Books are being pulped, (Unison, 2017) What else could happen when the schools, libraries and shops no longer require them? In my town there are two charity shops where you can buy a book for 25 pence; the same shops have recycling bins for the piles of useless pages they just can’t shift.
Children don’t necessarily encounter too many of these paper dinosaurs: they have YouTube for kids, Kids Smartphone, Kindle Fire, etc etc etc. And libraries in the UK are closing faster than you can say, ‘Books? What are they?’ 449 libraries closed between 2012 and 2017 (The Bookseller, 2017) Those remaining are reduced and forced – by cuts – to rely on volunteers, (CILIP, 2017)
‘We don’t need books anymore, computers do that job; books take up space and collect dust.’ I hear you thinking. (Space is especially precious to us in the UK, as our living rooms shrink around us – Alice in Wonderland style, (Guardian, 2018))
But children need and want books and libraries are invaluable. Ian Anstice, (Library manager since 1998, winner of Information Professional of the Year 2011 and Editor of Public Libraries News) in the New Statesman, argues that the internet can’t be blamed for the decline in library use in the UK – “Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the USA are all not seeing the decline that we’re seeing.”
Anstice points out that libraries give everyone equal access to books and thus foster literacy, “If you’re wealthy and you can afford a lot of books, that’s brilliant, you don’t need a library. But if you’ve got a child, from toddlers – who are absolutely voracious for picture books – onwards, to give your child the same access to books, and thus to improved literacy, you need a library.” (New Statesman, 2017) Necessary for a country in which, “around 15 per cent, or 5.1 million adults in England, can be described as ‘functionally illiterate.’ They…have literacy levels at or below those expected of an 11-year-old.” (National Literacy Trust)
Libraries give children more than literacy: they provide thoughts, facts, ideas, possible identities. A child can wander around a library and encounter the world for themselves, without the interference of a parent, teacher or creepy algorithm programmed to predict their personality type.
Ray Bradbury says that, for him as a child, books were people – “I’d look in and…people are waiting in there, thousands of people…when you open a book the person pops out and becomes you…you are Charles Dickens and he is you…” (NEA, 2017) A child needs access to books in order to choose who they want to be – to invent themselves. In a library, any child can do that.
‘Alright alright, but why fiddle about with all that paper when you could just use a kindle?’ I hear you exclaim. I find it uncanny – threatening – that the name of the device invented to replace the book is ‘Kindle’; if you want to use apps simultaneously choose ‘Kindle Fire’ – an even scarier name. ‘Why scary?’ you cry. ‘Stop whinging. There’s no conspiracy! Change is inevitable!’
But why did they have to call it the ‘Fire’? It’s as if the brand development people – somewhere in their minds – were conjuring a good old-fashioned book burning. It was Hitler’s book burning that frightened Bradbury into writing Fahrenheit 451 – his classic dystopia about a ‘fireman’ who burns books. (Watch the short film I mentioned above to hear him talking about it – here’s another link. It’s worth watching.) It does strike me that – when you turn a real page – no cookies are stored anywhere…
Putting that uncomfortable thought to one side for now, I want to make a final point. A child values a real book with real pages. A child can hold a book; they can stare at the cover; they can encounter, at their own natural pace, any number of strange new worlds, which may be a complete mystery to them. Mystery is fine. A book doesn’t need to be relevant, or accessible. It could be; or it could be a vague impression of an alien landscape you don’t understand that makes you want to know more.
Patti Smith writes about her childhood and the books lying around her parents’ house. Here she describes her fascination with a textbook her father owned:
“…I remembered copying such things from a heavy textbook that sat on the shelf above my father’s desk. He had all kinds of books rescued from dustbins and deserted houses and bought for pennies at church bazaars. The range of subjects from ufology to Plato to the planarian reflected his ever-curious mind. I would pore over this particular book for hours, contemplating its mysterious world. The dense text was impossible to penetrate but somehow the monochromic renderings of living organisms suggested many colours, like flashing minnows in a fluorescent pond. This obscure and nameless book, with its paramecia, algae, and amoebas, floats alive in memory.” (Patti Smith, M Train, 2015)
She conveys the world as experienced by a child through a physical encounter with a book – an experience so vivid that its impression never quite disappeared. I am not pretending that all children could – or should – be voracious readers, but all children can discover something from books, if only an intimation of what they don’t know.
In a world where the mass media offers children a limited menu of who – or what – they could be, children need books desperately. They need other ideas; they need the past. And children want books. A recent experiment in French schools, which dictates all children and staff must read for fifteen minutes each day, (anything except school books and magazines) has proved very popular, (The Connexion, 2017). Based on my eight years as an English teacher, I can guess that fifteen minutes private reading would go down very well with British children. The only problem is, where could they find the books?