We are all agreed about the need to improve literacy. But what happens next?Heather Neill argues that the best reason for reading is the pleasure it brings
My grandmother used to read Dickens. When I was about 10 she enthusiastically recommended Dombey and Son, not because she thought it would be good for me or because my teachers would be impressed, but because she had enjoyed reading it herself.
She was a funny, quick-minded woman with a glorious sense of the ridiculous, but she was not particularly well-educated. She did not assume that Dickens was beyond her (or me) - and, patently, he wasn't. Well then, it seems to follow that, at the time, in the 50s, Dickens was a popular choice, not "high" art. We are constantly told that if Dickens were alive now, he would be working in television. Perhaps. Or perhaps he would be writing novels which would manage to cross the apparent divide between literary fiction and airport blockbusters.
Are people now so different from my grandmother? After all, despite newspaper frights to the contrary, more of us are better educated than was the case in the depressed years after the war and even in the 60s - when only 2 per cent of the population went on to higher education.
I can't say whether my grandmother would have chosen to read Dickens if more easily assimilated forms of entertainment had been readily available. A number of other questions arise: Is preferring Dickens to Jackie Collins elitist or more discerning? Can you enjoy all kinds of books equally - Jeffrey Archer on the beach, Proust for serious engagement? Is reading "literary" texts a minority, mainly middle-class activity? And does it matter anyway?
Oprah Winfrey, perhaps the most influential person in American mass communication, has recently had an astonishing influence on people's choice of reading as a leisure activity by recommending books, including "literary" ones, on her TV show. Suddenly, people who had not thought that books (especially those which require concentration and an appreciation of language and characterisation as well as plot), were meant for them are buying - and reading - the likes of Toni Morrison in their thousands. They read because they enjoy doing so; they don't need to prove anything, to be fashionable or superior. They simply act on the recommendation of someone they regard as a friend. Class and education don't seem to come into the equation.
Pleasure must be the first reason for choosing to read; if you are still at school, it is a great shame for your future enjoyment of life if reading becomes a duty, forever associated with the exam hall. Or so those of us who "know" would be bound to feel. If we are not careful the unattractive figure of a zealot, a cultural missionary rises up at this point. Do-gooders, tainted with paternalism, are not admirable figures in a time when many of us are still achieving hard-won equality - of class, race and gender. Who should decide what is "good" - with its unspoken suggestion of what is good for you? And why shouldn't you choose to read pap anyway, even if you recognise it as such?
Richard Hoggart, author of The Uses of Literacy, deals with the question of relativism, the reluctance of people, sometimes even teachers, to give a clear line on the relative value of different authors, in his recent book, The Way We Live Now. It is bound to be on the agenda of a day's seminar, Reading Now, to be held next Wednesday at the new British Library. Organised by Book Trust, the meeting will be addressed by Hoggart - whose idea it was - and by Roy Hattersley, Doris Lessing, Valentine Cunningham, Margaret Drabble and Malcolm Bradbury.
Hoggart becomes passionate in conversation when quoting the commonly held opinion that what people read doesn't matter, as long as they are reading something. He welcomes the efforts made by the government and others to improve literacy levels, but now wants a push towards "critical literacy".
It is not necessarily true, he says, that people go on from reading rubbish to discover more demanding material. "So much in modern society is geared to the bestseller. The publishing trade is under pressure to make money." Neither does he think that television adaptations are always the gateway to reading. "After Jane Austen has been on television many hundreds of copies are sold. What isn't checked is how far people get past chapter one. The experience of reading is quite distinct." He is also concerned that "quite a few people who should know better have decided that mass communication will make the book obsolete".
He has, he says, been heartened, however, by the results of the five-year pilot of Bookstart under which Book Trust has pioneered the free provision of books to the very young and encouraged parents to share books with their children. "It is impossible now to distinguish those who began with a handicap".
Roy Hattersley, who will speak on public libraries at the seminar, while being equally passionate about the survival of the book, disagrees with Hoggart on the matter of choice.
