World Book Day 2014: why you should read novels

Guest blog by Duncan King, Head of Geography and Director of Digital Learning at The Perse School

World Book Day

This is an excerpt from a whole-school assembly given prior to World Book Day, 2014:

‘Listen you little wise acre: I’m big, you’re little, I’m right, you’re wrong, and there’s nothing you can do about it’

So says the father in the film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s best-selling story, Matilda. Matilda is one of my favourite books to read to my children and one they love too. Those of you who have read the book will know that Dahl’s Matilida is ‘an extraordinary genius with really stupid parents’. The first chapter of the book is especially good and tells us how Matilda copes with her family: by reading novels from a very young age. Through Dickens, Hardy and Austen, Matilida escapes into a different place. When neglected by her parents these books are the way she learns about the world and they give a comforting message: you are not alone.

In 2014, however, it appears that the act of reading, especially fiction, may be in long-term decline. Physical book sales as a whole in the UK are falling and this is only being compensated in part by the growth of the sales of ebooks.

In terms of the types of books sold, novels seem to be losing out to non-fiction. The best-selling book in the UK in 2013 was Sir Alex Ferguson’s ‘My Autobiography’ which sold over 800,000 copies, comfortably outselling the best-selling novel of 2013 – Dan Brown’s Inferno.

Perhaps underlying this is the observation made by author Philip Hensher that ‘people are no longer ashamed to say they don’t read fiction’. In fact some almost see it as a badge of honour to say ‘I don’t read novels’. To me this fixed mindset view of reading is at least as damaging to people and society as those who say ‘I’m no good at maths’.

The other side to this is that though many people are still buying books, it appears that actual book reading may be in decline. A recent survey indicated that many people lie about the books they claim to have read in order to impress their peers, the most read/unread book being 1984 by George Orwell.

On this theme of the decline of reading, the author Ruth Rendell recently said something that would likely strike a chord with anyone who has travelled on London Underground recently: “The thing that makes me think that it is on the decline is that it is quite common now to get on public transport in the evening and not see anybody reading a book and probably 20 years ago half of the people in the carriage might have been.”

Among children the trends are also not looking good: A national literacy trust survey in 2012 found that just 3 in 10 youngsters read daily in their own time, down from 4 in 10 in 2005. Alarmingly, 17% of the 21,000 children surveyed said they would be embarrassed if their friends saw them reading a book.

So what would cause a decline in reading books, especially fiction? Well it is hard to ignore the rapid, perhaps exponential, growth in the range of activities competing for a share of our leisure time. With time-shifted television, You Tube clips, WhatsApp and Flappy Bird all available on mobile devices it is easy to lose hours, weeks, months of free time without picking up a humble novel.

With so many distractions that are designed specifically to hold our attention we need some strong arguments to motivate ourselves and others to value spending time reading novels.

Fortunately there are some very compelling arguments to encourage us to do so. I divide these arguments into two groups. Firstly we have the pragmatic, practical arguments. These are based on the premise: ‘if you do this, you get this’. In a way they present a transactional view of reading which may sound a little grubby but the truth is that these points are well worth considering:

Firstly, National Literacy Trust research indicates that reading outside of lessons is closely linked to strong academic achievement and that those who do this on a daily basis are thirteen times more likely to read above the expected level for their age.

Furthermore, in September 2013 a study by the Institute of Education examined the reading patterns and academic performance of 6,000 students over time. It found that reading for pleasure between the ages of 10 and 16 had a very large impact on performance in spelling, vocabulary and, remarkably, maths test results. The impact of reading for pleasure on academic achievement at this age was four times greater than the impact of having a university educated parents.

Finally, in this vein, a favourite Cambridge-based writer of mine, Robert MacFarlane said: “every hour spent reading is an hour spent learning to write”.

In a world where the ability to communicate is increasingly valued by employers, you should not miss out on an opportunity to develop your writing skills.

The second set of arguments takes a different approach. They seek to encourage you to see the intrinsic merit in reading fiction and therefore might encourage you to begin or perhaps rekindle a long-term love of reading. These arguments are perhaps best articulated by writers themselves:

Author Neil Gaiman said:
“Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.”

And Alan Bennett, through his creation Hector in the play, the History boys said:
‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something — a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things — that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out and taken yours.’

I can’t be sure if these pragmatic and emotional arguments will encourage you to read more fiction but I hope you will consider it. When I was a teenager at school I, like some of you, didn’t read any fiction at all and it wasn’t until I shared a corridor at university with an English undergraduate that I was persuaded and I discovered what I had been missing out on. It was like a new world opening up for me.

My experience was described beautifully in Stoner by John Williams, a formerly undiscovered 1960s novel which became a surprise best seller last year. The writer, Julian Barnes, said the following about it:

“The key moment in the book is in the first chapter when Stoner, who has come from a rural background and is studying agriculture, has to take an English class and he is given Shakespeare’s 73rd sonnet to read.

“And he is asked what it means and he can’t answer: he can only say ‘it means – it means’ and yet something has happened within him.

“It is not that he has understood, it is almost that he has an epiphany because he hasn’t understood but he knows that if he can understand he will understand literature and if he understands literature he will understand the world.

“That is Stoner’s epiphany and that is an epiphany that many, many readers have.”

Duncan King is Head of Geography and Director of Digital Learning at The Perse School. This blog was originally posted on his blog
Follow Duncan on Twitter: @duncansking

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1 Response to World Book Day 2014: why you should read novels

  1. E. Mival says:

    When we attended the Perse in the fifties an English teacher, Dougie Brown, sensibly suggested that we could write about the things we were reading – even comics like “The Eagle”, which started in 1950. However, I ultimately went on to study English, French, German and Art at A level, which meant studying novels in the appropriate languages. Sadly there was no reading of novels at home, so no debate there, and little understanding of the novels I was reading. The hardest thing for a teenager is to relate to things pertaining to the adult world as they have yet to experience it. Therefore novels are more likely to get the thumbs down than up before we enter the adult world. Yes, we read Enid Blyton at the appropriate age, and “Jimmy the New Boy” later, because we could relate to them.
    My wife and I have a wonderful granddaughter, Karla, aged 7, half German and based in Berlin, attending an international school and constantly reading in English and German. Her conversation often puts all I have written above to shame. So is it her imaginative education, the chats she has with our architect son, and TV producing daughter-in-law or just plain curiosity? Her latest conversation with my wife was all about women’s international day, something her school celebrated.
    I guess more books written and published that relate to children at school, but open up their future world, could be the way to go – then Shakespeare et al might mean much more.
    Eric Mival (1957)

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