Problem 1: Booooks are boring
I despise illiteracy. I would go as far as to classify it as a form of child abuse given how profoundly it can shape an entire life. England’s never had it so good when it comes to this shameful social problem. According to a major study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), England holds the unenviable title of 22nd most illiterate country out of 24 industrialised nations. The study involved over 166,000 adults and went as far as to suggest the potential threat of “downward mobility”, whereby the younger population is less well educated than the older generation. Not what you’d expect in the ‘Information Age’.
The long-term economic implications of these findings were supported by the Confederation of British Industry who found, brace yourself: One-in-six pupils struggle to read when they leave primary school; one-in-10 boys aged 11 has a reading age no better than a seven-year-old; and at 14, six-in-10 white boys from the poorest backgrounds are still unable to read properly. The solution from our former Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, is typically robust. Give them more ‘complex books’. That’ll sort the problem. I’ll come back to him later.
The National Literacy Trust suggests the reason for this depressing trend is that books are deemed a thing of the past by a ‘YouTube generation’ of readers. Consequently, the number of children reading outside of school has dropped by 25% since 2005. Finding engaging reading material is a particular problem for boys. The survey of 34,910 young uns found that 35% of boys agreed with the statement that “I cannot find things to read that interest me,” compared with 26% of girls. Jonathan Douglas, the director of the National Literacy Trust, said: “There’s a really strong relationship between literacy – reading and writing – and social outcomes, whether it’s earnings, home ownership, voting, or a sense of trust in society. If children are not practising reading, they will miss out.”
There’s also a strong relationship between socio-economic background and illiteracy. Referring to the OECD study, Peter Preston produced this horrible statistic: “If your parents have low levels of education, you are five times more likely to have poor proficiency in literacy than your peers whose parents enjoyed higher levels of education. In England and Northern Ireland, the probability is eight times greater. So the most acute failure to provide young people with skills is for those right at the bottom of the social and economic pile.” The digested read (for those who can read): If you’re born into poverty you’re screwed.
Problem 2: Visibility of booooks
When we look at access to books the hole gets deeper. How are those 35% of boys ever going to read if physical access to books is diminishing? Despite the Public Libraries & Museums Act 1964, the law that makes public libraries a statutory service, 201 libraries were closed down as part of government cuts in 2011-12. CIPFA also found that visitor numbers to physical premises and to library websites are down, falling year-on-year by 2.4% and 14.4% respectively.
The outlook for independent bookshops doesn’t make for pretty reading either. In 2005 there were 1,535 independent bookstores in the UK. Nearly a third of these have now closed down. This means the most visible place for books are the supermarkets. I don’t want to live in a world where Tescos determines taste, not because I’m a literary snob, but because only large publishers can afford to stock mass produced books at such a low rate. Independent publishers simply can’t afford to compete and so inevitably literature is reduced to 50 shades of sleb biogs.
So what issues do these miserable facts raise?
- How do you make libraries a focal point of the community?
- What happens to authors and publishers (particularly independents) when their work is inaccessible?
- What happens to the publishing industry when books are most visible in supermarkets?
- How do we engage reluctant readers?
Books aren’t boring. Libraries are. If they’re to survive the recession and fend off proposed cuts then they need to become fortresses. Vancouver Public Library is the personification of this ideal. It’s an outrageous, jaw-dropping monolith of knowledge that resembles the Amphitheatrum Flavium in Rome. Closer to home is the recently completed £189m Library of Birmingham. Prior to its eco-friendly redesign it was once described by Prince Charles as looking like a place where books would be incinerated rather than read. Both libraries define themselves as cultural hubs rather than book banks. They have multiple purposes, in particular they share their space with the wider community, and have invested in state of the art technology. If all libraries followed suit, the mere utterance that they should be closed down would be ridiculed.
Just to be clear, a fortress does not have strip lighting and a cultural hub does not mean that you can pay your council tax inside.
Unfortunately Nottingham is a tiny city in comparison to Birmingham and so it would be naïve to expect renovation and investment on a similar scale. Therefore we need to think of a different way to entice people in. We need to make books exciting. We need zombies…
Dawn of the Unread is an attempt to address these issues by imagining what would happen if the great literary figures from Nottingham’s past went unread. If their ideas are not preserved and made accessible will they effectively disappear from our minds? Sillitoe, Lawrence, Byron et al would never put up with such an insult and so return from the grave, in a twist on the zombie genre, in search of the one thing that will ensure their survival: ‘boooks’. This will take the form of an interactive graphic novel made available across media platforms.
It will explore literature in its broadest sense, introducing readers to the eccentric antics of the Fifth Duke of Portland, about the undefeated bare-knuckle boxer Bendigo, through Slawomir Rawicz’s long walk home from the Soviet Gulag Camp and the many disguises of Charlie Peace. Presenting readers with these incredible stories will hopefully create an interest in local history and a new found sense of civic pride.
Thinking inside the circle
If you want to engage reluctant readers then you have to draw upon all elements of the ‘communication circle’. This is the idea that maths, english, art, music, film etc are all equal in their creative practice. At one side of the circle we have maths with its precise cold logical forms of articulation. At the opposite end we have more emotive forms of communication such as music. All are integral to our development.
If we start to think inside the circle and not get boxed in to particularities such as Nick Gibb’s ‘more complex’ books, we might just have a chance of capturing the ever diminishing attention spans of the ‘YouTube generation’. I’m hoping that Dawn of the Unread will engage readers emotionally and intellectually by exploring a wide variety of styles of illustration and colour, through debate in public libraries with featured writers, by creating literary walks, games, animations, multiple narratives, digital interaction across media platforms and a creative space for readers to share their own ideas. By combining all of these gradients of expression and communication we might just entice a small minority of people to read further books inspired by the project.
And before you accuse education of turning to the Dark side Mr Gibb, this isn’t selling out, pandering, dumbing down or a compromise. It’s not a replacement for books either. It’s about finding a place for reading within the circle of communication. It’s not just a case of giving someone a book and telling them to read either. Most of the classics I was given at school were dull. I couldn’t relate to them or the language. Now they have a place in my life as I can better appreciate and understand them now that I’m a more developed and confident reader.
The remit of Dawn of the Unread is not to thrust ‘complex’ books on people to read. It’s to create a thirst for knowledge. To tease, tantalise and inspire. To use digital technology to enable numerous routes into literature knowing that our reading paths are ultimately solitary and taken at different speeds.
Dawn of the Unread will start on National Libraries’ Day 2014. Please engage with the blog, follow us on Twitter, and spread the word…
 To add insult to injury, the government does not produce official statistics regarding closures and so these figures are calculated by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA).