A Brand New Book*

If you’re a bibliophile, or even simply love reading, it’s probably in part because you had access to books when you were young. There’s a great deal of research that suggests that a print-rich environment is associated with earlier literacy, more time spent reading, and so on. And there’s other research that suggests that cultivating a habit of reading is helpful on a lot of levels (not just academic). But I’ll bet you probably already knew or suspected all of that.

There are a lot of places where it’s so easy to get books that we don’t think very much about it. We may complain about the price of a book, or get annoyed if we’re far down on the ‘hold’ list at the library. But we do have easy access to books.

That’s not the case everywhere. Some people live remotely. There isn’t a nearby library or bookshop, and it’s harder than you think to get books delivered. Other people simply don’t have the money to buy books, and they don’t live near a library. Still others (mostly young people) simply don’t have good role models for reading, and don’t have access to books at home. They may be literate, but that doesn’t mean they can easily get books. And, there are those who are incarcerated, in hospital, in shelters and so on, places that may not have many books.

As this is posted, it’s World Book Night, a time to focus on making books available to people who might not otherwise get them. I’m always happy to talk about this issue, as I’m utterly convinced by the research that links reading to many, many benefits. And, besides, reading’s fun – why not share that fun?

To help celebrate World Book Night, I thought it might be fun to look at some crime-fictional cases of people who share books and the love of them with others. They’re out there in real life (and they’re heroes to me), and they pop up in the genre, too.

In Val McDermid’s The Grave Tattoo, for instance, we are introduced to Wordsworth scholar Jane Gresham. She’s originally from the Lake District, but now lives and teaches in London. Higher education, especially for young academicians, doesn’t pay well. Trust me. So, Jane lives in an economically depressed former council block. One of the other people who live there is thirteen-year-old Tenille Cole. She has, to say the least, a disastrous home situation, and has befriended Gresham as a mentor. She shares Gresham’s love of poetry, and is extremely bright, but she has little access to books and other learning materials at home. Gresham lends her whatever she can, and is always happy to ‘talk books.’ That support means a lot to Tenille, who becomes quite devoted to her mentor. When Gresham learns that there may be an unpublished Wordsworth manuscript, she can’t resist the opportunity to try to find it. Such a discovery would make her career as a scholar. So, she travels to the Lake District, where the manuscript is said to be, to look for it. Unbeknownst to Gresham, Tenille has run away from home, and follows her mentor. And she turns out to be very helpful.

Ian Sansom’s Mobile Library series features Israel Armstrong. Originally from London, Armstrong dreamed of a career as a professional librarian, perhaps even someday working for a prestigious university, or even the British Library. As a first step, he takes a job with the Tumdrum and District Library in Ireland. And, as he soon learns, it’s hardly the British Library. He’s engaged to drive the area’s bookmobile to a series of remote stops, and as the series goes on, he gradually gets to know the area and the people who live there. These may not be wealthy people, and they live in a very rural place. But they want access to books, and the municipality is obliged to provide it. So, Armstrong becomes that link.  And, over time, he learns to see his role as providing books to people who might not otherwise find it easy to get them.

Jaqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series begins just before World War I. As soon as Maisie is old enough, she begins work as a domestic in the home of Sir Julian and Lady Rowan Compton. At that time, domestic servants aren’t expected to be intellectual, to pursue education, and so on. In fact, plenty are not even literate. But it doesn’t take long for Lady Rowan to see that Maisie is very bright and intuitive. So, she arranges for Maisie to meet her friend Maurice Blanche, who is a doctor and psychologist. Together, Blanche and Lady Rowan mentor Maisie, sponsor her through her university studies, and prepare her for a professional adult career. Maisie spends World War I serving as a nurse at military field hospitals, but after the war, becomes a private investigator. And her success owes much to the access she’s had to books and ideas because of her mentors.

There are other examples, too, of characters who work to make books and reading available to those who wouldn’t otherwise have access. And the alternative – no access to reading – is tragic. In real life, it means not being able to keep up with current events, not having access to some of humankind’s great ideas, discoveries, and so on, and not being able to manage one’s life. Ruth Rendell shows a bit of what that’s like in A Judgement in Stone. As we learn about one of the main characters, Eunice Parchman, we discover that she doesn’t know how to read. She’s intelligent, but for several reasons, never learned. She is so cut off from everyone because she can’t learn what’s in books that it has tragic effects on her. And that, in turn, has disastrous effects on the family who hires her as their housekeeper.

