On Wednesday 2 March 2011, author Anthony Horowitz gave the inaugural Sir Simon Hornby Memorial Lecture, in memory of our founding Chairman, who died in 2010.
You can read a full transcript of the speech below, or download an audio recording of the event (MP3 file).
Literacy: State of the Nation
Looking at the National Literacy Trust website, I saw that this speech was called Literacy: State of the Nation and I thought to myself – “Blimey, what idiot are they going to get to give a speech like that?” Then I remembered it was me. It’s a bit of a heavy subject, isn’t it, particularly in the shadow of all these cuts. We’ve got the library closures. Sure Start is under threat. Bookstart has had its £13m grant halved. And only yesterday the National Literacy Trust was told that it is losing its entire government grant – £1m – in a single swoop.
What we need here is the the eloquence of Philip Pullman, the passion of Michael Morpurgo, the anger of Anne Fine, the wisdom of Malorie Blackman. And you get me. On the plus side, books have been my life. I remember when I was six years old my mother telling me that books are good for you, that books are important... so you can imagine how conflicted I was when she was run over by a mobile library.
My father was a strange man. He actually bought a brand new library for Rugby School. It was his way of making a statement about the value of reading. It’s also, incidentally, how he got me into the school. I wasn’t a very bright child. By the time I passed Common Entrance, I was already an old boy.
But despite all that, I have sold quite a lot of books and have in my own way managed to get quite a lot of young people, and particularly boys, reading. I’m not sure this makes me an expert on literacy any more than a juggler could call himself an expert on advanced aerodynamics, but it has seen me drawn into the debate as an ambassador for Gordon Brown’s “National Year of Reading”. I’ve visited schools, libraries, reading groups and prisons. I’ve even given talks occasionally such as this.
So let me tell you what I intend to do in the next 40 minutes. My basic aim is to offer up my own perspective on the question of 21st century literacy without making too many new enemies. If I’m provocative, it’s only because I think we slip all too easily into certain false and over-comfortable assumptions about literacy, literature and reading – and I’ll be looking more closely at all three of those words. As much as I would like to, I’m afraid I can’t avoid talking about library closures... but even there I wonder if we’re actually having the right debate or if we’re somehow playing into the government’s hands by simply being predictable voices saying predictable things.
Finally, I would ask you to accept this speech in the spirit of Sir Simon Hornby, the founder of the National Literacy Trust who is commemorated this evening. He was himself no stranger to controversy, referring to the Design Council as a “faceless body” and a “total muddle, not fit for purpose” in a speech that was perhaps not entirely appropriate given that he was the chairman of the Design Council. This led to a vote of no confidence which he survived, claiming he had been misquoted. So if you disagree violently with anything I say, it’s probably a misquotation.
The last time I fell out with the National Literacy Trust and, for that matter, with several other book-related charities was during an event in Cairo hosted by the wife of the president who apparently championed child literacy in Egypt – something I hope they’ll remember before they string her up. Anyway, the argument started when I remarked with – I have to confess – a degree of annoyance, that although I had listened to speeches on literacy that had totalled one and a half hours in length, not one of the speakers had actually named an author or a book. I’m sorry to raise this rather sore point again but I do think it’s very much at the heart of our subject. What’s the point of being literate if you don’t read? What is the point of promoting literacy if you don’t love books? And sometimes, when I read reports written by experts I find myself wondering if they even have a passing fondness for the English language. Take this extract from one such report written for a charity.
“In this model, let’s call it the semi-hierarchical model, reading enjoyment and reading attitudes precede reading behaviour which, in turn, is related to reading attainment. In other words, reading enjoyment and reading attitudes are directly related to reading behaviour and are related with reading attainment indirectly through their relationship with reading behaviour.”
I’m sorry. That paragraph may be blindingly insightful to many people in this room but I’m still puzzled that people involved in reading can produce material that is so very hard to read. Even when Gareth Malone went into a school in Essex a few years ago, he talked to the kids about literacy and I remember shouting at the screen – why use a four-syllable word when a two-syllable word will do. Reading. Gareth carried a copy of Alex Rider throughout the entire series, by the way, so I suppose I should be grateful to him. But he never opened it and I find it quite worrying the way celebrities – Gareth Malone then and Jamie Oliver tonight – are turning the failings of our education system and the seeming hopelessness of some of our children into entertainment.
