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George Kerevan: Want to get ahead? Get a book

As book shops and sales struggle, getting youngsters into the habit of reading is crucial. Picture: Julie Bull

As book shops and sales struggle, getting youngsters into the habit of reading is crucial. Picture: Julie Bull

THE UK might be out of step when it comes to celebrating books, but it’s a cause worth supporting, writes George Kerevan

THE most infernal invention of recent years is the 1-click button on Amazon. As I drool through the millions of books available, it is all too easy to start clicking away. Better still for a male, Scottish, baby boomer wedded to instant gratification, the books often appear in the next day’s post.

Tomorrow is World Book Day (WBD), though only in the UK. The rest of the globe celebrates WBD on 23 April and has done since the Spanish invented it in 1923 to honour Cervantes. When Unesco adopted World Book Day, it stuck with the April date because that is when Cervantes was buried and Shakespeare died. That’s hardly spellbinding as anniversaries go, but then getting the UN to agree on anything is hard enough.

In 1998, the contrarian Brits switched their WBD to the first Thursday in March – courtesy of Tony Blair – in order to avoid clashing with the Easter school holidays. Don’t kids read in the holidays? Clearly, Tony thought otherwise. According to the organisers: “The main aim of World Book Day in the UK and Ireland is to encourage children to explore the pleasures of books and reading by providing them with the opportunity to have a book of their own.”

This week nurseries, primary schools and secondaries will receive book tokens and ominous-sounding “resource packs” designed to encourage the reading habit. Every child in full-time education in Britain will get a book token – even if learning at home. Last year over 1.2 million WBD tokens were redeemed to buy books. The funding comes from publishers and bookshops, not the taxpayer.

Does this smack of a disguised marketing stunt? Possibly. Is this another manifestation of the nanny state? There’s certainly an element of nannying about WBD, and I don’t mean Nanny McPhee. The fact that there’s a WBD web-based television channel also seems a trifle contradictory. And the recommended books on the WBD website look as if they were chosen by a Guardian reader.

Yet… I can’t help liking the notion of a World Book Day. Art, architecture, music and dance feed the emotions – and we certainly need that. But books are the gateway to understanding complex ideas and so to the soul. Of course, reading is functional. We could not have technology, science and medicine without the written word. But books also define culture, record history and transmit values. With printing came rationalism, humanism, the Enlightenment, individualism and democracy. Modern society is nothing less than the product of the book.

God forbid our children should ever stop reading. Unfortunately, all the evidence points to a reading holocaust in Britain. According to the Booksellers Association, the number of independent bookshops in the UK has dropped below 1,000 for the first time. Some 67 bookshops closed their doors last year, leaving a mere 987. Yet a decade ago, the figure was 1,535. Even Waterstones, Britain’ biggest book chain, has shed around 20 outlets in recent years.

Do not console yourself by believing that the reduction in the tally of high street bookshops is due to the Amazon 1-click button. The number of printed books sold in the UK dropped 10 per cent last year, following on a similar drop of 10 per cent in 2012. Of course, there has been a switch to buying digital books, which now represent about 7.4 per cent of the market. But the average price of e-books is only £3, compared with £5.50 for a paperback, which undermines publishers’ margins. No wonder that nearly 100 UK publishers went out of business last year, almost double the number in 2012.

Public libraries are also taking a hammering. According to the Reading Agency, last year 474 libraries were shut, transferred to volunteers, or scheduled for closure. That’s more than 10 per cent of the UK total. When a government minister blethers about taking tough decisions remember that means there will be fewer books.

Of course – in theory – Amazon, the internet and Kindle offer a wonderful opportunity for books and for the future reading. Every book ever written will soon be only a click away, instantly translatable into any language, and for the cost of a few pennies. But theory may not become practice. For we now have a reading apartheid between the generations.

The advent of the mobile phone and tablet has ushered in the age of the image. The written word – crafted and evaluated – is being replaced by communication through pictures (think selfies) and truncated e-messages. Society, except for an elite, is losing the habit of reading and communicating in more than 140 characters. Newspaper circulation is collapsing and political debate has narrowed to the horizon of the six-minute television confrontation. More prosaically, with so much electronic gadgetry to hand, we simply devote less time to the rigours of reading.

Worse, the monopoly control of Amazon over what remains of the book market is proving a mixed blessing. Amazon now dominates book sales in America and Britain. To survive, publishers have to pay Amazon mandatory (and hefty) promotional fees otherwise Amazon’s computer algorithms won’t trumpet your books. There is less democracy in our reading choices than you imagine.

Meanwhile, as distribution channels narrow, professional expertise in book publishing is disappearing. Someday, bespoke publishers with access to print-on-demand technology might break Amazon’s hold. But for the moment, book publishing is being commodified and hollowed out. A few titles dominate the market each year (eg 50 Shades of Grey) while, increasingly, the only authors able to write “serious” books are those fortunate enough to earn their living in another profession.

World Book Day may be a stunt. I worry it serves a predominantly middle-class audience. I worry that no child will never learn to love books if their parents are non-readers – no matter how many book tokens WBD gives to schools. On the other hand, anything we do to preserve and promote reading must be welcomed. Tomorrow, on your way to work, put away your mobile and read a book – ostentatiously.

 

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