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?

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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.

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