I’m determined not to fall into that trap and so I’d like to tell you about the 10 books that most impacted on my life. They are my credentials for being here and if I hadn’t read them, I would never have been invited.
ANT AND BEE by Angela Banner. These were the books that taught me how to read. I read them with my mother before her encounter with the mobile library. She read the black text and I read the red text, which consisted of three-letter words. So Ant and Bee met a Cat and a Dog who had lost his Hat which he eventually found in a Zoo. Simple stuff but I never had friends like that. Even today when I see the illustrations – Ant with his walking stick and Bee with his little umbrella – I feel a bit sad.
CANNIBAL ADVENTURE by Willard Price. It’s 1964. I’m 12 now and I’m waiting in the library for the next adventure in the series with two brothers travelling the world to find specimens for their father's zoo. It was rumoured that our school librarian was herself a cannibal but that didn’t stop me. I hated my school and books saved me from it. They were my lifeline.
DR NO by Ian Fleming. This is my copy here with my 13-year-old signature on the front cover. I know it’s a cliché to say that a book can change your life. But with this book, it’s a simple fact – because, of course, this is where Alex Rider began.
TO THE LIGHTHOUSE by Virginia Woolf. I was actually depressed for 12 years after reading this book. In fact, I still am. But the fact is that I wrote my first serious novel after I read this, aged 18. It was in the style of Virginia Woolf and actually it was fairly successful in that it was pretty much unreadable.
GREAT EXPECTATIONS by Charles Dickens. I still think of this as the greatest novel ever written with Magwitch, Estelle, Miss Havisham and Pip Pirrip, Dickens’s most brilliant creations. I’ve read the Dickens canon three times in my life and it’s amazing how these books have become a mirror for me, showing me how I’ve changed. His attitude to women, for example, his sentimentality, his humour... I react differently each time I come to them – and that of course is the power of the greatest literature. Every time you come back to it, it’s never quite the same.
Dickens introduced me to 19th century literature and NEW GRUB STREET by George Gissing – the greatest book ever written about writing.
If I hadn’t read THE SILVER SWORD by Ian Serraillier, I’d never have written Foyle’s War. If I hadn’t read CRASH by J.G. Ballard, I wouldn’t have written Collision. THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES introduced me to murder mystery and to Sherlock Holmes – another book that changed my life.
And finally there’s KEEP THE ASPIDISTRA FLYING by George Orwell, a book inspired by NEW GRUB STREET. The central character is a would-be poet working in Albion Advertising and torn between the allure of what he calls the money god and his dedication to becoming a writer in the purest sense. This has in a way been the story of my life and has never been more relevant than now – at a time when publishers seem to be all too much in thrall to the money god, looking for long-running series and instant bestsellers and letting the more poetic, the more slow-burning authors slip quietly off their lists.
Ten books. Forgive a second cliché – but they made me what I am quite literally. And I bet you that every single one of you sitting in this audience could very easily find a similar 10 books... in fact you may have been compiling your own list while I was trolling through mine. This is what reading is all about and I find it hard to imagine what it must be like to grow up without the influence of books. Can anyone really say they are a fully formed human being if they do not read?
What is reading? For me, it is not passive, it is active. It is the single most creative exercise you can do with your brain – right up there with writing. To think that you can take these black and white digits on a page and somehow use them to create a world, to people it, to interpret it, to define it and to inhabit it is an extraordinary act of creativity. That’s why so many children don’t just read books. They devour them. They have so much more passion and imagination than we cynical, worn-out adults. A book is in many ways a dead thing, certainly if it’s gathering dust on a shelf. It takes a reader to bring it to life.
This is how Philip Pullman described reading in a rather brilliant article in the Guardian a few years ago.
“Consider the nature of what happens when we read a book... in private, unsupervised, unspied-on, alone. It isn’t like a lecture; it’s like a conversation. There’s a back-and-forthness about it. The book proposes, the reader questions, the book responds, the reader considers. We bring our own preconceptions and expectations, our own intellectual qualities, and our own limitations too, our own experience of reading, our own temperament, our own hopes and fears, our own personality to the encounter.
And we are active about the process. We are in charge of time...we’re not anchored to a piece of unwieldy technology or required to be present in a particular building with several hundred people. We can read in bed, or at the bus stop or (as I used to do when I was younger and more agile) up a tree.
We can skim or we can read it slowly; we can read every word or we can skip long passages... we can look at the last page first or decide to wait for it...we can assent or we can disagree.
