Why we shouldn’t shy away from reading the past

Socially acceptable attitudes and actions change over time. The changes build under the surface, and every so often there’s what seems to be a large shift (there’s one happening now with Black Lives Matter, and there was the whole MeToo thing a few years ago). When these large shifts in culture happen, it’s natural to reassess not only what is around at the moment, but also what happened in the past.

Many of the books read today were written many years ago, by writers who lived at different times. So how should we react when their sensibilities differ from our own?

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First, I think it’s important to separate the book from the writer. Most stories are written primarily to entertain, so does it matter what the writer was like as a person? Should we discard works created by those we disagree with, or those whose views sit uncomfortably against our modern sensibilities?

I think this is a personal decision. If your feelings about the writer are so strong that it’s impossible for you to dissociate their work from their personality, then why put yourself through the discomfort? But if you can separate the story from the person behind it, is there any problem with still reading it?

But what if the content of the story is problematic? What if there is racism or sexism or any other prejudice in the words?

One thing to note here is that attitudes expressed (or shown) through characters’ words and actions are not necessarily those shared by the writer. Any story needs its protagonist, so there are always going to be characters we don’t like, those we want the hero to overcome. And then there are those books that actively explore prejudice, that display a variety of attitudes in order to encourage the reader to think about their own beliefs. There’s racism in To Kill A Mockingbird, but that doesn’t make the book itself racist.

So the words should be read in context.

This still leaves problems. Some (especially older) books have their heroes displaying attitudes we no longer find acceptable. There are books with throwaway lines that are, by today’s standard, deemed offensive.

I’ve heard some people suggest editing older books to suit modern audiences‌—‌but I don’t agree with this. There’s a line by philosopher George Santayana (often wrongly attributed to Churchill):

‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’

There’s a danger of erasing or amending the past‌—‌it gives us a false view of history. We risk losing context for where we are now.

And there’s that word again‌—‌context. This, I believe, is key to the whole issue.

The attitudes displayed in these books might be wrong by today’s standards, but they weren’t necessarily seen that way when the writer was working on the story. The attitudes and beliefs of a writer will creep into even the most escapist of fiction, even if unconsciously‌—‌in the use of certain words, or the portrayal of characters who are ‘different’ to the author (race, culture, gender, sexuality, age, whatever). Is this the ‘fault’ of the writer, or their society?

When we read books, especially ones written decades (or centuries) ago, we need to remember they come from a different place, a different time.

Doing this not only gives us permission to enjoy the book for its merits, but it also educates us. The taboo words bandied around without a care, the prejudice on display‌—‌these things show us how we’ve changed.

And that leads to something else‌—‌the realisation that things aren’t perfect today, that change is still happening. The past shouldn’t be airbrushed and forgotten, but should serve as encouragement to keep improving.

Last few days of this promo

MayGiveawayThis fantasy and science-fiction giveaway has over 150 free books, covering all kinds of science fiction and fantasy, in all kinds of lengths (short stories, novellas, samplers, full novels, even multi-book collections). But it’s only running until the 15th of this month, so you only have a couple more days to discover your next favourite writer.

(Oh, and I’ve got a couple of books in it too.)

Click here before Monday to see the full list of books, and download some free reading for the summer. We might not be able to physically travel that much at the moment, but with these books we can go to places we’ve never even imagined.

What are the best books to read in trying times?

Many publishers are struggling at the moment. With so many bookstores across the world closed, sales of paperbacks and hardbacks have fallen. But reports have shown that ebooks sales are stronger than ever, and many independently published authors (who tend to focus on ebooks over print versions) have reported strong profits over the last couple of months.

Many, but not all. I’ve sold far fewer books since March than I did over the first couple of months of the year. My sales aren’t exactly high at the best of times, and my current dip could be down to any number of reasons, but I did wonder if genre is a factor in this. While people are reportedly reading more than usual, there might be a bias toward certain genres. Maybe the particular niche my books fall in is simply not what many want to read at the moment.

To investigate this further, I took a look at the top Kindle ebook sellers in the UK, and a few types of book dominated the list‌—‌feel-good reading, crime and thrillers, and biographies and memoirs.

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Feel-good books make perfect sense‌—‌this is reading as an escape from the worries of real life. But crime and thrillers can be violent and disturbing‌—‌at first glance, not exactly an antidote to real-world troubles.

