Fiona Hyslop: Reading is a pleasure we all deserve

Book Week Scotland offers opportunity for all ages but in particular it helps children with literacy, says Fiona Hyslop

Putting your feet up with a good book can be a welcome distraction in troubled times, says Fiona Hyslop.

Is there a greater pleasure than losing yourself in the magic of a book? As the Culture Secretary for Scotland, I strongly believe in the role of culture in shaping society and connecting us and our communities. Creative expression in literature and the arts help us to make sense of the world around us, providing a welcome distraction in troubled times.

For the sixth consecutive year, the Scottish Government is supporting Book Week Scotland 2017, one of the flagship events of Scotland’s culture sector dedicated to celebrating books, reading and Scotland’s rich literary history.

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Book Week Scotland stems from the Scottish Government’s commitment to literature and recognition that culture has a vital role to play in empowering communities, as well as from my commitment to ensuring the people of Scotland can access and enjoy culture more often. With hundreds of free events taking place all across the country, Book Week Scotland is a unique opportunity for people of all ages and backgrounds to come together in libraries, schools, communities and workplaces to share books and enjoy the pleasure of reading. During this year’s edition, some of the best Scottish authors, poets, playwrights, storytellers and illustrators will be joining the public in an open discussion around this year’s main theme, ‘Nourish’.

I am proud to see how Book Week Scotland continues to go from strength to strength, reaching out to more people every year and engaging with current and aspiring readers from all walks of life. From world-renowned authors and publishers to schools, communities and individuals, Book Week Scotland and the Scottish Book Trust are working hard to make reading more accessible and ensure everyone in Scotland has an opportunity to enjoy books.

The Scottish Government supports this work and is constantly seeking new ways to further encourage a nationwide love of books and reading. I was very pleased to personally drive forward the development of the first national strategy for Scotland’s public libraries and we have launched our 2017/18 Public Library Improvement Fund, transforming the outlook of our public libraries, tackling inequalities and boosting the economy through a range of pioneering projects.

Indeed just last week I was in Aberdeen to launch the six-month pilot of the ‘One Card’ library pass, which enables library users to access 120 libraries, 1.6 million books, more than 600 PCs and free wifi hotspots across five local authorities. If successful, the pilot will be rolled out to the whole of Scotland, removing barriers between library services countrywide.

It’s not just our public libraries which are so important – our school libraries play a vital role in supporting literacy and improving attainment, too. The recent launch of our £1 million School Library Improvement Fund in September 2017 has already contributed to enhance the service school libraries provide to pupils across the country.

Although initiatives such as Book Week Scotland have helped more people explore the benefits of reading, there is no room for complacency. As we prepare ourselves to celebrate young people during 2018 - Year of Young People – it is particularly important that we continue to seek new ways to encourage our young people to develop an even greater love of books. Learning to read is one of the key building blocks our children need in order to become successful learners and meet their full potential. Literacy is one of the cornerstones of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence and through Book Week Scotland we have worked extensively with schools to gift books to children and engage them in a wide range of activities to stimulate their interest in and love of reading. In recent years, the Scottish Government has supported various initiatives – from Bookbug to Read, Write, Count – that have seen thousands of children gifted with free books and learning material.

Among the most successful campaigns the Scottish Government has sponsored, the First Minister’s Reading Challenge deserves a special mention. The Challenge is encouraging our young people to read for pleasure and is contributing to making reading one of the cornerstones of our Curriculum for Excellence and Literacy Action Plan. After the success of the initial scheme, the Challenge has been extended to reach out to pupils in Primary 1 to 
Primary 7 and has seen children in more than 1,000 schools in Scotland taking part in the contest.

As a keen reader myself, I believe books and culture play a role in achieving our ambitions as a nation, contributing to our wider economy, tourism and education sector. Mine, too, is a story of lifelong love of books and I have great memories of books that have accompanied me through the years. Among my childhood favourites, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis, an essential read for young fantasy lovers which I enjoyed as a child. It is one of the most enchanting stories of our time and its magic survives the test of time.

My favourite genre is historical fiction and for sheer political intrigue based on a historical figure, Imperium (Cicero Trilogy) by the master storyteller Robert Harris is hard to beat.

Among my most recent reads, I have particularly enjoyed The Other Mrs Walker by Edinburgh-based author Mary Paulson-Ellis. In her debut novel – a beautifully written story populated with outstanding, strong female characters – Mary Paulson-Ellis gives proof of a fine talent for rendering even the more unpleasant, seamy sides of life. Set in Scotland in recent times, its themes are universal and extremely current. I recently finished Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale which is a disturbingly dystrophic novel set in the 1980s but had a resonance of how easily and quickly societies can change.

I recently started reading the occasional crime novel and I and working through Peter May’s Enzo Files series. I have also discovered a historic focused series by the French author Fred Vargas.

Scotland has a strong literary canon and our Book Week celebrations offer a great opportunity for everyone to acknowledge our world-class wealth of talent, creativity and imagination. The Scottish Government is committed to encouraging reading in all our communities and thousands of people have already been able to enjoy free events and books during the past editions of Book Week Scotland.

I encourage everyone in Scotland, especially this week, to commit to finding some time to immerse themselves in their favourite book.

Fiona Hyslop is the Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs in the Scottish Government