So our relationship with books is a profoundly, intensely, essentially democratic one... It’s dynamic. It changes and develops as our understanding grows, as our experience of reading – and of life itself – increases...”
I’m tempted to quote the entire piece but you can find it for yourself on the internet. It’s called The War on Words. And if you read it, notice the wonderful language in which its written and compare it with the brief extract I read earlier. If we are to debate literacy, the quality of the language we use has to matter.
We also have to guard against a certain complacency. When I talk about my love of books and the value of reading, I’m pretty sure I’m not going to have any brickbats thrown my way. I’m afraid I’ve gone to – and given – too many talks where essentially, the speaker is preaching to the converted. We don’t need to persuade each other with platitudes and self-congratulations although we often do. How do take the argument to the wider world? How do we draw in the non-readers?
I’m not sure the government can help. Do any of us enjoy being told how to behave by the government? Eat less salt. Eat five vegetables. Take exercise. Read. Speaking personally, I haven’t actually smoked for twenty years but I always make a point of lighting up on No Smoking Day. As for the “National Year of Reading” even though I allowed myself to get sucked into it, I still had grave misgivings. My first response was – why only a year? Why not a decade? And how can we work with a government that has dropped bombs on children in Baghdad when it says that it wants to drop books on children in Basingstoke?
A lot of good things happened in the National Year of Reading but I still had problems with the way it was devised. For example, every month had a theme. May was “Mind and Body”. Reading and learning at work. The knock-on benefits of reading. September was “You are what you read”. Cultural, personal and local identity. Who came up with this stuff? Did they really think these tag-lines would draw in a new generation of readers? And I didn’t like the way this government policy came with an on/off switch. A high profile meeting, a media blitz, Gordon Brown posing with a bunch of kids at number 10, ambassadors of reading and then a year later it was all over, thank you very much. Reading is too important to be left in the hands of politicians. Look what’s happened so far to the so-called Cultural Olympiad, launched in 2008 by Lord Coe depressingly running up and down Tate Britain. I was actually asked to join a press conference to celebrate the launch as a prominent children’s author but got the feeling that things hadn’t been completely thought out when I asked when the press conference would be taking place. “Tomorrow” came the reply. This is a £40m project with a CEO earning £130,000 a year and which has so far been heard of by 9% of the population. We should never forget that when politicians try to impose art, entertainment or culture on the populace, the result may well be the Millennium Dome.
Another initiative caught my eye recently, this time celebrating books not for 12 months but just 12 hours... and this is World Book Night. I suppose I should be congratulating Jamie Byng for what he calls “a celebration of the personal recommendation”. I love recommending books – I’ve already recommended several in this talk. I give books away all the time and among the 40 titles being given away by 20,000 people are some more real favourites: FINGERSMITH, AGENT ZIGZAG, THE CURIOUS INCIDENT, THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD.
And yet part of me wonders if we aren’t somehow undervaluing books. Years ago, I used to visit schools free of charge because I thought it was wrong to take money for basically promoting myself. But I soon discovered that I was being rather badly treated on the grounds that if someone – or something – costs nothing, then it must also be worth nothing. I don’t often visit schools now but when I do, I’m extremely expensive... but the money goes to charity. Does giving away books actually help break down social barriers and reach new audiences or, as one anonymous bookseller suggested, will it be “nice bookish people giving the books to other nice bookish people”.
To be fair, I spoke to a few independent booksellers before I gave this talk and they were all very supportive of World Book Night. “I was opposed to it at first,” one said. “But there are books on this list that I love. They’re going into hospitals and care homes... and there are lots of people who might never read the poems of Seamus Heaney if they weren’t given a copy. If Book Night promotes reading, that has to be good...”
But does giving away books promote reading? I have always had my doubts, even arguing with Wendy Cooling about the efficacy of Bookstart... although anyone with any sense does not argue with Wendy Cooling. And of course I’m happy that the government decided not to axe the programme – it was a mad decision in the first place considering that according to the Social Return on Investment, Bookstart generates £614m of social value for the £13m it costs.
Booked Up, a programme run by Booktrust, gives away 2.5m books to children in Year 7, a critical time when reading may become less of a habit. Then there’s Booktime, which gives a single title to children in primary schools. And finally, of course, there’s World Book Day. It all adds up to an awful lot of free books.