These connected genres are still selling well, I believe, for a couple of reasons. First, they are incredibly popular in ‘normal’ times, and so many crime and thriller fans will keep reading what they know and love. But secondly, these stories often end very positively. Yes there are dark crimes and twisted motives, and the characters (and, vicariously, the readers) are placed in increasingly tense situations. But at the climax, the crime is solved and the perpetrator(s) brought to justice. The hero defeats the evil antagonist. Everything turns out well.

When real life is messy and uncertain, we look for something reliable. We want to believe that good will always triumph, and that wrongs will be set right. So these genres give us that feel-good ending, and do work as an escape from our real-world troubles.

Then there are the biographies and memoirs. The appearance of non-fiction doesn’t surprise me‌—‌on top of the ‘usual’ non-fiction readers, there are many who struggle with fiction when times are tough. But we’re all drawn to story, and stories of people’s lives fulfil this.

Consider too the nature of biographies and memoir. Many of these stories involve the narrator facing and overcoming some obstacle. They fight against the odds, emerging stronger at the end, the pain and depression and hopelessness becoming the lessons and motivation to succeed.

What better antidote to all the doom and gloom than reminders that there is hope, and that it is possible to not only survive adversity but come through stronger than before?

So the bestsellers are filled with books that offer either escape or the promise of success.

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But what of the very obvious absences in this bestseller list? Where was the horror and science fiction? Where was the darker stuff? In short, where were the type of books I enjoy reading?

It’s clear to see why darker books aren’t too popular at the moment (although I contend that horror is generally a positive genre, with good triumphing over very powerful evil, and you can read my thoughts on this here). Readers who dabble in these kinds of books might be staying away from anything disturbing, wanting instead to use reading as a booster to their positivity. And those of us who find enjoyment from darker books even in hard times are not numerous enough to push these titles into bestseller lists.

Maybe this is why my own books aren’t selling too well at the moment. Maybe I need to work harder at finding suitable potential readers, those who would enjoy science-fiction horror or dark Dystopian thrillers.

There might be trends in reading, but every reader is different. There’s an audience for every kind of book. Asking what the best books to read in trying times is impossible to answer in any but the most general terms. One reader’s engrossing Dystopian tale is another’s bleak trudge through depression. One reader’s buoyant romance, where love shines through, is another’s saccharine overdose of tweeness. One reader is drawn to cosy mysteries where the amateur sleuth and friends solve the murder, while another is pulled toward gritty stories where the criminals and those chasing them are all riddled with flaws that threaten to destroy them from the inside.

So the best thing to read is whatever will make you feel better, whatever engages you, whatever gives you the enjoyment, escapism and mental stimulation you seek.

But, most importantly, keep reading. Reading always helps.

In praise of the novella

Much as I enjoy reading novels, there are times when I want something else. Maybe I want to read a complete story in one sitting, or I’m just not in the right frame of mind to follow a novel over different sessions. Sometimes, when I finish a novel, I need something as a kind of mental palate-cleanser before diving into the next one.

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It’s times like these I’ll turn to short stories and novellas.

There are other lengths of story, of course. Flash fiction can sometimes be told in a single sentence. Vignettes are usually short, too, but are more a single scene than a complete story. Novelettes sit between short stories and novellas. But for most readers there are novels, novellas and short stories.

I like to think of the different story lengths in terms of TV shows and films. A novel is akin to watching a limited-run series, those shows that play out over a few episodes (and, by extension, a series of novels can be compared to a show that runs over more than one season). A short story is like a short film or a half-hour TV show, easy to consume while taking a quick break, sometimes pure entertainment, sometimes thought-provoking and deep.

Novellas are closer to films, taking a couple of hours to devour. They give a satisfying story, complex enough to keep us engaged but not so complicated that it feels rushed. Where a novel often has sub-plots or a number of side-quests for the protagonist, a novella often concentrates on a single story arc.

It’s no surprise that many films are based on novellas. Take Stephen King adaptations, for example‌—‌The Shawshank Redemption, Stand By Me, Maximum Overdrive, The Lawnmower Man and The Running Man all started life as novellas. Then there are classics like A Christmas Carol, Of Mice And Men, Animal Farm, The Stepford Wives, The Time Machine, The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde, I Am Legend, The War Of The Worlds, Minority Report, and so many more. Stories to be devoured in one sitting, an escape from our daily reality for a couple of hours. No need to break off to sleep or eat or work, no need to remember what’s already happened when you pick the book up again.

