Terence Blacker: There's more to a book than just the text

  • @TerenceBlacker

A letter from a young reader in California and an email from an eminent headmaster arrived on the same day. The letter, from a middle-school student called Cassandra, was of the type authors like to receive. She had visited her local library and had come across a novel written for teenagers. "I picked it up, read it" – and liked it enough to write a letter to the author.

Coincidentally, the headmaster was writing about books, too. A story had appeared in the press suggesting that the library of Wellington College was to be redesigned, with computers, which would provide access to e-books, replacing most of the books. Since I once went to Wellington, and know that its Master, Anthony Seldon, is no vandal, I had written to him to ask if the story was true.

His email confirmed that a quarter of the library's stock would be retained, and a further fifth sent to departmental libraries. The remaining 55,000 books "which were never used" would be sent to Africa. It was important to be aware of the new technology and how pupils would read in the future.

There are few people who think more carefully about education than Anthony Seldon, but in this area, as Californian Cassandra might well confirm, his kind of forward-thinking has taken him in a dangerously wrong-headed direction. A book, in its traditional, physical form, provides, unlike any other medium, a direct, private and personal form of communication – imagination to imagination, brain to brain. It is unmediated, beyond the control of bosses, teachers, big business, politicians. It is an experience which can change lives.

Reading by computers is entirely different. The communication between writer and reader is de-personalised. The surprise element – "I picked it up, read it" – is almost entirely lost, and it is from those startling moments of discovery that real reading (and intellectual freedom) derive.

That need not worry the pupils of a well-heeled public school, but, away from privilege, it can blight and limit lives. The National Literacy Trust has just surveyed 18,171 young people between eight and 17. Three in ten live in houses with no books at all. The result is visibly disastrous. England has slipped from 7th to 25th in the world literacy ratings. According to an Evening Standard investigation, one in three children starting secondary school in 11 boroughs has a reading age of seven or under and is on the way to being "functionally illiterate".

Beyond those sad cases, there are thousands of other children for whom books could – or, rather, should – provide an escape from the limits of their background. It is libraries which have offered that escape in the past. Any author, talking to readers in impoverished parts of the country, will meet children, invariably of exhausted, indifferent parents, for whom a library opens a door of possibility.

The problem with Anthony Seldon's argument for ebooks is that it offers the perfect excuse to those councils currently dismantling and undermining the library service while Ed Vaizey, who paraded as a friend of libraries in opposition, turns a deaf ear to protests. His colleague Michael Gove has spoken bold words about the need for children to read 50 books a year, but, for hundreds of thousands of children, his words are a hollow joke as the very source of those books is closed down.

Perhaps the pair see a bright new dawn when children will read their 50 books a year on a screen in their bedroom. "Let them watch computers". Not only the perfect, economical 21st century solution to the problem of our book-deprived children, but one which – a political bonus – will one day produce a supine, manipulable populace. Indeed, rather than shipping its 55,000 unused books to Africa, Wellington might consider sending them to an impoverished inner-city borough – should it have any libraries left.