Book your tickets for the reading train

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The Independent Culture
It has been easy not to notice that this week sees the beginning of the National Year of Reading, but on Wednesday it will be given an official launch by David Blunkett. He will usher in a series of events and initiatives in schools, libraries and bookshops. It is a fine idea, though at this stage it has yet to to transcend the bureaucratic effort that inspired it. There will be "Fun to Read" festivals and "Reaching Parents in the Community" days. There will be "a network of 200 co-ordinators, steering committees and focus groups"; there will even be "a family of logos". October is "Language in Orbit" month; December is a time for "Reading through Drama". In March, we will be urged to "Be a Sport"; and next April, we will be encouraged to "Tune into Reading" (which sounds like an advert for Berkshire-based community radio, but is in fact a promotion based on song lyrics).

It sounds like good news. Reading, the received wisdom goes, is on the way out. The constant competitive pressure from computer games, the short attention spans spawned by the zappy television habits of a video age, are proving too strong. The quiet and ancient art of reading is - can anyone seriously dispute it any more? dying.

These are certainly among the assumptions behind the branding- and-coralling exercise launched this week. But it might well be that the opposite is the case. Book sales in this country are for the moment buoyant, and this might spring from something more significant than a brief economic hurrah. It is even possible that reading is set, if anything, for a resurgence or why not - a renaissance.

It is easy to be a pessimist; but pessimism is often no more than a thoughtless and defensive response to change. Way back in 1912, a headmaster wrote to the Times to complain that the introduction of the gramophone threatened to wipe out the reading skills of the nation's youth (he didn't use the term "reading skills", of course - that is a more recent gift to the language). But new developments in technology rarely have precisely the effects that were initially anticipated: the surge of automation in business life, which at one point provoked excited predictions about the glories of the paperless office, has in fact given birth to a waste-paper mountain. Our enhanced ability to print and reproduce has led us to fell forests with renewed ferocity. Newspapers get bigger, not smaller. Perhaps similar contradictions will rebound on the jeremiads about literacy.

The American novelist Nicholson Baker once pointed out that the trouble with reading is that the moment you pick up a book, you are confronted by precisely the thing that made you put it down last time. This isn't the only paradox. It might seem that all the new information technology threatens to undermine reading, but it is just as likely that the opposite is the case. Computers require us to type and read, type and read. Fax- mail and e-mail technologies are re-introducing us to the twin habits of reading and writing, habits we seemed for a moment to have almost given up. New generations of business people, who never used to write a word, now scribble messages late into the night. Perhaps we are beginning to pass through the age of the telephone, a brief interregnum in which we truly did down our pens. The authors of today will hardly leave behind the volumes of letters and diaries we cherish from the past; but writers in the future might well leave us their collected faxes or computer mail.

If anything, the real threat to reading at present lies in the sharp proliferation of the written word in recent years. There must have been a time, many centuries ago, when it was possible for a cultivated person - a monk, probably - to read in his lifetime everything that had been written. These days the canon lies in ruins, and there is no agreed reading- list to attack and work through. Reading used to be like scaling a mountain: the top might be out of sight, but you knew it was there. You could push through book after book, and sense you were making progress. But now we are surrounded by a swamp, a glut. And it is possible to wonder, since we can't read everything, why we should bother to read anything at all.

The National Year of Reading should help concentrate the minds of teachers and children. It would be nice if it also turned out to be swimming with, rather than against, the tide. Anyone who has sat with a five-year-old and inched letter by letter through a book knows that reading is literally character-building. Apart from its utilitarian aspects, it also builds independence, requiring and encouraging some degree of solitude. Children do it in cupboards or garden hideaways (parents do it on the loo or in the bath). And while it is probable that further refinements - the present drive is to perfect voice-recognition - may again challenge the procedures of literature, the printed word, in byte-sized chunks, is making a comeback. Let us hope that the steering commitees and focus groups make the most of it.

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