Tuesday 18 November 2014

Reading as a Cultural Activity?

I was delighted to attend the recent ASCEL conference on “Libraries – Reading- Culture – Creativity” (although I missed the group of young readers speaking so passionately about what books and libraries meant to them http://www.nicolamorgan.com/heartsong-blog/3265/ you can read what they said on Nicola Morgan’s blog).

I took part in a question time panel about “children’s reading and its role within the artistic, cultural and creative life of the nation.” The panel was chaired by John Dolan (consultant, Libraries and Regeneration and a CILIP board member) with the other panellists being Philip Ardagh (author), Hedley Swain (Arts Council), Dawn Williams (Bridge North East) and Sue Wilkinson (TRA). We didn’t have any idea of the questions in advance but each one could easily have filled the whole 90 minutes as they were all so interesting.

Reading as an art form is a fascinating concept. Knowing I was attending this event got me thinking about this aspect ... reading is such a basic requirement, far more than the ability to recognise different musical forms or art genres. And often, if you were to list the proponents of culture, then books would possibly not be included, reading is not generally thought of as a cultural activity. Yet stories are one of the oldest art forms, that oral tradition that has been handed down through the centuries ... and which eventually translated into writing stories.  But the actual cultural form needs to be acted on to become a cultural activity. Thus we have music being played and listened to, art being created and looked at, and books written and read.

I can’t help feeling that reading, if it is counted as a cultural activity, is somehow lower down in the pecking order. If it wasn’t then we would not be having libraries closing. Maybe it’s because it is not as exclusive as the other forms, because it is such a basic necessity? Yet it plays a major role in people’s lives bringing many benefits. And it isn’t just the act of reading (even though doing so reduces blood pressure and stress), it is what you read and the effects that are important … escapism, self-improvement, relaxation, increased knowledge …effects that can be both immediate and long-term; how many other cultural activities can lay claim to all this?

As a school librarian I see the consequences of reading all the time. Those students that develop into readers become more confident and better at articulating themselves, both verbally and in writing. Research shows that children who read attain better grades in all subjects. But it’s hard to measure the impact we have. If I turn a student into a reader and they then get better grades in two years time. ... that achievement will be assumed to be down to their teachers. The effect of this improved and wider reading will not be taken into account and yet reading impacts on everything.

Until this, and the role that librarians play in the process, is acknowledged … we will never have reading recognised as the important cultural activity it is.