Leading Article: Reading the runes in the information age

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The Independent Culture
YESTERDAY'S LAUNCH of the National Year of Reading must be welcomed. Giving designated parts of the school day over to reading skills is a dose of long-overdue common sense. Any public relations efforts to promote reading among young men are also a good idea, as boys continue to lag behind girls in their studies. Tory objections to "Big Brother tactics" are frankly ludicrous. The Government is not forcing broadcasters to include clumsy "pro-reading" messages in their plots, simply encouraging them to act responsibly.

Still, the Government should not exaggerate the overall decline of the book. Doom-sayers who lament Britain's supposed backwardness should consider that it has been many years since reading has been as popular as it is today. The new book "supermarkets" have been inspired by the American example of bookshops which feel like coffee lounges; their success is a testament to reading's continuing appeal, even in this emerging computer age.

That appeal will be stimulated, rather than undermined, by new technology: the public's hunger for information, once awakened, is insatiable. Interactive books for personal computers are only the beginning. Hand-held terminals granting access to the Internet will soon transform our view of personal entertainment. All the evidence is that such new media can revive old industries. Video was supposed to supersede cinema; instead, it has given the big screen a new lease of economic life. Only this week, an Australian cinema chain has announced 150 new cinemas in the UK.

Similarly, Americans, the most technologically advanced people in the world, still visit libraries more than any other free public service. The feel and smell of books, the romance of libraries and the thrill of turning the page to new discoveries - all of this will keep book sales healthy, even booming, well into the next century. Society cannot rest easy on literacy, but at least we should not despair.