Here’s my problem. I am willing to accept that this great generosity may be helpful and should be supported. But if I may offer you an analogy, giving away free books en masse still feels to me a little bit like chucking matches at damp wood. I am not decrying any of the programmes I have mentioned but I do think the questions we should be asking ourselves are – why was the wood damp in the first place, how can we dry it out, how can we make it catch fire?
The answers can be found, I think, in the interaction of the three words that I began with. Literacy. Literature. And reading.
Literacy is of course the middle word of the National Literacy Trust and I thought it a good idea to remind myself of a few facts drawn from their own research.
One in six people in the UK struggle with literacy – which is to say that they have the reading level of an 11-year old. A quarter of young people don’t recognise the link between reading and success even though men and women with poor literacy are least likely to be in full-time employment by the time they are 30. These are all National Literacy Trust findings and you might add to them a survey by the Reader’s Digest last year that found that one in 20 children have never actually read a book at all – a figure which, in this golden age of children’s literature, the age of JK Rowling, I found incomprehensible.
But illiteracy is not a completely separate, isolated phenomenon and I think it is unwise to treat it as such. Sadly, it is part of a much wider picture... just one of the ways that we seem to be letting down the next generation. For example, last year the National Child Measurement Programme announced that one third of children leaving primary school were clinically obese. Labour politicians who are now berating the coalition for shutting down libraries might like to remember that 200 football pitches and 1,000 smaller open spaces inside schools were sold off on their watch – despite a manifesto promise to end that particular programme.
We might also consider what we’re actually feeding our children. Thanks to Jamie Oliver, we all know about turkey twizzlers and it occurs to me that any society that is happy to allow its young to feast on rendered meat, pork fat, wheat starch, aspartame and all the rest of it probably won’t care too much if their little darlings don’t grow up with a love of Jane Austen either.
And how quickly have we forgotten the Unicef report of 2007, which placed Britain at the very bottom of a list of 21 nations, reporting that our children drank more alcohol, took more drugs and had more underage sex than the children of any other country. At the time, Bob Reitemeier – who was the chief executive of the Children’s Society – said: “Unicef’s report is a wake-up call to the fact that, despite being a rich country, the UK is failing children and young people in a number of crucial ways.”
Illiteracy, the inability to read in any meaningful way, is part of a much wider argument about how our generation, more selfish and more demanding than any that has gone before, is treating the next generation. We had free university education. They won’t. We have jobs. One in five young people are now unemployed. We used up the oil. They’ve got the global warming. It sometimes seems to me that we’re letting down children in almost every way possible.
And here’s the elephant in the corner, the central issue that commentators often prefer to ignore. Illiteracy, like so many of the issues confronting young people, is largely, if not entirely, an issue of class. It is the last apartheid. I remember at the time of the so-called Goth murder, this was in May 2008, when a 15-year-old boy called Brendan Harris kicked a young woman to death simply because she was a Goth, I was asked by a journalist: did I think that boy would have committed that crime if he had read books? And the answer was immediately obvious – of course he wouldn’t... not because a love of literature prevents people committing murder (Dennis Nielsen was a voracious reader) but because, by and large, the sort of people who are surrounded by books don’t go out into Lancashire parks and indiscriminately kick people to death.
Here are two of the central tenets of the National Literacy Trust's philosophy, which Jonathan Douglas kindly provided me for this talk.
1) Low levels of literacy impact on social justice. They reduce earnings and quality of life. They impact negatively on health and family stability. They also decrease the likelihood that individuals are happy.
2) Low levels of literacy and negative attitudes are not the same for all social and ethnic groups. The closer you are to poverty and the more exclusion you face, the more likely you are to have low levels of literacy.
This is the one thing I have never understood about this country – which is how even after 13 years of a left-wing government and so much money spent, wealth and class should still define us to the extent it does... in fact, the Gini Co-efficient, which is the system used to judge social mobility, actually went off the rails while Gordon Brown was in power. It beggars belief that we can live in a society that allows Barclays Bank to pay 5.7% tax on profits of £11.6 billion in the same week as we close down our libraries (and, for that matter, take away a measly £1m from the National Literacy Trust). It’s almost as if successive governments want to keep people illiterate because they know that that way they’ll never be able to fight back.
One of the most depressing aspects of my experience in becoming a successful author has been my realisation that I have been meeting the same boys and girls and visiting the same schools over and over again. The schools that invite me in are largely in the south, in leafy suburbs. The children who queue up in my signing sessions are largely white and middle class. Of course I like meeting them and I’m more than grateful that they read me. But a publisher once asked me what would have happened if I had created a character called Mohammed Rider instead of Alex Rider. I think I could quite easily have knocked one or even two zeroes off my sales.
