Youth's guilty secret - they love books

Teenagers think it's not cool to admit being bookish, but figures show sales for younger readers are soaring, writes Barry Hugill
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The Independent Online
IT WAS just after four on a murky afternoon early last week. Young Robin Williams was seriously embarrassed - he had been caught reading a book.

Robert is 14. According to researchers from the London School of Economics, he is one of a new generation of children growing up in a "bedroom culture" where books are "boring".

If the LSE researchers are right, booksellers, publishers and aspiring authors might as well pack up now. Most children, they claim, spend their leisure time glued to the television or computer screen, grudgingly giving over a paltry 15 minutes a day to reading books which they dismiss as "boring, old fashioned and frustrating".

The LSE survey was depressing but nothing compared with Thursday's report from Sir Claus Moser, chairman of the government committee on basic skills. He revealed that Britain is propping up the European literacy league with a shaming two million adults functionally illiterate and another three million very poor readers.

Put the two reports together and you do not need advanced literacy skills to work out that Britain is well on the way to becoming a nation of under- achievers. Or it would be if the pattern of the past were to continue. But Moser's illiterates and the LSE research aside, all available evidence indicates that we are now reading more than ever before.

Which is where young Robert comes in. When he was collared, coming out of his local north London library, he spent the first few minutes excusing himself. The way he was talking, he might as well have been in an illicit drinking den.

"I don't go there [the library] much." Why not? "I dunno, it's boring. No one else goes."

Two reasons, both untrue. Once he had warmed to the idea of being in a newspaper ("Will you take my picture?") it was hard to shut him up. It was not that he had been lying; he just did not want to give the wrong impression. Kids who read, according to Robert, are either "soft", "poncy" or "posh". Or girls.

Once he dropped the macho stance, all became clear. Actually he goes to the library quite often because he is into cars and it stocks some "good stuff". And so do one or two of his mates. Nothing too poncy: football, sport, that sort of thing. And, no, he never reads "proper books" except that he does because he had just borrowed Boy by Roald Dahl.

Robert is a type well known to sociologists, market researchers and journalists - he says one thing but does another. Interviews with another five teenage boys leaving that same library revealed a similar pattern. Not one wanted to be identified as a "reader" because that is not what teenage lads do.

The LSE report was published on 18 March and was widely reported. Not reported at all (at least not in the national press, nor on television or radio) was the 1996-1998 Books and the Consumer Survey, issued on the same day.

The survey is at total odds with the LSE work. The UK children's consumer market (excluding library buying) is now valued at pounds 415m - a 6 per cent increase since 1997. If today's youngsters do not read books it is hard to understand why 120 million copies were sold last year compared with 115 million the previous year.

The figures are consistent with the research conducted by Christine Hall and Martin Coles of Nottingham University. After questioning nearly 8,000 children aged 10, 12 and14, the two are convinced that young people are reading more than ever - a conclusion based on a comparison with data collected in the 1970s.

In 1971, when there was a choice of just three channels and many households still had black and white televisions, children across all age groups, read, on average, 2.39 books per month. Last year when, according to the LSE researchers, two-thirds of children had a TV in their bedroom (not to mention an internet-linked computer and video recorder) with at least five channels, they read 2.52 books.

Of the 8,000 questioned, fewer than 800 were dismissive of books. The majority admitted enjoyment, especially of "adventure" stories (girls as well as boys).

So there you have it. Britain is not rearing a new generation of illiterates. Neither computers nor television have damaged the book market; rather they have contributed to its growth.

Take Great Expectations. It is the latest BBC2 classic serialisation and already book shops are stocking up TV tie-in copies in the sure knowledge they will soon have a big seller on their hands.

Brian Perman, executive director of the Book Trust, is certain computer use is boosting sales. "The net has created an information hunger. Youngsters start off there, find something that really interests them and want to know more. Books remain the cheapest and most efficient way of getting information. They probably use the net to buy the book."

Of course there are problems. Children read less as they get older and teenage boys read least of all. But that has always been the case. And it is true that middle-class children read more than those from the working class. But, again, it was always thus. It could be that the increase in reading is a reflection of better-off families spending more than ever on books. But the evidence from the Hall and Coles study does not point in this direction.

Trish Botten of the Library Association says there is no evidence that book borrowing is confined to the more affluent. "Go to any public library in an inner-city area and it will be full of kids," she said. "There have been library closures in recent years but the number of books out on loan is increasing. About 400,000 children's books are borrowed every day. Last year it was 111.5 million loans, in 1991 it was 104.7 million."

John Dunne, who as assistant county librarian for Hampshire presides over the largest collection of children's literature in Britain, is baffled why anyone should think children do not read. "There were 8,000 children's titles published last year. There has never been a time like this. On Wednesday we had 350 people turn up for a session with Morris Gleitzman, the Australian writer. He's the guy who wrote Bumface and Two Weeks with the Queen and young readers can't get enough of him.''

One of the last acts of Ted Hughes, the former Poet Laureate, was to throw his weight behind a scheme to appoint a Children's Laureate. After much behind-the scenes-diplomacy (only the Queen has the power to create a Laureate), the Palace has given its approval and will make an appointment in May.

There is a shortlist of three and as sure as night follows day sales of their books will soar. Quentin Blake, Anne Fine and Peter Dickinson are the contenders, with Fine the favourite.

Customers will have little trouble finding copies. Final proof, if needed, that books are big can be found in almost any high street. The clothes shops are closing, but the book giants go from strength to strength.

Later this year the Simpson's store in Piccadilly, London, will reopen as a Waterstone's book shop - not any old book shop but the largest in the world. It will be the fourth such store to open in Piccadilly in three years. Try telling Waterstone's that children do not read.