A love affair with words

4th September 1998 at 01:00

Holbrook Jackson, the British literary historian (1874-1948), was unequivocal: "The better the book, the more room for the reader." The "room" that books leave, not only for growth and fun but also for the reader's imagination, is the key to the priceless role that they can play in a person's life.

The challenges and the rich rewards that books offer reflect the imaginative investment that they demand. Words are the fuel that drive the engine of the mind through the book. They excite the emotions and stir the inner life. They demand our involvement. On one level (the level at which some readers put the book down) this becomes toil; on another level (for those who turn the page and read on) it is the doorway to delight.

Yet reading is even more than this. Reading offers untold educative possibilities. It requires, and therefore aids, concentration. It forces the reader to take an active part. It develops language skills by showing us the creative potential of words. It is intimate, involving, even loving; some books are so cherished that when we curl up with them, we are curling up with a sweetheart.

And it's deeply personal. My images of Wild Cat Island and Rio de Janeiro and Houseboat Bay are mine alone. Even Arthur Ransome's unforgettable drawings are no more than grace notes to the pictures in my mind that his words have helped to create. When I enter Mordor or Narnia or ramble over Treasure Island, it is the alchemy of words and imagination that makes these places personal, powerful and singing with magic.

It is this world of words, with all its richness and beauty, that books offer us. In the hands of good writers, words can be both weapons and love tokens. There is no limit to their expressive range, provided we unhook our imaginations. When we do, we see the characters with unparalleled intimacy. We witness their actions and know their thoughts and emotions.

This involvement of the imagination need not be beyond anyone. Even in diffident readers the imagination can be coaxed. Such readers should be encouraged to read only what they are comfortable with, not some masterpiece of literature they are not yet ready for. Deathless words are not the only ones that count. All words count, and reading is a skill we need at every level, whether we are reading literature, newspapers or information from a computer database.

Reading offers nothing but benefit, with the possible exception of eye strain for the overzealous who read by torchlight under the bedclothes. That is why the National Year of Reading is so important. We need to communicate to the young the importance and pleasure of reading, not as a replacement for television, videos and computers, but as a companion. There need be no contest. All media can co-exist and enhance one another.

The post-literate society, which some believe is in-evitable amid the growing influence of visual media, need never be a reality if we continue to convey the beauty and scope of the written word. To do this we need to offer a full range of literary experiences, but leave young readers to choose the books they want - whether it be Harry Potter, Junk or Peter Pan - according to their individual values and preferences.

Adults are not the arbiters of what is "right". Young people's interest in books will only blossom and grow if they have free choice of reading material, encouragement from teachers, parents, librarians and peers, and access to an abundance of quality books in schools, libraries and bookshops.

If we do not promote the magic of reading, if we allow it to remain a chore for some , then we are helping to relegate the written word to a merely functional role. It's up to everyone who cares about reading and writing to prevent that from happening.

Tim Bowler's third novel, River Boy, won the Carnegie Medal earlier this year

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