Every child in the country could be enjoying the Alex Rider books. I’d say the same of Young Bond, Cherub, Darren Shan, Hunger Games, Artemis Fowl, Percy Jackson. These are all fast-paced, undemanding, action-packed reads. But I know that there are whole swathes of the country where these books have barely penetrated and where they could be doing good. Again, to quote from a National Literacy Trust report, Reading for Pleasure:
"When children read for pleasure, when they get 'hooked on books', they acquire, involuntarily and without conscious effort, nearly all of the so-called “language skills” many people are so concerned about: they will become adequate readers, acquire a large vocabulary, develop the ability to understand and use complex grammatical constructions, develop a good writing style and become good (but not necessarily perfect) spellers. Although free voluntary reading alone will not ensure attainment of the highest levels of literacy, it will at least ensure an acceptable level. Without it, I suspect that children simply do not have a chance.”
It’s that last sentence that chills me. How can we live with ourselves if we are bringing up children who “simply do not have a chance”? Even the dimmest politician should be able to see that literacy is the key to almost everything in life. A couple of weeks ago, I went to a PEN talk given by a remarkable African American called Wilbert Rideau. Aged 19, he found himself on death row in Angola State Penitentiary for the murder of a woman he had shot and killed during a bungled bank robbery. And what turned this killer into the eloquent and articulate and very wise man that I listened to? While he was in his cell, someone lent him a book about slavery and American history. He began to read. And in reading he discovered the world which in turn led him to discover himself. He is now a published author in his own right and this is what he said:
"I think it is impossible to underestimate the power of reading. It transformed me. Like many criminals, I was locked into myself. I had been feeling sorry for myself. Then I acquired all these feelings. I realised that I had never been as trapped in life as I believed I was. Reading taught me empathy. That others also have dreams, aspirations, frustrations and pain. And that’s when I finally realised the depth of the damage that I had done."
There is, however, a huge difference between literacy and literature I think this is something that is also overlooked. We all agree that reading is important – but why – generally – is it important? We want children to read – but does it matter what they read? And are we being a touch hypocritical? How many adults actually read? How many of you in this room can honestly say that you have opened a book today and, again, was it worth opening?
It would be quite wrong for one author to knock the work of another... but I’m not going to let that stop me. I have a certain fascination with the work of Dan Brown, who is really one of the worst writers on the planet... although he’s so rich I’m sure he won’t mind me saying so. Let me treat you to the opening of one of his earlier masterpieces, Deception Point.
[Reading of extract from THE LOST SYMBOL... a lift on the Eiffel Tower "overflowing" with tourists, i.e. falling to their death]
I cannot understand why anyone reads this tosh and I wonder what good it does anyone apart from making Dan Brown, as I say, extremely rich. Am I merely being snobbish when I say that if you haven’t read Dickens and Gissing and Trollope and Hardy, you haven’t actually read anything and where exactly do we draw the line? Do we applaud a child for reading The Beano? Or The Sun or Hello magazine? Do you know what the biggest-selling autobiography was last Christmas? It was a meerkat. Is this something to celebrate? And the most borrowed author in this country is James Patterson, who has recently signed a contract to write 17 books in three years – although apparently he has a team now so doesn’t even need to write them all himself. Is that a good argument for keeping libraries open?
Library closures have been hanging over this talk and with a certain sense of apprehension. I’d like to give my opinion, for what it’s worth.
As I said a little earlier, I’m not sure that we’re having the right debate and I also have my concerns about the way in which that debate is being presented. I have to be careful here because this really is an area where I don’t want to be misquoted so let me say that I do not support the closure of a single library anywhere in the country. I feel it’s only right to mention, in particular, Aldeburgh Library in Suffolk, which is under threat. I spend a lot of time in Suffolk and know that this library really does play a huge role in the local community. There are a lot of old people in Aldeburgh who use it regularly. When I was telephoned and asked for my support, I felt it would be churlish to refuse and you’ll find me quoted in local newspapers along with other local authors such as Craig Brown and PD James.
And do I have any faith in our libraries minister, Mr Ed Vaizey? No. I was introduced to him last year at a function in Downing Street – we were giving certificates to children who had won a writing competition. And as he shook my hand, he congratulated me on writing the Young Bond novels. Forget my vanity. I don’t really give a damn and I like Charlie Higson. But how can a man that inept, that poorly briefed, be allowed to make any major decisions about anything? His interaction with the children on that day was, incidentally, appalling too.
