The value of reading

Yesterday was World Book Day in the UK. That’s quite a funny concept, rather isolationist as the rest of the world seems to celebrate this in April instead. I have no idea why.  But it got me thinking, not about the awful outfits children wear to school, but about the power of words to inspire and shape our lives.

I am writing this praise of finding the story amidst the rubble of the everyday. The power of reading and having free access to libraries is central to keeping this opportunity for everyone.

I’ve worked in the arts, making sure Government listened about the value of public funding and understanding culture’s contribution to society. But libraries have long been a problem and sadly one that’s only getting worse. Cutting non-statutory services at a local council level mean that libraries are the first services to be changed and absorbed. If you have limited finances how can you value something that doesn’t produce revenue or save lives? This has long been the conundrum of local councillors and battle ground for library campaigners.

I can only start this as the person I am today. The person who walked through Westminster last week and gave a book to a guy who spends most of the days sat outside the Sainsbury’s reading. He likes Lee Child books that are in his words “pretty exciting, I’ve read them all”. He’s homeless. When he’s not in the shelter during the day, he sits and reads. I could describe this act of reading as his lifeline, an escape from an existence on the streets that to most of us would be unbearable. But those aren’t the words he said to me. He just said he liked reading when we had a little chat.  I see him there on these blindingly cold days so I brought a couple of action thriller paperbacks we had on the staff room shelf. They were on the shelf which I assume acts as a bookswap, but doesn’t have a sign telling me what the deal is so I have assumed it is acting like a library of sorts. I leave books there every so often and take the odd one away.

But underneath all the actions of the everyday I am also the person that I started off as. I mean, in that, the child standing in front of the shelves of Crown Street Library in Darlington which is now being threatened not with closure, but something worse – a move into a Leisure Centre involving not just a reduction in stock and archive, but an act that will abandon (and sell) a beautiful building that was given in trust to the town to educate and inspire us all.

It’s a place stacked with books. Those books I gazed on were not mere papers and dusty smelling pages and words I couldn’t yet form in my mind. They were worlds breaking open, doors to push into, to peer into, explore and be part of. More importantly, books offer spaces you can claim as your own. Of course, parents play a huge role in literacy. A reading family is important for a child to appreciate the value of words, literacy and imagination. What do you think happens when a child learns that those shapes on a page formed words and a language that was new and fresh? To me, and to millions of others it was like standing in front of a million possibilities.

If you were a kid that grew up like me in an average school, in an average northern town, what was expected? I imagine not much. The lines between traditional occupations and class are more complex than ever – and I like many of my peers are the first generation to go to University from families that could describe themselves as solidly working class. Yet, I now sit in that muddled place of earnings, lifestyle and education that puts me firmly in the middle classes.  Despite the fact that boards of FTSE 100 companies are now more diverse than ever, we are still are faced by huge barriers to social mobility.  There is less diversity of educational and social backgrounds in more liberal fields like the leaders in publishing, the arts and media.  47% of all authors, writers and translators hail from professional, middle-class backgrounds, compared with just 10% of those with parents in routine or manual labour. But yet, we all read.  It isn’t an act that marks out status, and crucially the UK book industry is thriving.

How this is reflected by published authors? Obviously diversity is still a major issue.   If you listen to Kit de Waal’s exploration of this in a recent Radio 4 podcast it shows, Where are all the working class writers? Writers beyond the white middle-class are not reflected in bestsellers or awards. And yes, it is also important to talk about regional divides and class, as well as gender and race. Newsflash – they don’t need to be grunting stereotypical tales of northern grit and determination, or plotting angry voices of disillusionment.   Read Kerry Hudson or Lisa McInerney to see that being a female working class writer is worth reading and celebrating.

But more needs to be done to allow new authors the time, money and space to write from a place that explores these margins. Possessing talent is not enough alone, having the social capital to network and get the attention of the agent gatekeepers is a challenge.The hallowed privilege of affording to write and earn money stops most talent dead in its tracks.

What would schools and colleges be without creativity and literacy?  They become hollow halls of educational expectations.  Kids now spend so much time with screens and games, swiping mindlessly in a fog of self-obsession. They are tested and told, and tested again. Streamed and taught, not to think and create, but to imitate. I have a distinct memory in junior school, on a summer’s day. The windows are open in Ms Blands classroom and there was an abandoned car in the playground that the police were due to remove. Joyriders had left it there during the night. We were told to stay away and play on the other side of the asphalt playground marked with neon painted lines.  Perhaps I was 8 years old – like a sponge soaking it up. I couldn’t focus on the story Mrs Bland was reading us about Kings and Queens in the middle ages because the real story was unfolding outside that room. The music blaring (kingston town by the fine young cannibals),the battered car, what it meant to be there in that moment, with the wonderment of danger so close and not acknowledged. That’s what good literature and a creative education inspires: inquisitive questioning and imagination beyond the walls you live in.

When I was 15 I walked into a library ready to give up, I mean really give up. I really hated school. As a lost teenager, where do you turn? You discover something edgy like Jack Kerouac’s masculine beat-down adventures, Irvine Welsh’s monstrous drug taking anti-heroes and Anne Sexton’s raw poetry like a rare gem in the dust. Hide yourself in music and fanzines, and all the wild literary ideas your favourite bands quote – these weren’t in bookshops, they were in libraries. Here you find the words that make your life real and devour them. Like good friends you met and since marked the shape your life.

As I teenager I read Plath’s Bell Jar and Joan Didion’s essays – I fell in love with America, politics, cultural history and feminism. But I didn’t see my own experience reflected there. It wasn’t in English books like the Famous 5 or the Secret Seven either, or even in any of the Point Horror trash books me and my mates devoured and swapped as keen pre-teen readers.  All written by and about people far removed from my own world.

I am sat in Bromley Library writing this – contrary to my belief, it is not the quiet place of reflection I was seeking. Every computer is taken and there is man talking loudly on his phone. A man three chairs down from me loudly opens a packet of crisps and starts munching handfuls of them between deep breaths as he studies his books. I wonder if I can say ‘SSSSHHH’?  Is that even allowed? 10 minutes later 20 adults arrive with a variety of bundled babies and toddlers who start assembling in the children’s area for story-time. THEY HAVE INSTRUMENTS! IT GETS VERY LOUD! Although I came here to write – I am still writing yet surrounded by comforting sounds. People use and appreciate this Library. Its shelves are stacked and busy. They apply for jobs on the computer, tapping away on blank pages and writing emails. Retirees, students and writers avoiding the cold and enjoying the warmth here. I value this place for what it is and what it represents; opportunity.

Books are not always escapism, like all good art they helps us find meaning and answers in otherwise unreal times. And that is life-saving.

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