A recent conversation with some very good friends of mine has confirmed something that I – and many others – have been aware of for a very considerable time. The UK, along with many other countries, is no longer reading. Of course there are those who read. I am not saying that no-one is reading, but those who are really reading are not in their teens, twenties and thirties. Reading is still a leisure-time mainstay for an older generation, and we are busily graduating one generation after another that does not see reading books as necessary or desirable.
It is now estimated that 60% of the UK’s adult population are functionally semi-literate. I see this endlessly, and have even considered setting up a website for people to post their own ‘funny’ photos. There is a newsagent near my house where a huge professionally-printed vinyl sticker announces that ‘ciggerettes’ can be purchased; another road sign, presumably deployed by the council, states that during work, ‘bussinessess’ will be open as usual. The incorrect use of apostrophes is rampant, the absence of colons and semi-colons, glaring grammatical errors in signs in Tesco, Waitrose and Sainsburys, just reminds me on a daily basis that we are forgetting how to use our own language.
We can blame technology, texting, slang, and all else, but that is not the cause.
As for the catastrophic decline in booksales, we can target television, Amazon, the web, video games, e-readers and a host of other things, but they are not the real cause.
The cause of this decline is that we are no longer teaching people to read. It is that simple.
In an effort to ‘increase standards’, education has been dumbed down. They did it in America under Bush (‘No child left behind’), and a process that had already begun thirty years ago has merely escalated in the UK.
Some while ago I was asked to give a lesson to three classes of 16-18 year-olds at a local university college. A hundred and five students in all, every one of them pursuing A Levels in English Language and Literature with a view to becoming a teacher in those same subjects. Not one of them had heard of either Hemingway, Steinbeck or Capote. A few of them had heard of Tolkien, but thought that he wrote the screenplay for the films. They were unaware of the fact that ‘Lord of the Rings’ was based on a series of novels. All told, only nineteen of those one hundred and five students had read an entire novel in their lives. Their literature module requirement for A Level was to study chapter one of both ‘The Color Purple’ by Alice Walker and ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’ by Thomas Hardy. Just chapter one, nothing else. The question at exam time, of which they were forewarned, was simply ‘In your own words, describe how this novel begins’.
Many years ago we had something in the UK called the Net Book Agreement. This simply stated that no matter where you bought a book it would cost the same. Several key individuals within the publishing industry believed that if they got this law cancelled then – by giving greater discounts to supermarkets and book chains – they would sell more books. So these key individuals lobbied the government and got the Net Book Agreement cancelled. It worked. They sold a lot more books. Then came the internet. Then came Amazon. Amazon had the power to order such vast quantities of books that they could demand ever greater discounts; those discounts were granted, and slowly but surely the entire framework and fraternity of independent bookshops was driven out of business. There was no way that a small bookshop, able to order merely half a dozen copies of a book from a distributor, could match the discounts offered on-line. And we as punters, what choice did we have? A book from a local store cost us £8.99, whereas on-line we could get it for £3.50. There was no contest.
In France they had the same law. They still have it. They call it the Prix Fixé (Fixed Price). It means that no matter where you buy the book, whether that be local bookshop or major on-line retailer, it costs the same. It is the law. No-one can undercut anyone else. They don’t publish hardbacks in France; they publish something called ‘grand format’. This is a soft-backed book that is the same size as a UK hardback. On average, it costs around €22 (currently approx. £17.50). Six months or so later, another company will release a paperback version of the same book. This averages around €8 (£6.35). Irrespective of where you buy your books, that’s what you pay. France has a thriving independent bookstore community. An individual who owns and runs a bookstore can make a very good living. There are tiny discounts available if some books are bought in larger quantities from distributors (5% or thereabouts), so independent bookstores in a particular region band together and make orders as a group.
But, even more important than the cost of books and the healthy independent bookstore community, there is the attitude about books. This is an attitude we have almost completely lost in the UK, and that attitude is all about the importance of books.
Why do we read fiction? What possible benefit can be derived from reading a work of fiction?
I don’t know about you, but my vocabulary, my ability to communicate both verbally and in writing, my ability to spell, to punctuate, to study, to remember, to use my mind, to have a viewpoint and an opinion, my ability to learn, to debate, to reason, to rationalize and to understand life has come from books. I do not believe I have ever read a work of fiction that has not contributed in some small way to who I have become. It has been said that readers are more tolerant, compassionate, understanding, patient, perceptive, focused, intelligent and driven than those who do not read. I cannot comment on that. What I can say is that without books my life would not be what it is now, and I am not talking about the books I have written, but the books I have read.
If you are a reader, then I am preaching to the converted. If you are not a reader, then you won’t be reading this anyway, but you have absolutely no idea what you are missing.
