Those writing fulsome eulogies to the Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen following his death last year tried to identify the root cause of his brilliance. There were numerous explanations for his success, of course. But long before he met Bill Gates and helped create a software industry that put affordable personal computers in every home, Allen was a voracious reader.
Allen was surrounded by books. His father was a librarian at the University of Washington, his mother was a teacher who recommended texts for him to read until her death in 2012. While Gates gleaned the latest market developments from business magazines, Allen escaped into science fiction novels. He described himself as the “Mr Slow Burn” of the high-tech partnership, the ponderer that embraced the bigger picture.
Not every bookworm becomes a multi-billionaire. Nor do they devour words in the hope of lining their pockets. But reading breeds thinking, the sort of academic alchemy vital when machines will assume basic tasks from the human workforce and the internet – which Allen did much to proliferate – has flattened the world.
It is why two new surveys released on World Book Day (this Thursday) – an international, Unesco-designated celebration of reading – give cause for concern. Nielsen Book Research’s annual study of children’s reading habits found that only 32pc of British kids under 13 are read to daily by an adult for pleasure, down four percentage points in a year and down nine percentage points compared with 2012. Being read to is a gateway for children to read for pleasure independently but the National Literacy Trust found in a separate report that that activity in eight to 18-year olds has dropped to 52.5pc from 58.8pc in 2016.
These trends are not surprising given the competition that screen time gives book time – for parents as well as children. Yet digital literacy is no substitute for plain old literacy that is proven to foster creativity and better communication. Such skills should be given prominence over rote learning according to Andreas Schleicher, head of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), because “Google knows everything”. Pisa ranks children’s abilities in maths, science and reading from country to country. Last time, the UK was ranked 21st out of 70 countries for reading, which sounds good but not great if we are to build a knowledge economy in the future.
My interest in this world comes from being a dad to a curious seven-year old who is motoring impressively through the Harry Potter books and whatever else she can lay her hands on. With my wife and some very enthusiastic supporters, I also run Oscar’s Book Prize, the nationwide search for the best pre-school book of the year that we launched six years ago in tribute to our late son Oscar. Our aim is to celebrate the best books out there – the ones we instinctively know he would have loved – and inspire parents to spend vital reading time with their children.
Only when I studied the statistics did I realise the task at hand for educators and hard-working charities. Child obesity captures the headlines but child literacy – or lack of it in some communities – is a festering problem. Only 77pc of five-year-olds meet the minimum standard for reading and one in 11 children do not have their own books at home according to the NLT, which supports Oscar’s Book Prize along with Amazon and the Evening Standard. Teachers report there is a rising trend of “vocabulary deficiency” where kids do not know enough words to express themselves, leading to low self-esteem and sometimes classroom violence.
What can be done? More story time in schools, curriculum permitting, and parents somehow finding 10 minutes a night to share a book at bedtime so that reading is never presented as a chore. It is a tougher ask in households where parents never got into the habit themselves.
In addition, every religion needs a place of worship. The missing link is the local library – the ideal place to spark a love of reading or feed a developing addiction. Many of them are busy, teaming with yoga classes, coffee mornings, study groups and people without a computer at home getting themselves online. Yet this essential community service is suffering a slow, quiet decline as councils intent on cutting budgets alight on closing libraries as a soft option without considering the long term harm to literacy.
Figures from the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy found that another £30m was stripped from budgets last year. Spending is down 12pc in four years and at least two libraries are closing every week. The remainder are kept alive by a growing and passionate army of 51,000 volunteers who work alongside the equivalent of just 15,000 full-timers.
Critics might easily point to the Taking Part survey conducted for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport that shows just 33pc of adults used a public library in the last year, down markedly from 48pc 12 years earlier. I reckon any service starved of investment and not properly marketed is bound to struggle.
Paul Allen spent millions of dollars on libraries, paying forward what he gained to the next generation. This year also marks a century since the death of Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish-American industrialist who founded 660 public libraries across the UK, the beginning of the system that survives to this day.
The 2014 Independent Library Report for England stated the obvious by suggesting that “libraries could and should play a major role in rectifying literacy standards”. Joined-up government thinking might pool together the modern library with the local job centre, post office and Sure Start children’s centre to create an all-encompassing community hub. And what about a national advertising campaign?
Fresh investment – whether state funds or philanthropy – is not the only answer but it would spark fresh inspiration. It would be welcome proof that the UK recognises reading is at the heart of our future prosperity – and not just something to revel in when World Book Day rolls around.
James Ashton is a financial commentator and the chairman of Oscar’s Book Prize