Novellas fell out of favour for a while, mainly for financial reasons‌—‌there’s very little cost difference between producing a novel and a novella, but people would feel cheated paying £10 or $15 for a little over 100 pages. The classics continued to be produced because there was already an audience for those stories, but newer authors had to do with anthologies. Again, Stephen King is a good example, with novellas collections such as Different Seasons, Four Past Midnight and Full Dark, No Stars.

But ebooks have changed this. Producing ebook files is very cheap, so novellas and short stories can be priced more realistically. The e-reader (or smartphone) doesn’t change size with what is being read, so a novella feels no different to an epic novel. And with free-flowing text, there are no fixed pages‌—‌the story continues for as long as it needs.

It’s also worth considering attention span. A potential reader might not have the concentration required for a novel, but with novellas they can still enjoy reading complete stories.

And novellas can work as great introductions to new writers‌—‌they show the writer’s individual style, and if they can pull off a successful story arc in a novella, there’s a good chance they can manage the same in a longer novel too.

Novellas also provide a great opportunity for expanding a series. With novels concentrating on the main story arc, novellas can tell side-stories or explore events from characters’ past.

Gilden-Fire_StephenDonaldsonI first became aware of this idea when I stumbled upon Gilden Fire by Stephen Donaldson. Having recently read his original Thomas Covenant trilogy, I was intrigued by this slim volume. In the introduction, Donaldson explained that Gilden Fire was originally going to be a chapter in The Illearth War. But while he was pleased with the writing, the story in the chapter didn’t involve the main character himself. Donaldson thought it would break the flow of the book, and so it was cut. It was only later that he revised it and released it as its own story.

In indie-publishing circles it’s quite common for a series to have a prologue novella, often available for a low price or as an exclusive offer for joining a mailing list (something commonly referred to as a ‘reader magnet’). But writers (especially those publishing independently) have told stories over a series of novellas.

Hugh Howey did this with Beacon 32, eventually combining the five shorter works into a single novel. The Sterling & Stone team (Sean Platt, David W Wright and Johnny Truant) experimented with similar ideas in their serialised fiction, releasing novella-length episodes that built to form complete seasons. Their most popular is probably Tomorrow’s Gone, but I have to say I preferred their nine-novella series Unicorn Western and Truant’s Fat Vampire series.

So, novellas are incredibly versatile. They can provide a short, complete story experience. They can expand a series for avid readers. They can also create their own series. They might not have the same standing as novels, or the literary cache of short stories, but the humble novella has a lot to offer.

In times like these, why read?

These are strange, confusing, scary times. We’re being asked to change the way we live our lives, with no clear notion of when normality will return (if ever). Stories abound in the media, both mainstream and social, and it can be hard to separate myth from fact.

And it’s the ideal time to read a book.

That might sound flippant, but I believe reading can help us all, in many different ways

Escapism & distraction

octopus-1235006_1280There’s little we can do about the current situation, beyond following whatever those in charge are suggesting (or ordering). But that doesn’t stop us worrying. It’s natural, in any strange situation, to hunt for a solution, even when there is nothing within our own reach. And this can increase our anxiety‌—‌which leads to all sorts of health issues, both mental and physical.

So we need to step away. We need to let our minds escape from what we can’t control. We need entertainment.

Reading has a few advantages over other forms of entertainment. Reading a novel takes many hours, often over many sessions. And between these sessions, a good story will still be running through our minds‌—‌we’ll be anticipating the characters’ next moves, or trying to solve the plot’s mystery.

Reading isn’t a passive activity, at least not as far as the brain’s concerned. The logical parts of our mind deal with deciphering the words, of making sense of the text. And then these words stimulate our creative, imaginative minds. From a few sparse sentences, our imagination conjures up believable characters and settings. The mention of sounds and smells in a book can trigger those parts of the brain associated with hearing and smell.

Reading can give us a whole-mind work-out. This keeps us occupied, helps distract us from things we have no control over, and ultimately is beneficial for our mental health.

These are immediate benefits of reading. There are benefits from long-term reading, too.

Instruction

knowledge-4171793_640Throughout history, stories have been used to educate. The tale of a successful hunt helps others develop and refine their own hunting skills. The sad story of a villager who ate the wrong kind of berry acts as a warning. The stories we read to our children help them make sense of the world.

