Of all our human achievements, for me as a grizzled English teacher one stands out: the ability to read and write.
It doesn’t happen everywhere, of course. The United Nations estimates that almost 800 million of the world’s adults do not know how to read or write and that about two-thirds of these are women. Literacy, after all, is power, and in some places that’s the last thing rulers want to grant their people.
So it’s easy to assume that what you’re doing now – decoding some inky words on a page or screen to make meaning – is something everyone does. Not so.
In Britain, it was the Education Act of 1870 that ushered in an era which would bring near-universal literacy. For the first time, all children were expected to attend primary school. There they would be drilled in the 3Rs of reading, writing and arithmetic.
Suddenly we could read ideas by people we had never met, from places we had never visited, in eras we had never lived in. Literacy changed the confines of time and place with books, pamphlets, newspapers and libraries that could store human insights from long ago or far away.
That’s why literacy matters so much, and why in schools we encourage our students to use their holidays to catch up on reading, to lose themselves once again in some good books.
It’s what I’ll be doing too. As someone who’s far too familiar with the Japanese word ‘tsundoku’ – it means buying but not reading books – the summer break is the period when those unread purchases of term-time can get devoured in the no-man’s-land that precedes examination results.
This summer some of us face a particular dilemma. One of the formative novels of our early reading was Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The story of the ever-curious young Scout who, deep in the heart of 1930s Alabama, watches her father defend a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman, it is a novel that rarely fails to weave its magic.
Lawyer Atticus Finch teaches us about being true to yourself, standing your ground, resisting peer pressure and doing what’s right.
He’s one of the great moral figures of English literature.
Suddenly – if the early reviews are to be believed – the recently unearthed prequel to ‘Mockingbird’ shows Atticus in a different light. The good man’s reputation is tarnished and we see him as less morally reliable, less certain, less impressive.
Many aficionados of Harper Lee’s original novel have got upset about this. It feels to them – as it did initially to me – as if the world has shrunk a bit, that a role-model of more than 60 years has suddenly been cut adrift.
Then I remind myself that this is one reason that we read literature.
Many of us loved the first three Harry Potter novels. Learning about the strange and quirky world of Hogwarts, seeing the friendships develop, relishing the humour: all this made those early books so entertaining.
With book four everything darkens. A central character dies. That book – Harry Potter and the Goblet Fire – sets a new, bleaker trajectory for the remaining narrative. From now on, despite occasional laughs, we find ourselves in a world where good and evil are at war and where, en route, people will get hurt and even killed.
It’s why we read literature. Fiction serves as a kind of inoculation, preparing us for good and bad things in life, helping us to make sense of complicated events, encouraging us to side with the good guys even when all seems against them.
I know that if my holiday reading includes Go Set a Watchman, then my perception of the original novel will change too. Atticus Finch will never quite be the same again.
But that’s the joy of reading. It’s why, like many of my students and colleagues, I’ll make time this summer to get lost in a good book. I hope you get time too.
-- Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds