“It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” – Oscar Wilde


This child takes me into her world - both real and imaginary when she reads me a story

This child takes me into her world – both real and imaginary when she reads me a story

“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”

Groucho Marx


The intention of my piece for World Book Day – “The time has come the Walrus said, to talk of many things” (6th March 2014) was to celebrate the joy of being a child (anywhere from the ages of 0 – 100 and beyond) and to remind us all of how easy and joyful it can be to become immersed in a book. As I had hoped the piece provoked some tremendous and often amusing responses. A couple of students and a colleague from the university dropped into my office to tell me about their favourite children’s books and there were some great postings on the blog. Neha chose to simply post William Blake’s mysterious depiction of the Tyger with its religious symbolism and wonderful rhythm, Barbara had clearly woven some kind of magic and had turned into Harry Potter and Maitrayee entered fully into the spirit of the Mad Hatter with her passionate celebration of eccentricity. Others gave me accounts of their favourite books and shared ideas for further reading. I must say that reading all of these responses made my day and left me smiling for much of the time.

Books and words have always been important to me. When I was a child I loved making up stories and writing these down on any available scrap of paper. Through my teenage years I read any novel, collection of poetry or work of history that came my way and then I was privileged to study literature as a student. The reading obsession has never gone away and I cannot imagine travelling anywhere without at least one book in my hand luggage. The height of decadence for Sara and I is Sunday morning, with no need to dash to work, sitting in bed accompanied usually by our cat, reading for an hour or so, simply for pleasure. (the cat incidentally remains indifferent to books, despite my best efforts!). What a great way to start the day.

It was therefore a tremendous delight to read of the enthusiasm expressed by others in response to my simple blog. But this was also tempered by the sad reflection posted by Mary with her report that in China reading for pleasure appears to be almost discouraged by the education system. Mary suggested that:-

“here in China, very few people read what you have listed for pleasure any more or ever. If people are actually reading those, they must be university students reading to pass their tests”.

What message, I wonder, are we giving to children about books if their only purpose in reading is to pass tests? This does seem to me to be more likely to deter children from learning than to encourage them to explore the riches of the world through the written word. Furthermore, I believe that the children placed at greatest disadvantage from this approach are those from poorer communities who have less opportunity to explore and learn about the world than those from more advantaged situations.

When I was a child I never imagined the experiences that I would have as an adult travelling to many parts of the world, meeting so many wonderful people from diverse and fascinating cultures. People from my community and background simply didn’t do these things. Education has given me opportunities that were never available to my parents and indeed the only time my grandparents’ generation travelled outside of the UK was to be shot at and shoot at others in two dreadful World wars!

As a child I explored the wonders of the world through the pages of books never really believing that the world beyond the pages could open up to me. I read every one of R.K. Narayan’s novels about the fictional village of  Malgudi, and loved Anita Desai’s Village by the Sea, never believing that one day I would spend time living with a family in just such an Indian village. The thrill of visiting Lu Xun’s house in Shaoxing, years after reading his hilarious account of his eccentric character, Ah Q, and finding a blue plaque on the wall of a house where Lawrence Durrell wrote the autobiographical Bitter Lemons in Cyprus and realising that I was exploring in reality places, people and events that I had first encountered on the pages of books has been a great aspect of my adulthood.

Travel has come to me as a result of education. But appreciation of the cultures that I have visited, whilst being built around the friendships I have made in many countries, was prompted much earlier by my reading as a child and throughout my life. Through books I was able to gain insights and build respect for the art, literature, religions, and cultural traditions that were distant from me as a child. To deny a generation this opportunity to explore for themselves outside of an imposed school curriculum is surely to rob them of their rights to understand the world and to develop as tolerant and appreciative individuals.

Ah yes but, I hear some of you saying. The book is dead, this is the digital age and we get our information fast these days from our tablets and smart phones. Certainly I say, there is a place for these. But equally there is surely a need for the beauty of the language of Shakespeare, the incise wit of Robertson Davies, the empathy created by Kenzuburo Oe, the profound spiritualism of Dante or Milton? Through Naqib Mahfouz I have visited the winding alleys of old Cairo, Chekov has given me a sense of the Russian Steppe and my senses have been filled with the sounds, colours and smells of South America by Borges, Llosa and Marguez. All of these are places I have never visited but of which I have learned a little at least in my imagination. Maybe I am just old-fashioned, but I suspect that there are other children like me out there whose eyes can be opened to the world and whose thirst for learning will be stimulated by the written word.