Some of this instruction is practical‌—‌approach an animal you’re hunting from down-wind, be careful what kind of berries you eat, if you’re nasty to others they won’t be your friends‌—‌but stories also help us think. Characters face tough situations, and a well-written book will draw us into their internal dilemmas. As we read, a part of our mind is working out what we’d do in the same situation (or, more usually, what we’d like to do). As the character in the story uncovers more information, we adapt our thoughts, amending our personal solutions.

This make-believe decision making can help in real life. If we’re used to thinking things through, we’re less likely to panic. We know that we need to take a step back before we react.

Empathy

book-2135815_640It’s often said that to truly understand someone, you need to walk in their shoes‌—‌and stories are a powerful way of doing this. Vicariously, we can live through the pressures of a high-powered job, or the daily grind of raising a family on a meagre wage. We can experience being lost in an alien environment, or living amongst those different to ourselves, or coping in a world where our beliefs are not shared by the majority. We can get a glimmer of understanding into why someone may turn to crime, or shut themselves off emotionally from others, or desperately seek acceptance.

The empathy we can develop through reading can help is in real life. The better we understand how everyone sees the world through their own eyes, filtered through their personal experiences, the less likely we are to make snap judgements. And then we’re in the middle of confusing, worrying situations, the last thing we need is finger-pointing and rash decisions. When people are struggling, a little empathy can go a long way.


Reading is good for us. It gives us a break from our troubles, it exercises our minds, it helps us solve problems, and it develops our empathy. So stay safe, stay calm, and continue reading.

Why readers are so important (5-star review for Shadowfall)

Writing is something that, for me, has grown from an activity I’d do a couple of evenings a week to something that happens every day. I’m working harder and harder at all aspects of the process‌—‌planning stories, writing first drafts, and running through different rounds of edits‌—‌as well as spending more time on marketing and other ‘business’ activities.

So why is writing important to me? There’s no single reason. A large part of it is pure enjoyment, from the excitement of developing a cool story idea through the fun of writing itself and onto the rewarding work in moulding those initial words into something I can feel proud of. Then there’s the possibility of earning money from these stories‌—‌we all need money to live, and there’s nothing wrong in seeking some kind of financial recompense for all the time, effort and money I’ve put into producing these books.

Then there’s the opportunity to entertain, to take readers on a journey, to help them escape from their daily lives for a few hours. This is more nebulous than the other reasons, but is no less important. Maybe it’s the most important reason for writing. After all, story-telling is communication, and each story only truly comes to life when it reaches across to another person.

It’s harder to quantify this reason, though. I can judge my own enjoyment in the process, and I can look at my bank balance to judge the financial rewards (or otherwise). But the effect my stories have on others‌—‌how do I judge that?

This comes down to communication. I’ve received a few e-mails and comments from readers, as well as a few reviews. I received one review for Shadowfall recently that I thought I’d share here.

Wow. That is all I can say about this book. It kept me on my toes waiting to find out what came next. I was left wanting more and I am very eager to read anything written by this writer. This book had everything I like in the fantasy genre. It was well-written with a lot of character and world building. I would definitely recommend this book.

Every time I read that review, I feel warm inside. It’s so positive, and it tells me that (for this reader, at least) I succeeded in many things I set out to achieve in Shadowfall. This review tells me it’s a page-turner, and that my work in creating a believable world, populated by relatable characters, succeeded.

Yes, the review came through BookSprout (a service that aims to match readers with books in order to provide reviews), but there was no pressure on the reader to leave a positive review. As I’ve said many times before, I’d far rather receive an honest critical review than an insincerely positive one.

2019-1719 TW Iain b01 animationShadowfall‘s slowly getting more reviews and ratings, and many of them are positive. I know the book isn’t for everyone, so I’ll receive negative comments at some point. And that’s fine‌—‌I know there will always be areas of development in my writing and story-telling. I know, too, that every reader is different, and one reader’s drudgery is another’s page-turner.

But I hope I never stop feeling so good when I receive a review like the one above. I never want to become complacent. I want to always remember that the stories I write are not only for myself (and hopefully for my bank balance). I need to remember that stories are never complete until they are consumed by a reader. Only then can they truly live.

I feel honoured and grateful that what I create can give others enjoyment. And I thank any reader who takes the time and effort to leave a review. Without readers, there is no need for writers. Without readers, stories never emerge from the depths.

Without readers, there are no books.