I am obliged to end here as I have exceeded a thousand words, and I am aware of how short our attention spans have become.
All I can conclude is that if we lose the book, then we lose our culture.
Read, keep on reading, and convince others to read. It does not matter how you read, whether it be hard-copy, e-reader, or from the original handwritten manuscript; the important thing is that you read. E-books are not taking up the slack as far as booksales are concerned. Not even close. Why? Because changing the format in which we read does not make non-readers into readers. Only readers can convert non-readers into readers. Teachers, parents, grandparents, friends, neighbours, work colleagues, it doesn’t matter. If you are a reader and you know someone who isn’t, find out what they are interested in and give them a book. Let’s be responsible for creating an entirely new generation of readers. They will then pass on that love of reading to their own kids, their friends, just someone else, and maybe we will see our culture come alive again.
The book is in your hands, and so is the literary and cultural future of our civilization.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that the future of our civilization as a whole lies almost exclusively in whether or not we read, for is it even possible to have a civilisation founded on a bedrock of illiteracy and ignorance? I don’t believe it is.
14 thoughts on “The demise and fall of the book….”
Hi, I happened to attend your talk yesterday in Chepstow. I was just passing through -so was quite by chance. I’m a musician and have the above group which tours records and gives concerts. We also work extensively in high security prisons around the country. Music, as you must know, changes people’s lives and we have 25 years of stories and evidence that this is so. Reading and writing is also transformative.
Your wonderful talk really inspired me. Particularly in regard to your belief that literature is so important. There is an alarmingly high degree of illiteracy in prisons and I’m doing my best to convince everyone in the prison system to revoke the government’s idea of banning books in prisons. This is the very thing which could help to rehabilitate prisoners. I will encourage prisons to stock your books as much as I can because I believe they will inspire inmates as much as I have enjoyed your writing.
Thanks again for a wonderful -and unexpected -afternoon!
Thank you so much for your wonderful message, and I agree with you wholeheartedly. I also want to express my appreciation for what you are doing in supporting the revocation of the prison banning. Utterly ludicrous, as far as I’m concerned. I am really pleased to hear that I said some things that were in alignment with your views, and I am sorry it has taken so long for me to reply but I am on tour in the USA and I have intermittent access to the internet!
My very best wishes,
To say nothing of the fact that a prisoner occupied with an interesting – even gripping – novel [of the sort Roger Ellory is so good at writing] is less likely to get into the other kinds of mischief prisoners are known to undertake out of boredom and often malice.
Relative to my current grammar hobby: I’m increasingly aware that an appropriate caveat at all levels is the simple truth: “Read wrong, learn wrong”. In schools, it is the teachers’ job to point out the miscreance in otherwise worthy writing.
I just re-read Arne’s reply above. He would stock the prisons with Ellory tales, but I hope that will not include Ellory’s wonderful “Bad Signs”, which I’m half-way through. It is a primer on violence and mayhem; an aptly-named “thriller” indeed. But probably not appropriate for prisoners, obviously.
Am I to take this as a compliment or a censorious warning not to write novels that might provoke people to commit crimes…??
Hmmm. Let’s see. You asked a question – actually two questions – and I answered both of your questions, but that’s not what you want, so what shall I do now? I’m new here, so you’ll have to be patient, if you please. As long as comments are civil and on the subject and not combative, or whatever, it’s O.K. Is that not so?
How could a reasonable person think that “Bad Signs” might be a good thing for “prisoners” (i.e, felons in a prison, not miscreants in the local jail over a weekend for running a traffic light after drinking two Budweisers) to read?
I’m sorry I’m not conversant with your genre but IF the only thing you write is Murder-&-Mayhem, I think – I’m SURE – your books are NOT a good thing to amuse the hardened, possibly deranged, criminal. Let’s not encourage them or give them excuses for their bad behavior.
You tell a GREAT tale; that’s not at issue.
Short answer to your second question is that the responsibility surely lies with the prison authorities to cull out the books that are totally inappropriate for their audience. I do not read the blurb on the front flap of the dust jacket – ever – for good reason. I’ll find out what happens as it happens. Too often the blurb spoils it, as does yours, I now find.
After this came up, I read your blurb and think that ANY prison authority would read that short summary and not allow “Bad Signs” into the prison library. That’s a no-brainer, n’est-ce pas? It’s a GREAT tale for me, but I’m not a hardened criminal. I’ve never even SEEN a jail, much less been in a prison.
I’m not familiar with this form. I thought you could cull out what you find offensive and let the rest stand. But apparently not. So if you will admit any part of my thoughts, you’ll have to tell me what will help the conversation along.
