Reading, apparently, has stopped being cool among children, according to a survey by the National Literacy Trust. It established that only three in 10 children now read on their own initiative every day, compared with four in 10 only seven years ago. Before you dismiss this by thinking that books and magazines are meaningless objects to young people, you should also know that the numbers of children reading online – websites, social media and so on – is also in decline, according to the survey.
Altogether, 54 per cent of children surveyed preferred watching TV to reading. One child in six said that they were actively embarrassed to be seen reading by their contemporaries. The Government is deeply concerned about this decline, and about the fact that reading is no longer seen as a cool thing to do by children.
Upon which I would say: when was it ever cool? When was the kid with his nose in a book ever considered a cool dude by the others in the classroom? And let’s look on the bright side: if social pressures are so against the child who likes to read, and has placed him in such a minority, imagine the strength of character of that kid! Imagine his commitment to reading!
The child who loves reading nowadays, who doesn’t care what people on the bus think of him if he gets out today’s library book: in 30 years’ time, that child is going to be running the world. And the cool kid? The one who all the girls love, who has the great hair and the great ball skills? He’ll be doing one of those necessary tasks that help the world go round, and all the middle-aged girls will still love him, in the staff canteen at work.
I don’t think I ever heard the expression “geek” until I was in my twenties, but as Byron remarked about the word “longueurs”, though in England we didn’t have a word for it, we had the thing itself in abundance. At school there were those of us who were always last to be chosen for the football team. The cool boys used to argue about whose turn it was to suffer the burden – “We’ll have Ebbs, and you can have Hensher.” “We had him last week.” The same ones used to spit balls of chewed-up paper at anyone reading a novel in the sixth-form common room. What happened to them? They had a trial for Sheffield United – at least one of them did. Didn’t work out.
And at university, the cool kids used to pretend to do no work, and often really didn’t do any work. They had a name for the non-cool kids – the Northern Chemist, the Narg, or at Cambridge the Natskis, or the Asnacs, for natural science or Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic. If you read novels and were not posh, you got your door repeatedly kicked on a Saturday night by the cool kids. What happened to them? Oh, they went to Hong Kong and they’re waiting for their promotion to partner. One of them, who was, glamorously, head boy of some public school or other, devoted all his time at Oxford to playing for the college XI, whatever that may mean. Got a third and now is a solicitor in Godalming, doing valuable work, no doubt. It was about the time that one left university that one heard the expression “geek” for the first time, in judgement. I thought immediately: oh yeah. Those are the ones who rule the earth.
The triumph of the geek is most obvious in the explosion of computing in the past 30 years, and everyone knows what happened there: the kids the cool kids sneered at are now worth millions and sometimes billions, and they have changed the world in their own image. But the world has always been shaped by people who were awkward in youth, strange of speech, often laughed at for doing things the wrong way. The history of literature is full of awkward misfits. Scientists and philosophers, thinkers of all kinds, were almost always regarded by their contemporaries as weird, withdrawn, obsessive, never without a book.
Probably there is no class of human being more concentratedly weird, in the sense of being formed in their own image, without reference to conventional ideas of how to behave and how to fit in, than politicians. I am of an age when I can remember major politicians when they were at university, and none of them was regarded as cool – amusing, clever, a touch narrow in application and intensity, but not cool. They have become regarded as cool over time, with prominence, fame and power, but I’m sure they are as surprised by that development as their contemporaries. Think of William Hague, who could name every parliamentary constituency at 15. Weird, and subsequently Foreign Secretary.
The child who reads will always get ahead. If he doesn’t become successful in terms of money and position, he will still become an interesting and unusual person, forged by thought and contemplation. He has turned away from the desire to fit in, to pass under the inspecting eye of mass approbation, and has decided he would like to follow his own path. That was always a difficult decision, and one that leads to trouble. Nowadays, it seems to be still harder, and children who love to read may face opposition and ridicule not just from their peers, but from their families and even their parents.
Still, there will always be children who love books more than anything. They will see that weighing the loss of books against the loss of cool can lead to only one conclusion. Personally, I have a theory that almost everyone you ever meet in adult life also found themselves the last to be selected for the football time when at school. What happened to the cool kids? God knows. How do they pass the time with no books in the house? No idea. Cool is a hollow imitation of achievement. Geeks just are, eternally; and by the time they make sense of their compulsion to read, their vagueness about fashion, the captains of football will be politely asking them whether they take their coffee white or black.