On this World Book Night, I invite you to stop for a moment and think about how easy it is for you to access something to read. And then I invite you to do something to make it a little easier for others to have that same access. There are a lot of individuals and agencies that work hard to make books an everyday reality for people who wouldn’t otherwise get them. You can check some of them out on the ‘Literacy’ tab right here on my site. Or, feel free to ask me (margotkinberg(at)gmail(dot)com) if you’d like ideas.


‘Books are a uniquely portable magic.’ – Stephen King

‘Let us remember: One book, one pen, one child, and one teacher can change the world.’ – Malala Yousafzai


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Graham Parker.


Filed under Ian Sansom, Jacqueline Winspear, Ruth Rendell, Val McDermid

34 responses to “A Brand New Book*

  1. Keishon

    Most excellent post about access to reading and I’m blessed to have such access given to me. I have a ton books waiting for a new home, too. In A Judgement in Stone, the Coverdale’s didn’t see it coming. It’s such a suspenseful story. Loved reading it.

    • It is a great story, isn’t it, Keishon? So much there, and, well, gripping. I know what you mean, too, about the good fortune of having books. I feel just as fortunate because I’ve had books all my life. Thanks for the kind words!

      • Keishon

        Wanted to add: My mother got me started on reading in high school and that’s a gift that keeps on giving.

  2. Thanks for the post Margot, didn’t know about the day at all! Book learning is a theme in Eco’s THE NAME OF THE ROSE of course but yiu have much better examples here – thanks again.

    • Thanks, Sergio – Glad you enjoyed the post. And thanks for mentioning The Name of the Rose, too. That’s a fine example of what I had in mind; I appreciate it!

  3. I was very lucky as a kid to have a mom who was a true bookworm, and mysteries were her favorite. I think I read every book in the small libraries at the small country grade school in Seymour, IL too. Thanks for the reminder that a lot of kids in the world don’t have that advantage and that we can help.

    • I went through a lot of books at my grade school and the local library, too, Pat! I feel very fortunate that we had a good library where I grew up. I think kids are at so much of an advantage when they live a print-rich life, even if they don’t later become bookworms.

  4. Great post! Early access to books is so important for all kinds of reasons. Neither of my parents were big readers when I was a kid, though they both had been when they were younger – Dad had too much else to do, and Mum had cataracts which made it too hard to read (though she later had them removed and reverted to being a bookaholic in her latter years). But fortunately for us they still made sure the house was full of books, and took us regularly to the library. We also got a book token every birthday and Christmas, followed by a family trip to the bookshop to spend it. And if we were ill, my Dad’s ‘treatment’ was to buy us a Ladybird book – I used to pretend to be ill quite often and it usually worked… 😉

    • Thanks, FictionFan. And I couldn’t agree more about the value of early access to books. Reading helps young people on so many, many different levels, and the easier it is to get books, the more likely that young people will pick up the reading habit. I love it that your parents were so committed to making sure you had books when you were growing up. And you know, I think that’s a very clever ploy to get your hands on a Ladybird book. 🙂

  5. JanF

    Excellent blog, Margot this is so important – access to books and the wonderful world that opens up to the young (old and in-between). My parents both encouraged and ensured my access through the local library, home bookshelves and book presents (❤️🐞📚 too). The library was great and I remember their summer programmes when there would be weekly outdoor readings. School not only introduced reading via ‘Janet and John’ books but also brought in local writers/book people to read – this especially grew my love of poetry. I have been blessed. Thank you, Margot, for highlighting this important subject and for pointing folk in the direction of ways they can help. Your passion is terrific.

