For many of us, as children, it is through reading that we get our first glimpse of a wider world, of difference, of beauty, darkness and danger. We read to escape, to discover, to laugh and to connect. We also read to learn. Reading can teach us to think and imagine, as well as developing more basic skills and capabilities which are pretty much essential in managing our day-to-day lives.
Yet, reading remains, for far too many of us, something that is for other people. This is partly to do with the failings of our compulsory education system – one in six adults of working age in the UK is estimated to have difficulty reading – but it is also a cultural issue. The problem is that, for very many people, reading has not been a source of joy and inspiration. It may well have been a lifelong struggle, associated, often, with feelings of anxiety, shame and humiliation. Or it may simply be they have never found the right sort of book (my Dad, for example, a lifelong Liverpool fan who has never felt much of an urge to read, recently devoured David Peace’s brilliant but difficult – and very, very long – Red or Dead).
It is little wonder that so many people simply do not see reading as being for them. They have never found a way to relate to or be comfortable with books. For these people, reading for pleasure can be hugely daunting. Entering a bookshop can be an intimidating experience. I remember how I felt at 16, on a YTS, taking one of those lovely, orange-and-white Penguin Modern Classics to the counter of Dillon’s bookshop in Liverpool. I assumed everyone who worked in the shop had read everything on the shelves. I also thought that, with the education I imagined they’d had, they knew far more than I did and had a far better understanding of books than I could ever have. I felt (wrongly) judged and inadequate. It felt better buying books in Woolworths or Boots.
For people who feel uncomfortable with books, who feel reading may not be for them, it often isn’t enough just to create an opportunity for them to be with and learn about books. They need support, encouragement and, perhaps above all, a place to start. In many cases this won’t be a bookshop. It will be in a classroom, the workplace or somewhere else in the community where they feel comfortable. Two remarkable initiatives illustrate how important these venues can be, and how much difference the right kind of support can make.
The first, Quick Reads, is a partnership of publishers, authors and adult education providers dedicated to improving literacy and engagement with reading. It has produced dozens of high-quality, short and fast-paced books by best-selling authors aimed at people who lack confidence as readers, and ensured they get into the hands of the people who can benefit from them most – those least likely to pick up a book.
An impact evaluation, carried out at the end of last year, demonstrates the overwhelmingly positive impact Quick Reads have on adult learners’ confidence and attitudes to reading and on their literacy skills, making literature accessible to more and more learners, including many from disadvantaged backgrounds associated with low participation in learning. The books are used year-on-year by practitioners in settings as diverse as prisons, libraries, family learning groups and workplaces, turning, as one tutor put it, ‘non-readers into readers’.
The second notable project is The Reader Organisation. I’ve written at length about The Reader before. It’s an amazing project which demonstrates how great literature can be for everyone. I remember my last visit to the project, going out to a mental health centre where a group of young men who had probably never heard of Norman Mailer were reading The Fight, his barnstorming account of the 1974 boxing title fight between Mohammed Ali and George Foreman, the famous ‘Rumble in the Jungle’. It was brilliant to see not only how the book resonated with these men, but how they grew in confidence through reading and listening. I also visited a reading group at Toxteth Library where it was obvious how members of the group relished dissecting a poem and how they benefited from the mutual support and encouragement of the others in the group.
The two approaches are different but I think they complement each other. Both have succeeded in making readers – and learners – out of people who had little interest in books before. They show that no-one should feel that reading and books aren’t for them. I know that from my own experience. Finding the right books for you, and finding people you can talk to and share your passion with, is incredibly important. I overcame my fear of bookshops and have since worked in a fair few myself. I can still happily spend hours browsing the shelves of Waterstone’s or breathing in the dust of a second-hand bookshop.
Reading opens so many doors. But first you need to be comfortable enough to think books can be for you. There need to be places and people who can support and signpost. As last year’s PIAAC report highlighted, the challenges in this area are huge, and there is a very significant job to be done in ensuring there is support out there for people taking that first step into reading. Critically, we need to ensure that there is well-funded adult education provision out there for people to access, in ways and in settings that suit them. For so many people, that is where they make their start, where fires are set that last a lifetime. As everyone who has discovered a love of reading will know, it is a wonderful thing to plant a seed. But flowers do not grow by themselves.