Another Voice: Only books can reach these parts

4th September 1998 at 01:00
So here we are, then. The start of the Year of Reading, and a long, hard road ahead of us. One small but frightening statistic should suffice. Since the first episode of Coronation Street, viewers have spent a cumulative five million years sitting and watching it. That is an awful lot of people who would have got through Middlemarch and moved straight on to War and Peace.

But the battle is worth it. Books don't just give comfort and pleasure, and furnish minds. They also foster self-scrutiny. Lack of self-knowledge is at the root of an unacknowledged amount of the misery around us. Books can, and do, make people stop and think. It is the writer's job to make use of words to explore the deepest and most private matters - to explain exactly why this man killed his mother, that woman left her husband, and this child kissed the frog.

And it does have to be a book. Television and film won't do. Films simply show you "what happened next" at the director's speed. Books show you how and why, at your own.

Books can explore emotion. They deal in conscience, motivation, morals and inner concerns. Books are reflective, and we could all do with a bit more of that. There are enough people around who seem to have brought down the shutters on any sympathy or imaginative empathy. Maybe it's some macabre form of self-protection, to harden your heart against feeling until you yourself become unfeeling. I hear teachers muttering the word "neglected", and parents worrying about the unassimilable violent images with which the children round them are bombarded. But, whatever the causes,to raise children who are entirely impoverished in their understanding of how they themselves, and other people, tick, is as much a failure of education as to raise children who don't understand the most elementary scientific principles - of the lever, say, or the pump.

So how come we have such a horribly spotty track record of getting the right book into the right child's hand at the right time? Over the past 20 years, I must have visited 1,000 schools. To many, I lift my hat. (Step forward, Balsall Common primary in Coventry, Coalway primary, Gloucestershire, etc, etc, etc.) But too many others have, frankly, made me want to weep.

Lack of funding is a dismal excuse. I have seen even the least favoured schools' supporters fill each book corner with favourites from Oxfam. So how come we still have classrooms with barely a novel in them?

Can it be, as some have so cruelly suggested, that people in other countries think books for children are important and so are prepared to buy them; but the British think books for children are important, so they think somebody else should be buying them instead? If so, what a pity it's taking so long to establish the principle!

Sadly, the children from these miserably impoverished classrooms won't be able to go back after the battle's won, to retake Rich Childhood Reading 1, or Transfiguring Adolescence (Advanced).

Let's spread our reading wings. For years, I've been depressed by letters from young readers excited about one book, and asking, "Have you written anything else?" or, worse, finishing wistfully, "The one I'd really like to read is..." By this time next year, it would be lovely to be reading, "The library's getting meI" instead. After all, our public libraries do have a request card system. And generally, for children, it's still free.

Looking round schools, practically all parents ask, "How many computers do you have?" Of course they do! You can't go wrong with that question. It's inoffensive. To any answer, you can give the all-purpose nod. (So many? Splendid! So few? Well, cuts, of courseI) Few risk the somewhat trickier, "So what's your book fund, and what are the principles on which you spend it?" But, believe me, it's still a disgrace to have a library with none of the best or most popular authors - and not even know who they are because there was no course on children's literature where you trained,and you don't take the specialist magazines either.

Books open worlds, and offer shafts of light. They shift the axis of thinking in society, and they are still the best available instrument we have of ethical enquiry. Books offer insight into the complexity of things.But what, to me, seems so extraordinary is, without them, how much sheer pleasure is being missed. Fiction's power to enchant is never failing, and "tell me a story" a perennial plea.

So please be part of this great boost up. (A lot of the letters I get don't make me feel we've any reason for complacency.) And Happy New Year of Reading to You All.

Anne Fine has written many books for children including The Tulip Touch and Goggle-Eyes. Loudmouth Louis will be published this month by Puffin

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