But if you can detect a weasel in what I’m saying, it’s this. I’m saying what I have to say, what any author has to say. The battle lines have been drawn up and, as with all sorts of discussions in this increasingly touchy and sensitive society of ours, any deviation from the party line, any hesitation, any wavering from one hundred percent absolutism, is likely to get you in all sorts of trouble.
I do not like the opprobrium that has been heaped on Keith Mitchell who leads the Oxfordshire County Council and who may be an evil bastard – he is, after all, a Conservative. But at the same time, he may not be too happy about losing £58m from his budget and it is just possible that he may be trying to make the best of a bad job. He is closing down 23 out of 43 local libraries which sounds – and is – not good. But many newspapers have failed to report that the 20 libraries that will remain in Oxfordshire are responsible for 82% of all borrowing – which is surely something that should at least be considered.
According to many authors who have entered the fray, they would never even have begun writing if they hadn’t gone down to the local library when they were small. By an odd coincidence, I read this just a few nights ago in the biography of one of my favourite writers. He was living with an alcoholic father in one of the poorer parts of Edinburgh and, to quote from the biography:
“...he started borrowing books from a nearby public library at such a rate that a special by-law was ratified prohibiting readers from exchanging books more than once a day. Arthur was known to visit the library twice, occasionally thrice, in a day.
In 1894, Arthur declared, 'I do not think life has any joys to offer so complete, so soul-filling, as that which comes upon the imaginative lad whose spare time is limited, but who is able to snuggle down into a corner with his book, knowing that the next hour is all his own.'
Arthur was, of course, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and perhaps we have public libraries to thank for Sherlock Holmes.
But that was then – a hundred years ago. We live in a very different world and the writers who are making the most noise about libraries are refusing to confront the facts about here and now. For example, according to statistics published in 2010, over 60% of adults don’t use libraries even once a year and overall usage dropped by 33% in the five years leading up to that time.
And here are some findings that really surprised me, particularly as no fewer than seven out of the ten most borrowed authors this year were children’s authors. This is from a report published by the National Literacy Trust in February 2011, using a base of 17,089 readers.
- 47.8% of young people do not use a public library at all.
- Young people from white backgrounds use public libraries the least.
- Public library use declines drastically and significantly with age. Only 24.5% of Key Stage 4 pupils say they use the library.
Like them or not, we cannot ignore these figures and I believe that the library argument should be more than a shrill contempt for government policy and local government cuts. I want to see libraries kept open – but I also want to see them used.
Keith Mitchell has been pounced on for wanting to have 20 libraries run by volunteers – “a fatuous idea” and “patronising nonsense” is how it has been described by at least one big-name writer. I know that David Cameron’s so-called Big Society is not the most popular idea to arrive in modern politics but are we really so sure it’s not even worth discussing? After all, the Children’s Book Federation has been at work for more than 40 years and I’m always surprised to find them absent from all these discussions as, in my view – and I’ve met many of their groups up and down the country – in their own quiet and single-minded way, they’ve done more for literacy, for literature and for reading than almost anyone.
This is the 21st century. Libraries need to change... in the same way, perhaps, that museums have changed. I live opposite Tate Modern, one of London’s top 10 tourist sites with five million visitors a year. Many of the paintings there and all the wonderful Unilever installations can be viewed free of charge. I’ve visited fantastic new galleries in Sheffield, Edinburgh, Manchester, Leeds... while local libraries are still stuck in old-fashioned often unwelcoming buildings – with only a few exceptions... Newcastle Central Library springs to mind.
And what of the internet? On 20 July 2010, Amazon announced that its eBook sales had outstripped its paper sales for the first time. 3 million iPads were sold in 80 days. Rupert Murdoch recently launched The Daily, the first entirely electronic newspaper. And yet not only are none of the pro-library campaigners embracing this revolution, they are resolutely dismissing it. In an edition of the Bookseller dedicated to its own campaign to save libraries, I found just one reference to the internet. “We need books, and no digital option will wholly replace them, especially kids’ books which need to be chewed and thrown about.” That was from a manager at Waterstones and it may be true but I was absolutely delighted when I discovered that kids will be able to download my next book on their mobile phones. This seems to be a fantastic opportunity. Are we certain that the internet and changing reading habits have nothing positive to add?
