Maggie Jones on the importance of sustaining the UK’s healthy approach to books and reading
Each year, around about this time, I begin planning my summer holiday reading. Starting with a long-list, I pare it down to the number of books I think I can carry, before adding a few more onto my Kindle. The thrill of anticipation from reviews and friends recommendations will sustain me to the end of the break.
I can’t imagine a world without books. For many UK children however, this is exactly their experience. A recent National Literacy Trust survey found that three in ten children in our country do not own a single book, with boys even less likely to than girls. Only a quarter of children admitted to reading outside school, and one in five said they were embarrassed to be seen with a book.
A love of reading is one of the most effective routes out of deprivation and disadvantage; more important than either wealth or social class as an indicator of success at school. But the government have failed to address this challenge.
The UK is currently a depressing 22nd out of 24 countries in the OECD pupil literacy attainment, and Education Secretary Michael Gove’s insistence on forcing all children to read his chosen book list misses the point about what inspires them. Most teachers understand that capturing a child’s imagination at the outset is key. And Dolly Parton’s great initiative, the Imagination Library, which distributes free books to millions of youngsters, shows enormous insight into how to get them hooked.
Books can also provide a lifetime of access to new ideas, education and entertainment; but our ability to have free and easy access to them is changing. I can still remember the excitement of getting my first library card as a child. My weekly visits to the library felt like a rite of passage into a grown up world. Our library services have been providing free access to books for over 150 years and remain unrivalled in the world. Sadly however, a UNISON survey has revealed that almost 500 libraries are being closed, privatised or run by volunteers on a reduced service; and the DCMS’s own figures show visits to libraries have dropped by a quarter in the last eight years. We are in danger of losing this celebrated mainstay of our culture.
In parallel, the size of the printed book market slumped to an eleven year low in 2013. Much loved independent bookshops have been going out of business at an alarming rate, with 550 closing during the last decade. Amazon meanwhile, continues its domination of the sector, both through on line purchases and downloads to its Kindle e-books. It already controls 41% of UK sales and its rise appears unstoppable.
Regrettably, it doesn’t take too much imagination to see the potential consequences of an author or publisher falling out with the Amazon machine, with access being denied to the market. There are also reports that the company is ‘bullying’ independent UK publishers by insisting that it should have the right to print books itself if publishers fail to provide sufficient stock; as well as expecting publishers to match pricing deals offered elsewhere. So far, the government has stood back from tackling these issues effectively. Aside from Amazon’s infamous failure to pay tax in the UK, their increasing monopoly surely needs investigating by the competition authorities.
If we believe in the importance of books in shaping a civilised society, for now and future generations, we should also insist that gains from technological innovations should be equitably shared and ethically based. Such issues are being considered within the Woodward Review and will help shape Labour policy.
In the meantime, if you value a free and independent book culture in our country, perhaps think twice about how you order your holiday reading.
Baroness Maggie Jones of Whitchurch is a Shadow Culture Minister in the House of Lords
Published 9th July 2014