Because reading can change a life

February 5, 2008

There was a fascinating article in the Washington Post this week – the author (appropriately enough, Thomas Washington) an upper-school head librarian in nearby McLean. Quoting the usual dire statistics about literacy and reading (less than a third of 13 year olds are daily readers; the percentage of ‘non-readers’ at age 17 has doubled in the last 20 years to 19% in 2004; multi-tasking kids can’t focus on any item for longer than nine minutes), Washington concludes that the tipping point in information overload has finally tipped, that we’ve turned into searchers rather than readers, and that none of us is immune from the daily barrage of information, emails, documents and other literature that has to be scanned at speed if we’re to keep up, to distil what is crucial, in order to move on to the next task. He quotes Pulitzer Prize winner Stacy Schiff: ‘Increasingly we deal in atomized bits of information, the hors d’oeuvres of education.’ And which of us grown-ups could say we’re immune?
He’s right – it’s very hard nowadays to take time to admire form, rhythm and content. Did it used to be different? Yes, I think it did. Whereas high school ‘texts’ are now so much about comprehension in sliced-up form, I remember reading incredibly widely during my final two years at school, keeping a special book to log what I’d read. Did it seem terribly difficult to fit it in? Not really; and yet I know most schoolkids today would find that kind of eclectic reading virtually impossible amid all the testing.

So what should we agents and publishers make of it? Does it really matter what books hit the shelves if no one’s really concentrating on them anyway? Yes, yes and yes, it does matter. Because out there words ARE hitting the spot – and they can change lives. For me, discovering a passion for books and a delight in language as a young teenager brought me self-belief – and a brilliant jewel box of meaning that I could play with and savour. Language liberated me and empowered me – and a few years later gave me my path in life. Good stories take you to faraway places, they make you wise beyond your experience, and they give you friends you would never have had otherwise. Am I just living in the past? Has that world totally vanished? No, because our neighbours’ daughter Miriam is just like I was – hungry to read, thrilled by words, and in awe of great writers.

So to Miriam – and to all the young people out there who are finding themselves through words . . . Keep reading! It will change your life.