And one other thing that hasn’t been mentioned. The Public Lending Right. What about PLR? It costs £7.58m a year and makes payments to 23,000 writers and illustrators. Don’t you think it strange that not a single author fighting library closures has mentioned it? Well, perhaps this might be a time to re-consider why a system that was invented to give books freely to the public should still find it necessary to pay the people who wrote them. Perhaps ending PLR should be part of the discussion – or at the very least, it would be very nice to have an option whereby successful authors could choose to divert their PLR earnings to the purchase of more books for local libraries. They’re certainly welcome to mine.
But here, for me, is the greatest danger in the argument that is raging about public libraries. Quietly, and with much less public fanfare, other cuts are doing much greater damage to our children’s literacy and if we’re not careful we’re soon going to have a generation that can’t even spell “public library” much less visit one.
What I’m talking about is school libraries. According to the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, again quoted by the National Literacy Trust, one in three secondary schools had their library budgets cut in 2010 – that was, of course, under the last government which now, suddenly, cares so much about public libraries. CILIP discovered that only 30% of primary schools had a full-time librarian. One in seven school libraries had no supervision at all.
I’ve been visiting schools for 30 years and I’ve been to hundreds of them from Scotland to Devon and all over France and America too – and you ask any visiting author this and they will say the same. You can tell a school instantly by its library. Or to put it another way, I can tell you instantly what the library will be like the moment I enter a school. It’s there in the animation of the kids, it’s the colour, the sense of intellectual life in the corridors. It’s in the way they regard one another and in the way they speak. The library is the beating heart of any school and its life and vitality depend on it.
And to give you a specific example of what I’m saying, let me tell you about one school that I visited a few years ago. Ilford County High School for Boys is not in a particularly smart area. No fewer than 92% of the boys who go there come from ethnic minorities. 60% of them have English as a second language. And yet when I went to speak there, I was amazed how articulate, polite and confident the boys all seemed to be. Ofsted has described the school as “vibrant and dynamic” and praised “the rigour of scholarship and independence, of thought and self-esteem”. I saw that for myself. And what was the secret of the school’s success? Well, a very large part of it was a well-stocked, busy library with a dedicated librarian. More than that. Three years ago, the school even found time for whole lessons of creative reading. Can you imagine that? A whole classroom of boys sitting in silence, reading not just paragraphs or chapters but whole books for pleasure. And this wasn’t the 1950s.
Sadly, the pressure of the National Curriculum has made that no longer possible. But when I spoke to the librarian, Paula Saffer, before preparing this talk, she was able to assure me that the school still has the same commitment to promoting reading and continues with author visits, book fairs, book swaps and recommended reads. There were 30 boys sitting in front of her in the library, reading, even as we spoke. She praised the Booked Up programme. And she also mentioned the local bookshop, Newham Bookshop, who continue to work in partnership with her, recognising that buying books, owning books and keeping books is an essential part of loving books. Look at this old paperback of Dr No. Three shillings and sixpence of my pocket money. Of course I was a rich kid and I could afford it but even today you can scout out a second hand paperback for less than the price of a Sunday newspaper and even a brand new book is pretty good value when set against, say, a computer game.
For me, this is the golden triangle of literacy and reading. Teachers. School librarians. And local independent bookshops. That’s where just about every child in the country can be found and that, I believe, is where we need to adjust our thinking. According to a teacher I spoke to at Ilford County, incredibly, she does not have the time to read whole books, in class, from cover to cover. You might argue that it’s the job of parents to do that at home and it’s true that as a parent I loved reading with my children: Funnybones, The Twits, the Narnia stories, Harry Potter, Eddie Dickens. But I came from a well-off, middle class home that was full of books. My parents were brought up with books. Once you break that chain it’s awfully hard to fix it no matter how many free books you give away and I still think it is in school and school libraries that the best work can be done. Paula Saffer tells me that she, in the company of many other school librarians, fears for her budget next year and I very much hope that all the noise and confusion of the debate about public libraries will not allow the government to snip away unnoticed at this vital lifeline.
I have talked about literacy. I have talked about literature. I would like to finish by talking about reading – and in particular, reading for pleasure. This is not about developing social skills. It’s not about social mobility. I want to use a word that seldom seems to enter the argument. I want to talk about story.
