Reading is good for you. We know this. But imagine if it were national policy to promote reading with the aim of creating a Society of Readers. What would it look like? What are the policy implications of such a vision?
A Society of Readers (2018)
What are the major social challenges facing our society in the future and how can reading help? These are the questions that the report sets out to investigate and using research (you know, experts) has provided some interesting and inexpensive policy proposals.
loneliness, especially amongst the growing number of old people
mental health problems
lack of social mobility
The research findings:
There is evidence on which to build the knowledge that reading has an important part to play in tackling each of these challenges. Reading wards off loneliness, especially where it is accompanied by opportunities for discussion of books, in groups or with reading buddies. The report celebrates book-based social contact.
It is possible to assist someone suffering from mental health difficulties, especially among the young, through reading material. Shelf Help in schools and libraries is becoming more common. You may have heard of poetry pharmacies, prescriptions for reading as aspects of non-medical interventions. You might be familiar with the handbook The Novel Cure: an A-Z of Literary Remedies by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin.
Reading promotes empathy and is an excellent reason for encouraging reading in schools, and a love of reading among the young. It is the basis of Neil Gaiman’s eloquent plea for libraries to the Reading Agency in 2013.
There is evidence that reading helps boost performance on tests, and increases a young person’s opportunities to proceed to higher levels of education.
It’s no exaggeration to say that reading can transform British society. (cover)
The report provides 12 recommendations for the government, all based in the research evidence and successful practices that already promote reading.
What would a society of readers look like?
That is what we mean by a ‘society of readers’ – a society that values reading, and which is in turn sustained by the benefits that reading brings. A society that saturates itself with books for everyone at every point of life. A state that marks significant life events with the gift of reading – especially to its children. A school system where children, by and large, arrive with a love of reading that was handed down to them by their parents who were supported at various points in their life to turn to books themselves. A school system where learning continues throughout the year ensuring that disadvantaged children can engage with reading groups – surrounding themselves with books even and especially if their home environment lacks them. A society whose clinicians understand that reading can have a medicinal quality when it comes to illnesses such as anxiety, ADHD, depression and even dementia. A society where a well-resourced retraining and further education systemencourages reading beyond the classroom too. A society where workplacesmay even carve out the time to allow their employees the time to attend further reading classes and reading groups. And a society that does not forget that its ill and ill-informed not only have cognitive needs but imaginations that can still light a fire too – and where we encourage them to share these imaginations by bonding with their contemporaries over the written word. (p41)
(Note: to make this paragraph easier to navigate I put the main policy locations in bold.)
And so why …?
Why are libraries suffering so badly from the policies of austerity? The latest figures reported by CIPFA (Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy) can be found in a press release from December 2018 here. The only figures that have gone up relate to volunteers and to their hours. 127 libraries closed. Spending was down by £30m and 712 full-time jobs were lost. That is in one year.
So while research and reading charities show that there are some inexpensive and beneficial policies to be promoted to help society, councils and government continue to strangle libraries. That’s why we need to imagine a Reading Society. And readers are good imaginers.
A Society of Readersby Sacha Hilhorst, Alan Lockey, Tom Speight published in 2018 by DEMOS for the Reading Agency.
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