Philip Hensher: Fifty books a year is ideal, but why stop at school children?

If the Government can set a target of five fruit and vegetables a day for the adult population, why can't they set a target of 20 books a year?

Share
Related Topics

Last year, I was in Taiwan for a week, travelling around in cities and in the countryside, trying to gather some kind of understanding of this extraordinary country. There were lots of very unfamiliar and curious things about the culture on a first encounter, from poor old turtles being eviscerated into rice wine, to the gigantic Chiang Kai-Shek memorial at the centre of Taipei. Afterwards, it occurred to me that one of the most unfamiliar aspects was this: all week, I noticed just one person reading a book in public.

An Asian friend to whom I mentioned this said, in rather a shocked way, that of course that was the case: in many cultures, it is actively rude to take out a book in a public place, that reading is a private activity to be carried out at home. Only when subjected to a long and tedious wait might it be acceptable to take out a book; and it is true, the one reader I spotted was in an airport lounge.

Still, though the observation probably doesn't hold water as a judgement of the literacy of a society, it does make a point about the place of reading in a nation's life. You can tell something about a nation by how universal and constant a habit reading is. In Japan, there seems hardly a moment of stasis too brief to whip out a manga or a classic novel. One of the wonderful sights of Bengali culture, whether in Calcutta or Bangladesh, is of people gathered round a newspaper pasted on a wall, or standing on a street corner deep in the morning's paper.

And, like other European cultures, the English have always been not just great readers, but great readers in public. Look around you on the train at the prevalence, even now, of the morning newspaper. On the evening train there will be 20 books being read in every carriage, of all sorts – Herodotus, Jane Green, Dickens, lives of Hitler and histories of Hungary. Reading is, even now, as central to the existence of many English people as eating.

How long this habit will continue is open to question. Public libraries, which have fed the reading habit so well for generations, are being closed down on all sides by local authorities keen to make savings in services in order to fund their CEOs' massive salaries. And, perhaps most damaging of all, the structure of education has changed, and the requirements of a curriculum no longer rest on the universal, ordinary assumption that every student will read a book at regular intervals.

Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has raised a few eyebrows with his aspiration that every schoolchild, from 11 onwards, should be expected to read 50 books a year. That number of books a year seems like a gigantic step upwards from the present situation where, as Mr Gove tells us, many school students read only two books for GCSE, the culmination of years of education, and one of those is usually Of Mice and Men. Is it achievable?

Well, if you only expect anyone to read a book or two a year, then a book or two is all most of them will read. Not all school students – no one in education can possibly fail to be overwhelmed and moved by encounters with children and young adults who, sometimes out of nothing at all, love books more than anything else. But it seems to me that those people – people like us, people who read – are growing fewer in number. The class of people of any age who, like many readers of this newspaper, read 50 books a year, will never entirely disappear. But it might become a specialised habit, to be carried out in private, for particular reasons; more like a hobby than a central part of existence.

I freely admit to being the sort of freak who has read a book, or part of a book, every single day of the last 40 years, while sitting on a bus, waiting for dinner to be ready, in the bath, in bed, even (if the book's particularly good) walking down the street. I read Ross Raisin's new novel yesterday, and Mansfield Park the day before that, and Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad the day before that. You can therefore discount this opinion as the work of someone who ought to, as teenagers shout, "get a life".

On the other hand, there seems not much doubt that a reading person is, on the whole, a civilised person, or, at any rate, one who is probably not going to turn to a life of crime. Murderers and muggers and rapists who read Dickens or Nietzsche are interesting to us because they are so unusual. It is easier to head down that career path, on the whole, if you take the precaution of never entering a public library or a bookshop.

And so it ought to be more shocking than it is when a celebrity admits, or boasts, that they have "never read a book in their life". When a Jamie Oliver, or a Posh Spice, states this in an interview, the audience doesn't draw the lesson that they were therefore extremely lucky to be able to make something of their lives. They conclude that reading is an optional ingredient in a path to success.

The aspiration that every schoolchild should read 50 books a year is an excellent one. Where these books are to come from, with public libraries being closed all over the place, is a different matter. But why stop at schoolchildren? Why suggest, through your targets, that reading whole books is something that only the under-18s should engage with?

The Government has no hesitation at all in setting targets for alcohol consumption – drink under 21 units a week – or for the eating of fresh fruit and vegetables – five helpings a day. There is abundant evidence, going back centuries, that the engagement with literature has turned thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions, away from what seemed to be a disastrous path in life.

Let the Government stop thinking of reading and books as part of "education", and more as part of a healthy existence. If they can set a target of five fruit and vegetables a day for the adult population, why can't they set a target of 20 books a year? Why shouldn't the GP, faced with an aimless, purposeless, depressed patient, not inquire "Are you reading enough?" just as they might say "Are you eating sensibly?"

Fifty books a year while in education; 20 a year throughout adult life. That might turn our lives around.



React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Cover Supervisor

£75 - £90 per day + negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Are you a cover supe...

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Piper Ryan Randall leads a pro-Scottish independence rally in the suburbs of Edinburgh  

i Editor's Letter: Britain survives, but change is afoot

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Some believe that David Cameron is to blame for allowing Alex Salmond a referendum  

Scottish referendum: So how about the English now being given a chance to split from England?

Mark Steel
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam