and that is an epiphany that many, many readers have.”

To emphasize the power of fiction I would like to read to you from Birdsong, By Sebastian Faulks, a novel I have been reading in recent weeks. Many of you will know that I am leaving The Perse at the end of this term and in my new school I have been asked to coordinate their efforts to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the First World War. To help me do this well I wanted to do some background reading on events. There are many excellent non-fiction history books out there that set out the brutal facts of the war but, in my view, nothing matches the power of fiction for helping you to connect to the people that took part in this desperate, mechanized, conflict.

Jack Firebrace stood with Arthur Shaw on raised ground near what they had called One Tree Hill, watching. They expected a swift passage, almost unopposed.

Jack was muttering, Shaw saying nothing at all. They saw the Scots coming up out of their burrows like raving women in their skirts, dying in ripples across the yellowish brown soil. They saw the steady tread of the Hampshires as though they had willingly embarked on a slow motion dance from which they were content not to return. They saw men from every corner walking, powerless, into an engulfing storm.

Their own contribution to the day, the vast hole that had been blown at twenty past seven had given the enemy ten minutes in which to take their positions at leisure. By the crater they saw young men dying in quantities that they had not dreamed possible. They had not fired a shot.

The excess of it made them clutch each other’s arms in disbelief

‘They can’t let this go on’, said Jack, ‘they can’t’

Shaw stood with his mouth open. He was unmoved by violence. Hardened to the mutilation he had seen and inflicted, but what he was watching here was something of a different order.

Please God, let it stop, thought Jack. Please let them send no more men into this Hurricane.

The padre, Horrocks, came and stood with them. He crossed himself and tried to comfort them with words and prayers.

Jack turned his face away from what he saw, and he felt something dying in him as he turned.

Shaw had begun to weep. He held his miner’s hands to the sides of his head and the tears coursed down his face ‘Boys, boys,’ he kept saying. ‘Oh my poor boys’

Horrocks was trembling. ‘This is half of England. What are we going to do?’ he stammered.

Soon they all fell silent. There was an eruption from the trench below and another wave went up into the pitted moon-like landscape, perhaps Essex or Duke of Wellington’s, it was impossible to see. They made no more than ten yards before they began to waver, single men at first picked out, knocked spinning, then more going as they reached the barrage; then, when the machine guns found them, they rippled, like corn through which the wind is passing. Jack thought of meat, the smell of it.

Horrocks pulled the silver cross from his chest and hurled it from him. His old reflex still persisting, he fell to his knees, but he did not pray. He stayed kneeling with his palms spread out on the ground, then lowered his head and covered it with his hands. Jack knew what had died in him.

As you may already know, tomorrow is World book day.  World book day is fantastic event that celebrates books and reading for all ages so don’t miss out on this opportunity to nudge yourself along to pick up a something new, especially if you haven’t done so for some time. The library will be giving away free one pound World Book Day tokens during the day and there is also a bookmark making workshop as well as a World Book Day quiz and word search with edible prizes for the winning entries.

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