Sunday, i.e, the next day. Suggestion: Edit what I wrote to suit yourself and then send it to and I’ll re-post it. The revised edition might also please Arne, who started it and who certainly seems sincere. If the fucking government’s solution to a valid problem is to ban books, it needs a better solution.
I am sorry. I am not quite sure I understand what you’re asking of me…
I think the line that can never be taken is censorship (in the form of additional editing for a specific audience). The book is what it is, and it’s either permitted reading or not. There’s nothing in between. I have been in prison and there was a library. It had a very limited stock of books and I remember it being very ‘safe’ as far as subject matter goes. I do not know the policy on what can and cannot be permitted in prisons as far as reading material is concerned, but it is an interesting question. I am loathed to say it, but perhaps the ‘pc’ brigade have already challenged ‘censorship’ on literary subject matter, and now anyone can read anything they wish in prison, even those things that might be considered unsuitable, provocative or outright motivational!
I agree with the grim assessment of the death of reading. We live in a fast paced world inundated with so much information and entertainment it is hard to chose what to enjoy. Our own lives are equally busy unfortunately and the slower pace of reading doesn’t satisfy the speedy appetite of younger generations used to videos and games. Many icons we grew up with are gone the medias changing so fast, new ones will come daily in the short term.
I am still a fan of the library and my children read, not things I would but their minds are alive and they know the value of books, both writers themselves. I hope they can pass on a love or reading to their children too.
Well, I hope so too. Sad to say, but the readers are becoming the minority, and ever more rapidly. I meet teenagers and people in their twenties these days who have not only never read a complete novel in their lives, but are actually proud to say that they hate reading!
Thank you for instilling a love of reading in your own kids. Tough to do, I know, but immensely rewarding for both parent and child.
I’m sorry. The time-lag was so long I assumed you didn’t let my reply in the door. Henceforth, I shall put a name in the pole position (See “Roger”, second line above). I thought I was replying to Arne.
“Censorship” can NOT be at issue in thinking about whether “Bad Signs” should be in a prison library. The occupants of Federal prisons have forfeited the rights which the rest of us enjoy by virtue of the Constitution and its Bill of Rights. The right to free assembly, for example, ceases the minute the Judge’s gavel comes down. NO reasonable person would let “Bad Signs” into a prison library and I’ll bet you agree. As would “Arne”, who started this. Hi, Arne. Are you there?
On the subject of The Rise and Fall of the Book: It is a REMARKABLE document. I sent it to a number of thoughtful people on-line and also “printed-it-out” and sent it to another number of thoughtful people via the USPS and an archaic device called a “postage stamp”. Your fine work is to be savored and saved, not scanned and deleted.
Well, thank you for your kind words, and I trust Arne will also pick up this conversation and continue it with you. If you ever wish to e-mail me, then you can just contact me through the ‘Contact’ option on the website. Meanwhile, I trust all is well with you and yours.
A comprehensive and brilliantly executed summary of the problem.
I did not really begin reading until I was fifteen. That was the year my parents shipped me off to California in a last-ditch effort to put me back on the straight and narrow. One of my fellow miscreants was a die-hard Cussler fan, and I remember wondering what on earth could possibly captivate the attention of another human being so absolutely, and for such long periods of time. Whenever the latest book arrived, he would effectively cease to exist for all intents and purposes. I decided to find out, although the first book I actually got my hands on was Stephen King’s The Stand. And so began my love affair with the written word. It endures to this day. If the devil is as fond of idle minds as he is of idle hands, there is probably a special place in hell reserved for good authors. For all its other merits, I believe reading is also the corner stone of empathy. To see the world through the eyes of another is to understand it twice over.
I’m glad to say that my son, who recently turned seven, is now as enthusiastic about books as I am. I never forced him to read, or even tried to bribe him (although I may have tried the later eventually). I simply demonstrated how engaging a book can be and bought him a few. He took care of the rest.
As for books that contain violence acting as a catalyst for the real thing, I think that can only be true for the psychotic, most of whom rarely go to prison these days.
The book that started me writing was Stephen King’s ‘It’…not because I read it, but because I heard someone else talking about how much they loved reading it and I thought, ‘I would love to create something that captivated someone’s attention to that degree. The fact that it then took fifteen years and twenty-three novels to actually find a publisher is a different story, but the desire to write came from that fundamental love of reading. As has been said, ‘Every writer, whether good or bad, was at first a great reader.’ Huge thanks for your kind words, and I am really happy to hear about your son. Mine is now nineteen, and much the same (never without a book), but that – honestly – has a great deal more to do with my wife, also a book lover, who had the patience to sit and read with him when he was younger. As my grandmother used to say, ‘You live only once, but if you read you can live a thousand more lives within your own lifetime.’
Best wishes, Jon.