Books give us words to live by

17th April 2015 at 01:00

I have always been an avid reader. It's not just one of my favourite pastimes but an essential part of my life that I can't imagine being without. From an early age, literature has fascinated, entertained and captivated me, and I have whiled away entire days unable to drag myself from my latest page-turner.

And I know that falling in love with books as soon as I was able to read has been of great benefit to me. It has opened the door to countless worlds different from my own, broadened my horizons and captured my imagination. It has also, especially early on, helped me to express myself. Later on, reading novels in English did the same for my second language.

So it came as no surprise to me when the evaluation of a Scottish Book Trust project allowing thousands of children free access to a graphic novel on the naturalist John Muir proved that reading the book had had an impact on their attitudes towards nature (pages 14-15)

Readers instinctively know how this works. We have all read books that changed the way we view the world. To this day, when faced with a seemingly overwhelming task, I find myself remembering a quote from Michael Ende's novel for children, Momo. In this book, a street cleaner tells his friend that when he is tackling a very long thoroughfare, he keeps his eyes focused on the next step and the next sweep - and before he knows it, he has cleaned the whole street.

How many of us have not dreamed of visiting the places, cities and countries brought to life by a book? Who hasn't come to believe that Scandinavia is full of enigmatic and emotionally complicated police inspectors solving murders? Or decided to approach life differently after reading "It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye" in The Little Prince?

It may not be terribly surprising, but it is beneficial that research has now confirmed the effect that a single book can have on young people. First, it backs up the instinctive beliefs already held by those who are passionate about books. And it also shows that books can be a great tool in supporting social and behavioural change.

Muir's legacy is important to both Scotland and the world. The Scottish Book Trust novel has shown itself to be helpful in promoting his work. Other inspiring works of literature could, and should, be used in the same way - allowing young people to identify with the characters, real or fictional, and offering them information and fresh perspectives on important subjects.

Of course, books cannot solve social problems in isolation. At many of the schools being evaluated for this project, teachers read the graphic novel as part of a cross-curricular set of projects on nature and the environment.

But the research proves one thing, at least: you should never underestimate the power of the written word.

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