Monday, 23 December 2013

The Case for Reading, Daydreaming and Libraries

I recently saw an article in the Guardian which made me feel good about my love of reading, especially science fiction and fantasy, and guilty about not using my local library more often. In his lecture for the Reading Agency, Neil Gaiman, (one of my favourite authors) talked about the enormous importance of libraries, reading and imagination. I hope the article stays up, I'm sure I shall want to read it again!

Earlier this year I gained a level 2 qualification in supporting the teaching of essential skills (mainly language and literacy) for people who are 'post compulsory education' (in other words, 16+). I've always loved reading and can't imagine not being able to, so I was shocked when I learned of the levels of functional illiteracy in the adult population, but not surprised that it is linked to poor health, unemployment and crime.

I find it rather sad that so many are still leaving school with poor literacy and little motivation to improve it until they realise how badly it can affect their job prospects and everyday lives. There seem to be enclaves of people who took to heart the jibe that 'nobody likes a smart-arse' and happily stay in their comfort zone.  This appears to have been born out by the latest PISA test results, with Wales lurking ignominiously about two thirds of the way down the table.

I was very lucky to have parents who value education.  My mother started me off with letters and numbers before I went to primary school, and I can remember at six or seven reading the labels on packets, tins and bottles. Branston Pickle had intriguing ingredients; what is rutabaga? (It's what I know as swede.) And then being handed the dictionary and told to look up words I didn't understand (very difficult, when you see that some of the definitions don't really explain the word at all). We used to go to the library on Saturday mornings where I devoured books on Mary Poppins, Wurzel Gummidge, anything by Enid Blyton and I can't remember what else. By the end of primary school I had read The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol and most of Oliver Twist and my 'reading age' was at the top of the chart. Once at grammar school I went through all of the science fiction in the school library.  The town library was irritating; I found that until I was 14, I could not borrow anything from the 'adult' section and that the children's library books couldn't fulfil my need to read. Then O and A level English literature killed it completely, despite a stint in the sixth form as a school librarian, and I didn't read fiction for pleasure again until my mid 20s.

This was mainly because reading fiction was supposed to involve analysis, otherwise it was just reading for the pleasure of escapism. At the time, I didn't have the confidence to do what I would do now, which is to shout very loudly: So What?  If reading fiction for pleasure is escapism, then by the same logic, so is anything that you do for pleasure, any leisure activity which takes your mind off other things that you could be thinking or worrying about, or takes your hands or person away from everyday chores. How can you relax and let go of any stress if you don't escape once in a while? Watching the TV or a film is escapism.  Dance can be escapism, and belly dance perhaps doubly so. You can pretend to be someone else, a different character, wear different clothing and jewellery, lose yourself in the music and movement.

Yet I still find that nothing fires my imagination like reading, where I'm free to create pictures in my mind's eye, read and re-read a phrase which amuses me or makes me think.  It exposes me to different situations and ways of thinking in a level of detail which films don't always have time to show.  Reading fiction is like installing a line directly from the author's imagination to yours.

Now I read before I go to sleep and love to lie with a book in a hot bath.  I should really try to go to my local library to get fresh input, but never seem to make it when they are open, for which I feel very guilty.  It is the start of a vicious circle.  If enough people don't make it, the library will eventually shut through lack of use.

We live in an age of information.  There is a huge amount of it freely available. To make your way easily, you need to be able to find the valuable information from the huge amount freely available, understand, and use it. If knowledge is power, then libraries as a collection of knowledge are very powerful things indeed.
To be illiterate is to be disempowered. We have relative freedom of thought and expression, ideas and communication. We are free to read pretty much whatever we like. Libraries are free and we should use them, rather than lose them, but I fear that they are fighting against the availability of so much information from the internet. At least most of them nowadays also have computers.  And there are also talking books, for those whose eyes are tired from all that reading!

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