It seems like barely a week goes by these days without someone wringing their hands about the parlous state of reading among the nation’s children. They’re not reading enough or they’re not reading the right things or they stop at about the same time as they start doing their exams (there’s a hint there) or we’re discouraging them from reading by the wrong kind of marketing or who knows what.
This week’s hand wringer is none other than the Chief Inspector of Schools, Michael Wilshaw. Well, less hand wringing and more stick beating. His suggestion is that the state should fine parents who don’t encourage their children to do their homework and fine those who don’t read with their children.
Leaving aside the arbitrary nature of this suggestion which is impossible to enforce, (early reactions suggest his comments will not be taken seriously but I do worry that he even thought they were necessary to make them in the first place) the idea shows a lack of knowledge or experience about any kind of family life in any wide sense. There are days when I feel too tired to read with my daughter after work and I don’t do anything strenuous or repetitive or mind numbingly dull.
But there’s something else at work. When it comes down to it, people who read for pleasure in this country are in the minority. Back when I worked for a national bookselling chain, we used to have audience demographic data. People classed as ‘medium to heavy book buyers’ were people who bought between 4-6 books a year. Yes, you read that correctly, heavy book buyers = people who buy 6 books a year. Based on those statistics, people like me are freaks. I could buy that many in a month and sometimes do. Now, that was a few years ago and now book buying data is so hard to get hold of (Amazon don’t release Kindle sales info) things may have changed. But I doubt they’ve changed that much.
We should face facts. Those of us who have always read, prefer the company of books to other people, and who are bring our children up to be good readers, are small in number and have been for years. Forcing people to read won’t do anything to change that. If I was a parent who had been told to read with my child or face fines I wouldn’t have a clue where to start. And they won’t ask for help. They’ll either panic and be scared or pay the fines or find reasons not to pay and we’ll be no further along.
Every piece of knowledge I have is from books (apart from that thing about the Hudson being a tidal estuary which I learned from The West Wing). And it’s from reading that I think I’ve gained empathy with experiences that aren’t my own. People are engaged when they are noticed, when they have fun and when they can see the point of what they’re doing. So my suggestions to improve standards in schools would be based around those principles. Perhaps the Chief Inspector of Schools should read more widely himself and think sensibly before he makes comments about other people’s parenting.
E is reading: Smelly Bill by Daniel Postgate. A rhyming tale about a dog who likes to roll in smelly things and the struggle to wash him. Though the story is a familiar one, the pictures remind me of Prince What-a-Mess who I loved as a child, and E finds it all very funny. Daniel Postgate is son of Oliver Postgate so with that pedigree, how can you fail to enjoy this book?
I am reading: Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey. There’s been a lot of hype about this debut novel and I have to say, it’s well deserved. A detective story narrated by Maud, an old lady with dementia, the book tells Maud’s tale as she tries to find her friend Elizabeth, who she says has gone missing. As her illness takes effect, we see her frustration and that of her family and friends. Elizabeth’s missing status has parallels for Maud with that of her sister Sukey, who went missing after the war. Will Maud ever find Elizabeth and will we ever find out what happened to Sukey? Despite the reader occasionally sharing in both Maud’s and her family’s frustration at Maud’s memory lapses, this is a really enjoyable read and a pretty scary examination of what getting old might look like.