The literacy levels in this country are appalling. One in five adults has the reading age of a 5-7 year old. Sorry, ignore that – it’s gone up to one in six. About eight million people in the UK. That means they can’t read the instructions on a packet of tablets or a simple road sign. Because we don’t just read for leisure – reading is a life essential skill and its effects are far-reaching.
Why did I agree to write a Quick Reads book? Because I was asked. Simple as that. Except timing played a big part because I’d just been into prison to give a talk to the ladies in New Hall about my career, hoping to show them that small life changes can lead to big changes. I met women who were determined never to enter the prison system again after being released. But without skills of reading and writing, they would gravitate back to their small, familiar but dysfunctional circles, from which they might have had a chance to escape had they been more literate. Reading really does transform lives.
Once upon a time, adults who sought help were given the equivalent of Janet and John books, children’s simple stories which did nothing for their already low self-worth. Quick Reads are a selection of stories written by best-selling authors for adults. We’ve all taken care to deliver tales which read every bit as well as our longer novels because we want to encourage not to patronise. They look like books for adults – because they are books for adults, with adult themes and language. The only difference is that they’re shorter, the sentences aren’t long and complicated and full of clauses and the vocab is simpler. Why use ‘discombobulate’ when ‘confuse’ will do the same job? I defy anyone to read one of our books and spot any real difference - a whole load of people front stage and behind the scenes have taken care to make it so. They’re directed at adults who need help to build up their reading skills, who are off-put by thick tomes of dense passages, but they’re available to anyone and the font is slightly larger too for those with reduced eyesight. Perfect for a ‘quick read’ (see what I did there) or for those people who have suffered a stroke or have an illness which means a shorter more easily absorbed story is preferable. Jojo Moyes calls it a ‘gateway drug’ and she’s right; it is a perfect taster for the rich world of books out there, all waiting to be read.
Personally, I can’t remember a time before I could read and I’ve always taken this wonderful skill for granted as much as I have breathing. The prison visit made me think long and hard how essential it is and I spent a day away from work writing down all the instances when I read something: cooking info on food packets, the dosage instructions on the dog’s medicine, a form to fill in to apply for mum’s attendance allowance (29 pages long), a train timetable, a text to a friend... so many occasions where I needed to be able to write and read. Being able to utilise these skills opens up a door to a much bigger, more satisfying – and safer - life.
We absorb so much vocabulary and information without even trying when we read. People equipped with a wider store of words are more confident because they feel able to interact more with others and are better equipped for what life throws at them, they’re more resourceful. Those with better literacy skills get better chances, better jobs. It can be no surprise that there is a correlation between a restricted vocabulary and low self-esteem.
Reading is a magnificent sleep aid. It rests and relaxes a brain, powers it down.
Reading also sharpens our ability to focus and concentrate, skills we are in danger of losing with this modern technological age which presses us to multi-task. We watch TV whilst texting or checking in to see what other people's take on things are on Twitter. When we go to watch a band, we record it on our phones rather than just being there in the moment and enjoying it first-hand. Reading demands our whole attention to make sense of what is going on. Being forced to do one thing only but properly lessens our stress levels – no shit Sherlock!
Reading switches our brain into the mains, gives it power, improves memory function, staves off dementia. It’s a ‘use it or lose it’ muscle that needs stimulation.
Reading gives solace and escapism for people with anxiety, the poorly who need to forget for a couple of hours that they are hooked up to a drip. It distracts from stress.
Reading a good story can do what no film can: allow a tailor made hero and heroine fashioned from our imagination to play out the story in our heads. How many of us watched Fifty Shades of Grey and thought ‘Nope, didn’t imagine Christian like that’? It’s a lovely, gentle pastime. One in three adults do not read for pleasure. What a travesty.
Reading educates us as we read factual books about the experiences of others, makes us see what is possible, encouraging us to make changes for the better. Reading gives people insight into what healthy relationships should be. I've had more than one letter from a woman who didn't realise she was actually living in an abusive relationship until she read objectively the experience of one of my characters and the penny dropped. And she got out. Reading gives us a wider understanding of the world in general. It reminds us of the impact of people’s actions upon others; prompts us to be mindful of the pleasure we can give, or the harm we can inflict. It reminds us to be sympathetic and empathetic, things which can be overlooked in today's world.
Reading is free if you use the library – millions of books out there to improve and lengthen your life for the price of… well… absolutely nothing. Quick Reads books are there in your libraries now – or in bookshops for a very paltry £1.00 each.
There are wider implications upon society for reading. Being literate unlocks more chances in the job market. More vacancies are filled. The pressure on the welfare system is relieved. Literacy improves confidence, lessens stress – that impacts on the health service which is groaning under the weight of patients with mental health issues. The economy benefits, crime levels drop. All from people being able to read a little more.
Our education system is suffering. Excessive accountability and figure/target satisfying, the pressure for data dumps has been taking our teachers away from teaching. Grass roots: children need to read and write adequately because almost EVERYTHING in their future adult lives will depend on it. Government, let our teachers flipping teach – that’s why they joined the profession in the first place. And these days if there isn’t already, there should be a component to the curriculum on how to use language in this techno age. Responsibly. Not purely for trolling on the internet.
So why oh why was the Quick Reads charity ever in danger? Why did it have to be rescued by one woman, the far-sighted philanthropist and author Jojo Moyes, when publishers could have clubbed together in a joint venture or – preferably – the government could have stepped in to pledge money to keep it open. It would have been cheap at the price for the savings they’d have made elsewhere. This is base level stuff. It doesn’t need a team of financial experts to see the return they’d get for their cash.
There are only advantages to learning how to read. Reading is a key to a life enriched. A life enhanced and changed, a life happier and more fulfilled, a life with more choice and less stress. And it could – and will for many – start with a book priced at a quid. Tell me a better investment than that?
More information about the Reading Agency can be found here.