Perhaps the saddest fact here is that we see the need to establish World Book Day. If every day became a celebration of books there may be many more happy children in all of our countries. So, wherever you are in the world enjoy your literary greats and give your children the lifelong gift of books.


8 thoughts on ““It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” – Oscar Wilde

  1. Over the last few days there have been lots of tweets appearing in my timeline reminding me it is World Book Day: teachers and parents tweeting photos of children dressed up as book characters, authors tweeting about books and lots of pictures and quotes about books and reading. Last night a wonderful one of a public library in Kansas appeared: you can see it at this link – https://twitter.com/AwkwardGoogle/status/440954906485063680/photo/

    Your words about World Book Day reminded me that last year I was lucky enough to be a World Book Night giver. World Book Night is all about adults and reading and takes place on the evening of 23rd April each year. I applied to be a giver and I chose Jeannette Winterson’s ‘Why be Happy When You Could Be Normal’. I chose this book because there’s a part in it where Jeannette Winterson, as a young adult, has hidden so many books under her bed that the bed gets higher and higher off the ground! Its a book that conveys the impact books, reading and education can have on a life. I was given a set of 30 copies to give to FDLT Y1 group as I wanted to give them a great read about education to remind them why they are working every evening and weekend on their degree, as well as caring for families and working at school.

    You can find out more about World Book Night here http://www.worldbooknight.org/
    Its too late to apply to be a giver of a set of books this year but there’s a new idea this year – just take one book of your own and give it to someone!

    • Hi Jean,
      This sounds like a great scheme. Perhaps we could start an initiative to do something about it. Let’s talk some more.

  2. E-books are all well and good, but there is something about the feel of paper, the smell of older books, that is just so satisfying. For me electronic versions have utility for work and research purposes, but if it is pleasure I’m seeking, well, can’t beat paper. Luckily the education system in Alberta encourages reading for pleasure – my kids are avid readers. One thing the system here does well, I suppose (notice how begrudgingly I admit that! 🙂 ). Great post, Richard.

    • <>Hi Tim,
      Glad to hear your children are such keen readers. Long may this continue. Sadly there are some who start out keen but lose the enthusiasm as the process becomes more utilitarian in some education systems.
      I agree entirely about e-books. I use a reader when Sara and I do our annual cycle tours around the lanes of various parts of Europe, simply because weighty books on bicycles can be difficult. But on other occasions give me the old technology of print on paper.

  3. Hi Richard,
    this is by far the best post on this blog. It is a pity that we have reached a stage where people (me included) are not aware that a world book day is celebrated.
    In the age of e-books most people read off the internet. Yet, somehow, the feeling of holding the leather bound piece in your hands, the musty smell of the old pages are all things to pine for- part of the memories i left back in the valley school library.

    • Hi Adithya,
      I know the Valley School library and also the study centre. A great collection of books and I’m glad to hear it evokes memories. Keep browsing the real books shops otherwise they will die as the digital age takes over. There is certainly a place for e-books, but alongside, rather than instead of real books.

  4. The fact that we read to pass tests is absolutely true. I am currently writing my 12th grade board exams that so many parents make a hue and cry about. I sit with the textbook and read through for nearly 6 hours just to score an 80% on that test. i don’t think anyone reads a piece of literature ” when they don’t have to” with any (let alone as much) passion and interest. I believe that the habit of reading books for the joy of reading them should be cultivated right from a very young age. i read the unabrigded edition of Dickens’ oliver twist at the age of seven and that is why i still manage to grab some time for my Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde.

    • Great to hear you love Shakespeare and Wilde, but don’t neglect the great writers from your own culture. R.K. Narayan, Raja Rao, Nirad Chauduri, Rabindranath Tagore, Mulk Raj Ananad have much to teach us. I would not wish you to neglect your studies, but making time to read for pleasure is just as educative a process.

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