Geoff Barton: Why a book is my great escape

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Last Saturday was National Libraries Day. It was a reminder of just how fortunate we are to live in a town with a superbly welcoming public library, and a reminder too of just how much books matter.

We know that one of the most important foundations for their future we can give our children – by the time they are six – is a good group of friends, the ability to have a conversation with an adult, and an enjoyment of reading.

Oxford University Press, based on a huge survey of 17,000 people, concluded that teenagers who read books are significantly more likely to end up in a professional job than those who don’t.

The well-respected National Literacy Trust (NLT) shows that reading a variety of literature independently by the age of 15 is the single biggest indicator of future success.

And yet there are also some startling figures on book ownership: In June 2011, The Independent cited research showing that one in 10 young people aged eight to 17 live in households without any books. The NLT estimates that one in three children in UK does not own a book (April 2011).

These figures will seem as alarming as they do unbelievable to those of us who share the outlook of the great scholar Erasmus: “When I get a little money,” he said “I buy books. If any is left, I buy food and clothes.” Quite.

My father was a librarian and I was brought up in a house full of books. Reading is what we did before we went to sleep and when we went on holiday. It wasn’t just that we read stuff, but we also talked about what we had been reading. It’s what so many of the students I teach still do: reading as a social act.

As a result of this bookish background, it is difficult for me to contemplate even a visit even to the supermarket without wondering whether to put a book in the car – just in case of emergency.

And whatever we are told about the often gloomy education standards in this country, we know from the international PISA tests that UK children are actually very accomplished readers – among the best in the world. Great primary and middle school teachers feed them a rich diet of poems and stories.

It’s just that when they get to GCSE that the English curriculum starts to narrow to a handful of set-texts – often including Shakespeare and Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, plus a hefty anthology of poems.

And this is when the reading habit can be squeezed out by other interests, online and in life generally.

That’s why so many teachers, librarians and booksellers do so much to encourage teenagers to read. We are after all living in a golden age of fiction for young adults.

All we need is to be guided to the books that will hook our interest from the outset. Waterstones in the Buttermarket for example has its own dedicated children’s bookseller, the indomitable Philip Daws who knows his subject better than anyone I remember.

So, as we head towards half-term, it may be worth a visit to the library or local bookshop for an opportunity to recharge our imagination with some good books.

National Libraries Day may get huge attention. There weren’t many high streets filled with celebratory bunting. But it does us a superb favour in reminding us why books matter and how lucky we are in our small pocket of Suffolk to have people who care so much about books and know so much about them. Happy reading.