Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

This week will be an important one for many of those people to whom books already mean almost everything. It may - with luck - also prove decisive for many to whom they now mean next to nothing at all. Over the weekend, publishers from around Europe and beyond will meet in the shiny halls of the London Book Fair to deal, to gossip, to moan and to bond over the all-consuming details of an art, and trade, that still provides a lifetime's work - and play - to its eager devotees.

Yet those princes of print stand on the willing shoulders of an army of readers whom they seldom see. And that army forever needs to be reinforced with keen recruits: a task often taken for granted, but tougher than ever as each wave of hi-tech media gives more and more people more and more reasons never to pick up a book.

Launched yesterday by the Prime Minister on World Book Day, the Quick Reads project aims to lure "emergent" or "reluctant" adult readers gently into the world of books. The "maturity" of the British book market - a chronological concept, but a cultural one as well - has bothered publishers for years. Put baldly, the people who already love reading love it to death; but those who don't often run a mile from this alien activity.

Quick Reads stems in part from alarming recent research on adult literacy - and sub-literacy. It revealed the huge number of adults in the UK who have trouble - or think they do, which has the same effects - with anything more than the simplest material. Some sources cite 7 million, others as many as 12 million. Whether deterred by genuine problems, shyness, isolation or schoolroom trauma, these bookless legions probably hold the future of British publishing in their hands. The first dozen Quick Reads titles - short, brightly packaged paperbacks with large print, plain language and a magazine-level price of £2.99 - want to tempt those hands to drop the remote and replace it for once with a real book.

Of course, the Quick Reads venture doesn't stand alone. For instance, the Get Into Reading programme at Liverpool University reports a rich harvest from the pilot year of its 20 groups on the Wirral. One young mother, dismissed as part of the "thicko" set at school, is enjoying The Winter's Tale and looking forward to Bleak House.

Most of those who warily select a Quick Read will never move so far so fast. But will these books give them a sound start? The initial batch, from crime stories by Ruth Rendell and Minette Walters to a self-help tract from Richard Branson, on the whole deserves the warmest of welcomes. Walters, for example, takes to the pace and clarity imposed by the format like a natural with her true-crime tale, Chickenfeed. On the other hand, Joanna Trollope tries rather too hard by choosing adult literacy itself as the subject of her story of empowerment, The Book Boy. The result feels a little forced and clenched.

The Quick Reads stable also offers non-fiction. This may, at least, initiate punters into one of the greatest joys of text. I have to say I found the pair of life-coaching lessons - by Branson and the Big Issue founder John Bird - intensely annoying. The chirpy, success-worshipping Bird seems to think that anyone who objects (say) to Tesco's grotesque power is suffering from the loser's "tall poppy syndrome". Patronising nonsense.

As for Branson, his extended ad gushes about the glory of his tilting trains with never a word about the infamous foul-ups and rip-offs on his Virgin routes. "Once again, we were ahead of everyone." Yeah, right, Richard. But then the wonder of books is that they incite us to answer back, to argue, to blow a sweet, silent raspberry in the author's face. They incubate the lifelong habit of dissent. Let's hope that Quick Reads breed a new generation of slow-burning sceptics.