7 May 2013

A Need to Read for Pleasure

"Reading for pleasure at the age of fifteen is a strong factor in determining future social mobility..." - so starts an article by Jonathan Douglas, Director of the Nationl Literary Trust in a recent edition of the Telegraph Weekend.

The bottom line is that those who read for pleasure, rather than due to the goad of education, are nurturing an inherent human inquisitiveness, a willingness to learn, that will be carried throughout their lives and spill over into aspects of their work environment - hence the social mobility angle.

I agree with this. Feeding an engagement with an abstract world pushes back barriers, opens up horizons.

I meet such readers in bookshops each time I support a signing. Usually they are wide-eyed and dumb-struck by being faced with a writer of novels who actually speaks to them. Despite my not writing for their age group, I ask their opinions on story ideas; ask if they, themselves, write stories. Usually it is the parents who answer, because the children are ten or eleven or twelve. And I talk to them now because I can almost guarantee that by the age of fifteen they won't be reading for pleasure at all, especially the boys.

Point to hormones if you like, point to computer games and peer pressure, but I point to school, the academic need not only to tick boxes but tick boxes dictated by academia for the good of the child.

In the UK we move our children from primary to secondary education at eleven years old, where tales of adventure and enthusiasm are suffocated beneath worthier texts which must be read. In my day that meant Dickens, Austen and Hughes - at eleven, twelve and thirteen - 19th century novelists writing for a contemporary adult audience, not even children of their day.

Did my son fare better? Not much. What could I say to books thrown across the room accompanied by '...explain how a rocket can land next to a house and an old grandad can climb aboard and travel to the moon...' when he had never known a time without manned space flight. 

My family has no third generation going through today's schooling, but from reading Jonathan Douglas' article there seems to be the same sort of hand-wringing over literacy there was in my day. Perhaps my four minute conversation with a young voracious reader in a bookshop is a mere drop in the ocean, but oceans fill due to individual drops of rain. Sprinkle a raindrop today. In fact, sprinkle several. They're needed, if the comments beneath the article are anything to go by.


  1. When I was young, I read all the time. Enid Blyton adventure stories had me transfixed and I couldn't get enough of them. Why should I read Gulliver's Travels when the Famous Five were off on an adventure to Kirrin Island? Then came the 'Enid Blyton is bad' brigade. Come forward half a century and J K Rowling, having written what children are desperate to read, is now being castigated for poor grammar etc. etc. Blyton led me to Tom Sawyer, The Water Babies and Little Women, but it was my discovery at a time of my choosing. I can see nothing wrong in enjoying Pride and Prejudice on Monday and Dan Brown/James Patterson on Tuesday. What is wrong is if you tell me I HAVE to read anything. I remember my daughter trying to come to grips with Howards' End. 'I've just read 57 pages and I don't understand a bloody word of it.' 40 years ago, I felt much the same about Daniel Deronda. Plus ca change. Rien ne change.

    1. Thanks for coming by April and offering your experience. Anyone else have an experience, yeah or nay, to add?

      My own saviour came in the form of a movie - 'The Cruel Sea' to be precise, watched b&w on a Sunday afternoon. I came across the novel in the school library the following week. Up until then I had no idea that films were made from books, and it opened up a whole new world for me. Films I enjoyed I loved reading as a book, because the book was invariably so much better.

  2. By the age of eleven I'd exhausted the children's section of the local library. To enter the adult world, one had to be 14, but I couldn't wait. Approaching the formidable librarian with some trepidation, I dared question whether I could be the exception to her rule. She knew me from my weekly visits and agreed at once. The condition was that I could take only one book at a time and it must pass her scrutiny. I still wonder at her agreement to allow me to take, as my first 'adult' novel, Erich Maria Remarque's 'All Quiet on the Western Front'. I can only assume she knew it as a classic without ever having read its accounts of brutality, adult humour and the experiences of the young men with prostitutes!
    I was again fortunate in my secondary school teacher, a sexy young woman who actively encouraged me to both read and write and who told me I would fail my 'O' level GCE English Literature if I insisted in applying my own opinions rather than those expected by the exam markers. She was right. But I took the same subject at 'A' level over 1 year in night class years later and passed with an 'A' because at that level personal opinions are, it seems, acceptable. I tell the story only to illustrate further the damaging prejudice demonstrated by those charged with educating our children. Not the poor teachers, who have little choice, but the politicians who, led by business, care more for material profit than for the development of creative spirits.
    I read as an adult in spite of the cramming of Dickens and Shakespeare, certainly not because of it.
    Thanks for a fascinating post, Linda.

  3. An interesting post Linda. I think if you fall in love with the books as a child it stays with you throughout your life. For me books were as essential as breathing. From pleasure they become a obsession and drug akin to LSD that gave me a high or kick. And that was years and years before I became a writer; again because of my love for books.

    We should not expect all the people to be book lovers. That isn't going to happen. But a significant portion of people from every society and civilization will inevitably fall in love with books and will never get cured of it.

  4. Thanks for adding your take on this Stuart and Vickramediwan. It is interesting to hear your experiences.

    I don't think a young booklover can be put off books, but I do know that they can be put off *types* of literature. Hey ho, we do our best.

  5. There is so much evidence of the benefits of a love of reading, it's almost inconceivable that our politicians don't see it. Either they're not readers themselves (and listening to some pronouncements who can doubt the truth of that in some cases) or they don't think reading (education, social mobility, affluence, tolerance, understanding etc etc) are for the masses.
    My grandmother had the full set of William books and we were regular library goers with our own tickets.
    We have a new small person (under 10) in the family now and he kind of absorbed books from day 1. Can't claim it was library visits (love of books came first) or lack of electronics (plenty of those around) and he had all sorts of toys as well as books, but one of his first 'words' was 'readabook' said with insistence whilst dragging a favourite tome from the book mountain towards the nearest knee.

    1. Thanks for adding your perspective, Penny.

      There were always books in my parents' home, and they were library users in a *huge* way. Looking back I have no idea how they managed to devour so many books in a week. I must be doing something wrong in my life, that's all I can say.

      And I just loved the anecdote from "Readabook". How fantastic! I recall my own son when below school age keeping a dog-eared copy of "Adventure At The Castle" and wanting to lie on his grandfather's stomach and listen to it being read to him. Woe betide said grandfather for changing any of the text.