Why books can't be written off;News;News amp; Opinion

3rd December 1999 at 00:00
TV writer Andrew Davies says reports of the book's demise have been greatly exaggerated, writes Geraldine Brennan

THE future of the book is safe, despite the threat from more glitzy media, a man who ought to know argued this week.

Andrew Davies, BBC TV's man of the moment thanks to his adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's novel Wives and Daughters, questioned the popular wisdom that books would soon be replaced by computer games, soaps and videos.

"Books are not a tidy little regiment sitting in a valley surrounded by the tanks in the hills that represent TV and computer games," he told an audience at a Bedfordshire school. "Books are up there where the action is, the most widely available art form."

Mr Davies was one of a panel of literary celebrities, chaired by BBC arts presenter Mark Lawson - an ex-pupil - which St Dominic's RC primary in Harpenden lined up to ponder on the reading life of the nation, or lack of it.

After a tantalisingly short clip of Colin Firth as Darcy in his earlier, successful BBC adaptation, Pride and Prejudice, Mr Davies addressed the audience.

He lamented successive governments which have put all the emphasis on children learning to read in order to perform tasks which meant that books had a bad press among young people.

Novelist Jan Mark argued that too many of the 9,000 new children's titles that are published every year, were of deliberately low quality.

"There is a perception that children who can't read very well need books that aren't written very well because otherwise they'll be humiliated...

"Anything that's half-way decent is (viewed as) elitist. (But) The elitism lies in delivering the best books to a small minority and poorer quality to everyone else. Poorer quality books that are said to create readers are actually creating people who can read, which is not the same thing, " said Jan Mark.

The audience's wish-list included statutory funding for school libraries and (from an English teacher at a boys' secondary) less agonising from adults over children's reading, which served to pile on the pressure.

One teacher said: "Parents say: 'He doesn't read - what can we do?' But these boys belong to the 21st century. They have skills we didn't have as children. They read as much as they need to."

Despite Mr Davies's optimism, the latest study to prove that we are, after all, a nation of book-lovers contains some worrying facts.

A questionnaire distributed through Waterstone's bookshops, public libraries and the Guardian newspaper found 68 per cent of under-16s said they were not attracted to people who read a lot. Meanwhile, 29 per cent of the total 2,000 readers surveyed (and 26 per cent of the under-16s) reported that they read in order to become sexually aroused.

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