Yesterday I watched the great Bali Rai read a story aloud to twenty-thousand people at the Walker’s stadium at half-time of the Leice
ster vs. Scunthorpe match. I’m not sure what the people of Scunthorpe made of it, but the football fans of Leicester loved it, and took away thousands of copies of the story to read at home after the match.
This was all part of the Everybody’s Reading festival which I, along with a team of committed and hard working people from libraries and elsewhere, have spent much of the last three months organising. We like direct project names here in Leicester, so when we set up a festival to get everybody reading, we call it Everybody’s Reading.
It is a real honour for me to have spent a good part of my career to date working on the cause of getting people reading. Some of that work has focussed on basic literacy, but more of it has been about encouraging a passion for books and reading, and a love of learning. I have organised festivals of reading, world record reads, teen reading awards, reading days, reading groups and even done the odd thing here or there with writing and writers. And I’ve enjoyed every moment of it.
Like many people who dedicate their time to encouraging reading – librarians, teachers, writers, to name just a few – books and reading have had an an enormous, positive impact on my life. Growing up with just my mum, in a small flat on a big housing estate, with very little money or options, the horizons of life seemed very limited. But my mum had a real love of books and reading that she passed on to me. And it was through books that I got access to a whole wide world of knowledge and experiences that would otherwise have been completely closed to me. Even when my mum passed away when I was in my late teens, books carried on providing a route through life. A path towards university, a Master’s degree, a career, and even to discovering my own identity as a writer.
The value of reading – the knowledge, learning and growth it unlocks in us – is incalculable. The cost of ignorance – the hole that we fall in to when denied the chance to learn and grow – is seen every day on our streets and in our communities. An estimated 1 in 5 adults struggle with reading, and it is no coincidence that those people are also more likely to have worse employment, poorer health, greater chance of mental illness or imprisonment and are likely to die younger. Reading is not just a pleasurable activity for middle class intellectuals, it is a fundamental life skill without which we can not grow and reach our full potential.
It is all too easy to take for granted the access to books and the levels of reading we have achieved in our society. Less than a century ago, very few people were able to access books, and it is only in the last few decades that almost everyone in our society has gained both access to books and the chance to develop a real passion for reading and for learning. It is also easy to be complacent about this achievement, and forget that without continual effort, we could easily lose the schools, libraries and other social institutions that have opened reading to everyone.
Everybody’s Reading is really a very tiny drop in an ocean of work needed to support and develop reading culture, but it’s a drop I’m quite proud of. If you are in Leicester or nearby, then I hope to see you at one of the many great events during the festival.