[As a quick post-script, what do you think of the animated cover above? Many thanks to Deranged Doctor Designs for this‌—‌one of the best cover design companies around.]

Dialogue is more than talking

I often find that dialogue can make or break a book. It might be snappy and sarcastic, or rich and evocative‌—‌and I’ll feel I’m in the scene with the characters. If the dialogue feels realistic, and drives the story on, I’m willing to forgive plot holes and clunky prose.

I also find long passages of prose rarely work (unless very well written). Even internal dialogue can help propel a scene forward.

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But writing dialogue is hard. For starters, it needs to feel realistic, but it can’t be too realistic.

I recall an Kevin Smith interview, where someone commented on the natural way the characters in his films talked. He responded by saying that there was nothing natural about their dialogue. His characters go off onto rambling monologues while others listen‌—‌something that very rarely happens in real life. They’re not constantly being cut off, or using strings of filler words and sounds (‘um’, ‘er’, ‘like’ and so on), they don’t repeat themselves too often (‘So I said…‌and he says…‌then I say’). But his dialogue still feels natural, and that’s the important thing. He uses character-appropriate words and phrases to bring the spoken lines alive.

And this shows another aspect of good dialogue‌—‌it has to serve a purpose. In Smith’s case, much of the actual stories the characters tell one another seem only partially relevant to the story, but they reveal character, both in the words themselves and the way they are delivered. The same can be done in books‌—‌what a character says can reveal so much about who they are, in a far more natural way than simply being told.

For instance, a male character who peppers their conversation with words like ‘love’ and ‘dear’, especially when talking to younger women, comes across as condescending and sexist, even if the reader doesn’t consciously pick up on this. Likewise, a character who says ‘maybe’ and ‘I think’ a lot will often appear indecisive‌—‌so when they step up and make that all-important decision in a moment of crisis, we understand that they’re finally overcoming their inner demons.

Dialogue is also important for moving the story forward. Unfortunately, I’ve read far too many books where this is done poorly. Characters will say things like “Hey, you remember that time Bob broke into that old factory, and had to face all those vampires?” or “As you know, the master is due to return from his sojourn in the tropics any day now, but his mother still refuses to have the east wing redecorated, meaning she’s still in the suite next to his‌—‌and this is bound to cause a great deal of friction.”

Yes, these examples tell the reader possibly important information. But do they sound natural? Not at all. The characters are mentioning things other characters already know, merely to give us, the reader, information.

Another problem I’ve noticed with poorly written dialogue is the use of grammar.

Most people don’t talk with correct grammar. They use slang, and part-sentences. They’ll misuse words, or string words together in bizarre ways. It might be grammatically correct to say “We will leave as soon as we can,” but it sounds far more natural as “We’ll leave as soon as.”

Of course, some characters will speak ‘properly’‌—‌but even then, each character will have their own vocal idiosyncrasies. This is something I know I need to improve in my own writing. Some characters will speak in long, complicated sentences, others will use simpler constructions. Some will use dialect words, or enjoy showing off an extended vocabulary.

Dialogue can also indicate things about how each character experiences the world. One who focuses on visuals might say “I see”, whereas a character who’s more auditory might say “I hear you.”

With well-written dialogue, it should be clear who is talking from the spoken words themselves, and tags (“Bill said”, “Sheila asked”, and so on) are only needed as occasional reminders.

Writing dialogue that works well is hard‌—‌and it stands to reason that authors who can pull this off, who can use natural-sounding dialogue to develop characters and drive story, are also skilled at other areas of writing. After all, books are simply a means of telling stories. When we read a novel or a short story, we’re allowing the author to speak to us. Even when no characters in the story are talking, we’re still listening to the voice of the narrator.

How Neil Peart is pushing my reading into new areas

 

The musicians I grew up listening to are getting older, and many are no longer around. Of course, it happens to everyone eventually, and in large part I’m pretty philosophical about this. Yes, it’s sad that they’re gone, but they’ve left behind a great legacy in their music, and in that a part of them will live on.

But when I heard of Neil Peart’s passing, earlier this year, I felt sadder than I expected. Maybe it was because I’d been listening to Rush for so many years. Or maybe it was because they’d had the same line-up for so long that there was something permanent about them. Even though there was unlikely to be any new music from the trio anyway, it felt somehow wrong that he’d died.

