I’ve been reading for as long as I can remember. As a child I loved books, and that’s carried on into my adult life.
I’m not alone in this, and I’m sure many of you reading this are the same. There are those who get the reading bug later in life, and there are many stories of reluctant readers becoming enamoured with the Harry Potter books, but for most of us, reading is a habit picked up early in life.
Of course, at such a young age our role models tend to be our close family, so it seem likely that most readers were first introduced to the love of books by parents.
I have vivid memories of visiting our local library as a child. Sometimes our mum would take us, but at the weekend it was more likely to be our dad, and my recollection is that he’d often borrow books too.
He’s always been methodical, and I remember him having lists of books by authors he enjoyed (Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley, Clive Cussler, Dick Francis), and as he read each book he’d cross it off. He’d also add other titles as the writers wrote more books.
And I copied him. Some of our lists were the same, but I added my own favourite authors—Stephen King, James Herbert, Isaac Asimov. I think I still used this list when I got into Terry Pratchett, too.
My dad (at least, in my memory) read on the train on his commute, and I’d read in the back-seat of our car on long journeys. On family holidays, he’d sit in the shade by the pool and read—and when I wasn’t playing in the water, I’d read while laying in the sun.
I’m pretty sure this wasn’t conscious, on either my part or his. But he was my dad, and therefore someone to copy.
I don’t remember my mum reading as much, except on holiday, but she always had a book by her beside. Draw your own conclusions from this, but my sister isn’t anywhere near as avid a reader as I am.
I think it took me a while to understand that other children didn’t read, but by the time I worked in education it was clear that many of those in my classes would do anything other than read for their entertainment.
Over the years there have been many schemes to encourage schoolchildren to read. There are adventure tales told in simplistic language that aimed to bring in teenage boys. There are simple non-fiction titles, little more than pamphlets, designed to engage those who aren’t interested in stories.
Studies show a correlation between books and exam results—students who come from households with a high number of books generally perform better in exams. From this were developed schemes to get more books into homes, on the assumption that this would boosting exam results and performance in school.
These schemes didn’t work.
Correlation is not causality. If I wear shorts when it’s hot, that doesn’t mean the act of wearing shorts increases the temperature. If a cock crows every day at dawn, that isn’t sufficient evidence to argue that the crowing cock causes the sun to rise. Likewise, owning a large number of books does not automatically make someone more intelligent (although it might give that impression).
The real value in books lies not in their physical presence, but in the words within their pages. To be of benefit, books have to be read.
Another memory from my childhood might be apposite here.
In one of our weekly assemblies at school, we were given a talk by someone from Gideons, and afterwards this person presented every student in our year with a small New Testament. The aim was surely to encourage us to explore our faith in the hope that we’d become proper Christians (or something like that).
These New Testaments were small, about three inches by two, and the pages were very thin. They were bound in such a way that the pages were almost perforated, and could easily be torn out. One of my classmates said they would make great papers for roll-ups.
I doubt he used every page for this, but I’m sure he smoked a fair bit of that New Testament. Not what the man from Gideons envisaged.
So, if having books doesn’t directly lead to increased intelligence, better exam results and all the rest of it, why is there a clear correlation?
With a bit of thinking, it’s obvious.
Return to what I said earlier, about young children being strongly influenced by their close family. If a child’s parents have a decent book collection, it’s probably because they value and enjoy reading. These values are then passed on to their children. This might be through conscious effort (reading time before bed, buying books as presents, showing an interest in the books their children are reading, trips to the library, and so on). But it might also be unconscious, through things such as being seen reading a book, or showing an interest in books when shops.
Reading develops and builds many skills—concentration, analysis, empathy, self-direction and so on. And it is these skills that benefit a child in school and when taking exams. So there is a correlation, but the connection between books and better school performance is tied up in the act of reading those books.
Of course, it’s never too late to enjoy books (and with the rise of audiobooks, failing eyesight and difficulties in holding books are no longer issues). But, as with so many things, an early start is better.
I was fortunate in growing up in a house with books, and having parents who encouraged me to read, both consciously and unconsciously. Without books—without the worlds they contain, the things I’ve learnt from them and the skills reading has helped me develop—my life would be so much poorer.