"I'm much happier to hear that people are reading books rather than not. It's important not to be over-precious. Cinema encouraged me to read. I saw Great Expectations and Anna Karenina at the Hillsborough Kinema and read them because I'd seen them. John Mills will always be Pip for me and I instantly fell in love with Valerie Hobson as Anna Karenina."
Hattersley believes the curtailment of library facilities to be a tragedy. When he was growing up in Sheffield the weekly library visit was a ritual. "Thursday was pay day. Thursday evening we all went to the library at Hillsborough. It was as regular as football on Saturday. First my mother took me to the children's section, then I went on my own, then to the adult library. I remember queueing up in the hope that more Biggles books had been returned. By the time I was 11 and at grammar school I was reading quite solemn things. "
Hattersley wants books to continue to be associated with pleasure, however, pointing out that it is a fallacy that that which is self-improving cannot be enjoyable and vice versa. The fears about IT are he says nonsense - a point of view he believes to be shared by those in the new technology industries. "Reading is not redundant. You can't browse in IT." He cites the case of a person using the Internet to find a particular piece of information. If a dictionary or encyclopedia had been used instead, all kinds of serendipitous discoveries might have been made as well.
Liberal-minded readers usually say, no doubt truthfully, that they have no Luddite intentions, that computer technology has its place. Certainly next week's seminar is not meant to signal a backward-looking philosophy. No one would choose to read a novel off an illuminated square, after all. One is reminded here of the person who pointed out that the paperback book would have been hailed as a brilliantly cheap, modern and convenient invention if it had not been taken for granted before computers came on the scene. But technology will change. Is the book by definition worth fighting for as a means of conveying the essence of our culture?
Already pundits have been heard to announce categorically on the radio that in 35 years' time no one will need to learn to read; everything will be communicated via voice-sensitive machines. Most of us would probably hope and believe that to be untrue. Last month, however, the sequel to Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities was "published" only on tape. No doubt this is a publicity ploy and soon we shall have the book of the cassette.
But thousands of people do listen to tapes instead of turning pages. In these pressured times it is a way of doing more than one thing at a time - drive or attack the ironing while imbibing Shakespeare's sonnets or the Booker shortlist. The danger is that anything which needs complete concentration is unlikely to get it; most of us would admit to wandering thoughts during even the most gripping radio broadcast unless we make the effort to sit down and listen. But there is no cause for panic yet. Books continue to sell. Readers enjoy the physical pleasures of handling - even smelling - books, but there may yet come a time when it is necessary to separate the benefits of the content from its packaging.
Meanwhile, in some parts of the world there is a desperate lack of books. Doris Lessing contrasts the hunger for them in Africa with the comparative indifference here. "I share Carlyle's view that a real university is a good library; people are missing out not making the most of what's available. " She regrets the way libraries have been allowed to be run down and believes we should all, as citizens, have been more vigilant.
Conversation with young people who are not habitual readers amounts, she says, to little more than gossip. But she is not really so severe, after all, reiterating the need for reading to be associated with pleasure and describing how her novel, The Fifth Child, was chosen to win a prize by schoolchildren in Turin. They had discovered, to their surprise, that reading was exciting. She approved wholeheartedly of giving the young readers autonomy. "They were not told what to do. It was a means of making them feel important."
For teachers and parents the important thing must be to share enthusiasm,to make recommendations without putting pressure on young people, to hold on to that sense of pleasure in discovery, including the satisfaction to be gained from gradually tackling more demanding texts and discussing them with others. Who knows where it may lead: one of Oprah Winfrey's chosen authors was a little-known teacher, Wally Lamb, whose first novel overtook Michael Crichton and Danielle Steel in the best-seller lists overnight when she said she had enjoyed it.
Meanwhile, the Good Book Guide, which has 240,000 readers in 200 countries, last week provided clear proof of the advantages of enthusiastic recommendation. Two thousand subscribers nominated 900 titles; top choices include Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, Jung Chang's Wild Swans, J M Roberts' Penguin History of the World and Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct. Hooray for self-improving pleasures!
The seminar, Reading Now, sponsored by HarperCollins, will be at the new British Library in Euston Road, London between 9.30am and 4.45pm next Wednesday. Tickets and details from Book Trust 0181 870 9055