Rush in concert at MGM Grand, Las Vegas, America - 25 Jul 2015

In case you’re unfamiliar with the name, Neil Peart was the drummer and lyricist with Canadian band Rush. Their music didn’t bother the charts much, but they could sell out arena and stadium tours around the world, and had an incredibly loyal fan-base.

I saw Rush on tour back in the eighties, at a time when just about every band would thrown in solo spots for different musicians, mainly guitarists and drummers. These solos bored me. If there were seats at the venue, I’d have a rest while the guitarist tapped away, or while the drummer hit everything within range as fast as possible.

But Peart’s solo was different. It felt like a structured piece of music, with peaks and troughs, passing through different ways of playing, drawing on different emotions. Rather than a way of showing off, the solo was an exploration into what a drum kit was capable of. And even though the band played rock, it was clear that Peart drew from many different styles.

He wasn’t content to sit still as a musician. He took his playing very seriously. He’d practice for an hour before each concert. And he continually sought to improve‌—‌listening to other styles of music, seeking other techniques, taking lessons from drummers who might not have been technically as proficient as him, but who still had something he could learn from, something new he could incorporate into his own playing.

It’s an important attitude for anyone creative, be that in music or sculpture or stories or hanging baskets. There’s always more to learn. To quote one of Peart’s own lyrics (from Mission),

‘the point of the journey is not to arrive’.

It’s impossible to reach the end of knowing, to become perfect. There’s always more to learn, and it’s important to absorb new influences and techniques, to develop, so that the next song, the next model, the next book, the next basket surpasses the previous one.

When I worked in education, I used to tell myself that the moment I felt I knew everything about teaching was the moment I should stop‌—‌not because I would know everything, but because that moment would signal the end of the desire to improve.

In my writing, I feel like I’m only just starting out, and there is so much to learn. One very important way I can widen my knowledge is through reading‌—‌not only in genres I’m naturally drawn to, but also in pushing myself to explore new genres. It’s why I’ll read the occasional romance book, or historical book. It’s why I’ll read books by new and old authors, independently-published and those who work through traditional publishers.

There’s always more to learn, even from books I don’t like. I read the Twilight series and the first couple of Fifty Shades books (haven’t been able to face the third yet) in part because I wanted to understand what made them so popular. And it’s why I very rarely give up on a book. Even books I don’t enjoy, or stories I don’t feel are particularly well told, have things to teach me.

I know some people take a different approach. Some writers dive deep into a particular sub-genre, writing and reading only that one thing, focusing their attention on becoming an expert in it. And that’s fine‌—‌but for me, I’d feel like I was missing so much. When I read books with a strong romantic element, I can garner more insight in evoking believable relationships. When I read literary fiction, I can absorb ideas on how language is used. When I read mysteries and thrillers, I can better understand how to keep the reader guessing. When I read books that evoke different times and locations, I can attempt to unpick how words can be used to give a sense of period and setting without being too on-the-nose.

There’s so much to learn out there, so many lessons that I can use to improve my own writing. But that’s only going to happen if I concentrate.

This, I feel, is something Peart understood. It’s not enough to simply consume. Learning is active. It involves both study and practice. It’s a never-ending cycle that is the only way to improve.

Or, in the words of Peart himself,

What is a master but a master student? And if that’s true, then there’s a responsibility on you to keep getting better and to explore avenues of your profession.

Books in a changing media landscape

Amongst all the rides, attractions and eateries in Disneyland Paris, there are many, many stores. They sell all kinds of merchandising‌—‌toys, clothing, bags, jewelry, and so on. But one thing struck me by its absence.

Media.

There were no Disney DVDs for sale, no CDs of film soundtracks, and no books. In short, there was nothing for sale that actually told any kind of story‌—‌and this seemed strange for a company that had built itself up on story, from simple five-minute Mickey Mouse cartoons through retellings of classic fairy tales to their own original stories.

It’s not as if there were no opportunities to incorporate books into the park. In Beauty And The Beast, Belle loves reading, so why not have a Belle-themed bookshop, with library ladders and dusty hidden corners?

Admittedly, Disneyland Paris have to cope with visitors from a wide range of countries, and although French and English seem to be the predominant languages utilised in the park, each title would need to be stocked in different languages, with different covers and so on. And why stock music and film anyway, when the trend is now for streaming?