Story is the reason why I write. When I sit down at my desk and think about Alex Rider or Foyle’s War or Sherlock Holmes, it’s the story that drives me. Let’s start with an evil organisation. What is it planning? How will Alex get involved? What will they do to him? I’ve sometimes compared writing to jumping into a white water river. If the story is good enough it will sweep you along and you’ll have to paddle like crazy to avoid getting crushed against the boulders or slammed into the bank. Sometimes I’ll spend 10 or 11 hours on my own in my office in Clerkenwell but I won’t notice the passing of time and I’ll never get bored because I’m immersed in my story.
And as I’ve got older, I’ve found that I’ve become more and more aware of the power of story to the extent that I’m almost awe-struck by it. Re-reading the Hound of the Baskervilles, I was reminded that at the end of the day it’s a fantastic yarn. You’ve just got to keep turning the pages. And, you know, I was quite wrong to knock Dan Brown because he tells a good story in his own way and keeps millions of people entertained and who needs a pedant like me to come along and start nit-picking his language? American tourists have visited art galleries and churches all over Europe thanks to him, even if many of them have fallen to their deaths from lifts.
I’m often asked if I think that computer games – particularly the very violent ones – are bad or unhealthy for children and having watched my own two sons on Dead Island and Grand Theft Auto, I’m convinced that the answer is no. They may sometimes be very horrible but computer games have no story. They’re all surface. They can’t affect anyone.
I want to finish with a brilliant book which I read by Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi. It’s called THE HOME WE BUILD TOGETHER and there are two passages in it that have always struck me as profoundly true. Both are concerned with the role of story. And this, the first, describes the country that we now live in.
"Culture fragments. The sheer multiplicity of channels means that culture is no longer a garment woven of many threads. There are dedicated channels devoted to sport, or history, or film, or music. Newspapers cover a range of topics. Now, via websites, you can pre-select the kind of news you are interested in and never encounter the rest. The idea of culture as a national landscape of the mind is gone. Instead, we live in non-intercommunicating rooms.
"Until recently, national cultures were predicated on the idea of a canon, a set of texts that everyone knew. In the case of Britain, they included the Bible, Shakespeare, anthologies of poetry such as Palgrave’s Golden Treasury or Quiller Couch’s Oxford Book of English Verse, and the great novels: Jane Austen, Dickens and some modern classics. The existence of a canon is essential to a culture. It means that people share a set of references and resonances, a public vocabulary of narratives and discourse. Until the early 1950s, a politician could quote the Bible and expect people to know what he was alluding to. No longer. I was once sitting next to a former editor of The Times. We did an impromptu experiment. The Prime Minister was about to speak. We agreed to listen for quotations. What would he take to be a shared text? The answer was predictable. The only quote he used was a television advertising slogan. Without a canon, there is no culture, only a series of subcultures."
That’s where we are today. There is no canon in schools. There are no shared texts. There are no books read from the start to the end. And yet, when I was at school, the idea of reading the same book as everyone else bonded us and brought us together. And that’s the second point that the chief rabbi makes... the way that story can unite us and make sense of who we are.
"Britain does not have a national narrative but it may need one – for two reasons. The first is that in an age in which liberal democracy is under threat, it can no longer be taken for granted. We need to know, perhaps even as children, why Britain is as it is. It would be a narrative of freedoms sought for, liberties won, injustices remedied and wrongs righted. It should be an inclusive narrative, telling among other things of how many people from many different places and faiths came here and added greatly to our collective life. Stories ground liberty on something more stable and compelling than abstract concepts or the shifting sands of moral relativism. They also address the challenge of integrating minorities. Stories unite. They tell us who 'we' – all who live in this place – are. They become essential when a nation no longer shares a common ethnicity or a single overarching religious system of belief.
"Stories create memory, and memory creates identity."
I talked about 10 books that made me what I am. Along with hundreds more, they are my identity and at the end of the day it doesn’t matter if it’s Dr No or Dostoyevsky. Story is where you find yourself.
If I were in power, I would not close libraries. I would make sure that the National Literacy Trust was well funded for the next 50 years. I would give money to Bookstart and to Booked Up. I would give Jonathan Douglas a knighthood. But above all, I would make sure that every school had a well-stocked library of its own with a dedicated librarian and I would somehow find time to read books from cover to cover with shared texts by classical and by modern authors and poets... even if it meant cutting back on IT or citizenship studies. I would do this for children of every colour and class and religion. And in the end I would hope that, as Wordsworth put it in “The Prelude”:
"What we love, others will love
And we will show them how."