I remember what it was like to read.
I say that like someone would say “I remember what it was like during the Blitz” or “I remember flint knapping”. I actually read all the time – reports, Tweets, blogs, comics. Somewhere along the line, however, books fell by the wayside.
Today is the International Day of Literacy. There’s an instinct to look at that and assume that it’s about teaching people to read, to make sure they have the written language skills they need to navigate a world increasingly dominated by Facebook and Google. That’s an important, laudable, noble aim.
But there’s more to it than that. Research from the National Literacy Trust indicates that the number of young people reading outside of school is declining. This isn’t due to lack of interest – people still want to read – or lack of skill – the UK has a 99% literacy rate according to the CIA World Factbook. No, it seems to be down to lack of time.
That’s an interesting but disturbing fact. We have an excellent literacy rate and easy access to books, but those benefits only go so far; without the time and space to exercise them, a literary culture could easily atrophy.
See, reading, in its widest sense, is about more than simply being able to draw meaning from squiggles on a page. Both fiction and non-fiction have elements that transcend basic communication and the minimum skills needed to make someone money – storytelling, inspiration, empathy, imagination, the creation of ideas and the communication of knowledge. In its purest sense, literacy isn’t about language, it’s about the myriad uses of that language.
The theme for this year’s Day of Literacy is ‘peace’, and there’s a profound way in which books can work towards that. For me, as a teenager, the Holocaust was humanised when I read Schindler’s Ark. The horrors of totalitarianism were illustrated by 1984. The idea of treating the Other as a friend, not an automatic enemy, was sold by, well, Doctor Who books. The way in which literacy engages with the imagination can really break down barriers and change perceptions. An official government report can convey facts, but literature can bring those facts to life, changing the world in the process. That ‘s lost if all you ever read are roadsigns.
And so I regret not making more time to read, because I’m aware that I’m impoverishing myself. Connections aren’t being made, people and places from a million miles away aren’t being brought to life. The solution to this is simple.
I need to read books.