This (like so much in the park) got me thinking.

children-403582_640There are always stories about the death of reading, and how nobody reads anymore. Why read, when it’s easier to turn on the TV or switch on Netflix or pop onto YouTube? There are figures suggesting that cinema is struggling, as home viewing utilises ever-growing size of screens, in increasing resolution, with high-quality sound-systems. Why bother leaving the house, queueing, paying for over-priced snacks and drinks, and having to cope with other people, when high-quality entertainment can be enjoyed in comfort at home?

And how can books‌—‌simple text on a flat, unmoving surface‌—‌compete with such incredibly immersive effects on the big screen (be that in a cinema or at home), or with the snappy dialogue and surrounding sound design?

Some people argue that they can’t. They point to the collapse of Borders and the struggles of Barnes & Noble. They talk of dwindling revenue for those who write‌—‌while big-name authors (King, Rowling, Patterson and so on) still earn fortunes, mid-list authors are forced to take on other work to supplement their writing careers.

Yet still, people read.

There’s a good chance that you’re one of those people who enjoy books, so you’ll instinctively know some of the reasons for this. You know the pleasure that comes from sinking into a story. You’ve experienced the transformation of words on a page into living images within your own imagination. You’ve felt the pull of a book, the yearning to get back to the story, and the way a tale lives on long after you’ve turned over the final page.

Maybe you value the solitude of reading, or how time can fly by when you’re deep in a great story. Maybe you love how reading can be done anywhere‌—‌on a chair, in bed, in the bath, on an exercise bike, on a bus, or how it can take over hours in an evening or be squeezed into a few minutes in a supermarket queue.

With technology, ways of reading are growing. Twenty years ago there were books. You either bought them or borrowed them from a library (or from friends). Sometimes it was hard to find the book you wanted‌—‌either it was too popular at the library, or too obscure for book stores to stock. You had to order the book, and wait weeks for it to be delivered to the book-store. But now, we have ebooks and print-on-demand. We might wait a couple of days for a physical book to arrive, but an ebook can be delivered within minutes.

And with ebooks, we’re no longer tied to a physical book. We have the ability to carry a whole library in an e-reader, or on a smart-phone. We need never be without a collection of books.

Technology increases the potential for inclusion, too. On-screen text size can be altered to suit individual needs and preferences, as can colour and brightness. Different interface systems‌—‌switches, voice control and even eye tracking‌—‌allow those with reduced physical ability to turn pages.

audiobook-3106985_640Then there are audiobooks. Yes, they’ve been around for years, first on cassettes and then on CDs‌—‌but with mp3, fast downloading and now streaming, audiobooks don’t require us to buy bulky physical copies. We’re not tied to large hi-fi equipment either. With our smart-phones, we can enjoy audiobooks wherever we are, whatever we are doing‌—‌driving, exercising, cleaning, gardening, resting. No longer are audiobooks only for those who struggle with physical reading, or those with long drives ahead of them. Now, they are open to anyone.

So is reading losing out to films and TV? I don’t think so. Film companies seem to rely on a small number of big-budget movies each year, so going to the cinema is becoming an occasional treat for many (and maybe it always was). And while TV shows increase in both number and (according to many) quality, with streaming this is becoming a more personal activity‌—‌we can watch on a big screen, or on a laptop or phone, with headphones plugged in.

If entertainment is becoming more personal, and more solitary, then why not reading? It is easier than ever to access book, and with the growth of independent publishing there are more books available than ever. And while the increase in ‘readers’ might not be huge, many of us who already read are doing so more often. I know that my reading has increased since getting an e-reader.

It’s worth considering the origins of film and TV stories, too. Many of these come from pre-existing stories in the form of books‌—‌and for the film and TV companies, this makes sense. If a story proves popular as a book, then it must ‘work’, and it’s arguably easier to adapt a pre-existing idea (that has shown itself to be popular) than to risk developing something new.

Think Harry Potter, or Twilight, or Lord Of The Rings/The Hobbit. Think Birdbox, or The Martian. So many good films come from books.

Also, consider franchises. Star Wars might have started with one film, but as the franchise grew, fans demanded more stories. Yes, there were more films, but they take a long time to develop. It’s quicker to produce books, and there are close to four hundred novels related to the Star Wars universe. And as more stories are developed, the fans become increasingly immersed in the whole franchise, and then demand even more stories.

Times change, and technology advances. People have more access to all kinds of media, and this is only going to increase. But there will always be readers, and there will always be books in one form or another.

Reading isn’t going away.

How did you get into reading?

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.

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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.

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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.