    • Thanks so much for the kind words, Janet. I’m so happy for you that your parents encouraged you to read, and provided you with lots of books. That’s so important for a good start in life, in my opinion. And it sounds as though your school did some great things, too, I love it when schools make a real effort to make reading both accessible and fun. And talking to writers must have been a great experience for you. Thanks for sharing it! 🙂

  6. kathy d

    Thanks for writing this post and reminding all of us how important reading is, and how essential it is for children and young people. I feel sorry for people without access to books or those who can’t read. Cheers to librarians who help children learn to appreciate reading and to programs that help with this.
    I am lucky in that my parents started me on books at a young age. At three, I was the youngest person to get a library card in the West Village in New York City. And my parents read, different books, but they read and our house was full of books.
    My father took me to the library weekly when I was in high school and I had the habit of staying up late to read. And he started me on mysteries with the Great Detective Holmes and some Wolfe/Goodwin fun, too.
    I give young children around me books to encourage their enjoyment of books, something that will be there for them for their entire lives.
    Reading fiction is such an asset in so many ways, teaching about other cultures and countries, teaching compassion and understanding of people, distracting from everyday life (and today’s crazy political scene), transporting one almost anywhere.
    It is a shame when so many children don’t have access to books, and so I’m glad I’m reminded to make a donation to an organization that donates books to children. I will do it.

    • You’re absolutely right, Kathy, about the importance and the value of reading. And definitely, reading fiction is a part of that. There are all sorts of academic, cognitive, emotional, and other benefits that come from reading. And that’s not to mention the number of humankind’s ideas that are in books, and that we miss out on if we don’t read. I’m glad for you that your parents read, and that they encouraged you to read, too. And I think it is an important cause to help ensure that other children get books, too. I’m glad you’re going to support that cause.

  7. kathy d

    And hurrahs to Malala.

  8. Col

    Great post again, Margot.

  9. A great post for World Book Night! I was very fortunate that books were the one thing that my parents didn’t seem to mind me spending money on. Plus I also had a good school library (finished it off quite quickly though). And when I returned to Romania, they stood by me as I registered for some of the foreign libraries (British Council, The American Embassy Library, the Goethe Institut etc.), although it was viewed with huge suspicion at the time. But they knew that it was an excellent way to keep my languages alive and were willing to undergo a little extra ‘family surveillance’ for that purpose.
    Just this morning I saw a book by David Foenkinos called ‘The Henri Pick Mystery’ which sounded irresistable, about a manuscript found in a slush pile which turns out to be a work of genius, is published to huge acclaim, but the deceased author seems to never have read or written anything in his life, as far as his wife remembers. I could’t resist the premise, and bought it!

    • Oh, that is an absolutely fascinating premise, Marina Sofia! I’ll be especially interested in what you think of it when you read it. I give your parents a lot of credit for supporting you as you registered for foreign libraries. That took courage and a commitment to your growth, and I admire it. You were lucky, too, that you had a print-rich place to start, too, with a good school library. I think all of that makes such a difference in a child’s life.

  10. janmorrison12

    Thank you for this post. Unfortunately it has become all the more difficult in Newfoundland and Labrador because our corrupt and idiotic government has closed down many libraries in their grim and futile effort to save pennies as bankruptcy looms. Luckily in this extremely small but independent community we have a very good volunteer library. There isn’t a bookstore within a thousand kilometres and I will not use Amazon becsuse they charge remote areas more for shipping. Abe Books has no such dumb policy. My parents had sn extremely effective way to encourage resding amongst us kids – we were allowed to slack off if we had a book in our hands. We still had to do our regular chores but the many demands adults will make on children, no matter how liberal and progressive the parents may be, were not made if we were engrossed in a book. We are all still avid readers.
    I only give books to my grandkids for Christmas and they seem equally hooked. On the reserve where I work literacy is a huge problem. I now read to the groups of kids I see there. Soon as my hip hesls I’ll be finishing The Lion, thre Witch and the Wardrobe.
    Sorry for the ramble but what a topic – I could go on all day!

    • No need for apologies, Jan. Literacy is critical, and it really is a problem on Reservations and remote places. It’s also a real problem in areas of extreme poverty. Put them together and you have serious problems. I’m glad you’re taking the time to read to the Reservation children; I’ll bet that, with your theatre background, you make it a great experience. I’m sorry to hear, too, that so many of your libraries are getting their funding cut, or are even closing. Unfortunately, a lot of communities make that choice, when there might be other ways to manage funds. And that means everyone who lives there now has less access to books. I hope that changes…

  11. kathy d

    Our previous mayor cut library funding and closed some libraries — in poor neighborhoods! Just where kids need them.
    The current mayor has been more library-friendly, but fund drives are often held to help the libraries.

    • Thanks for sharing what’s going on where you are, Kathy. I agree that libraries are most needed in places where people have the least money for getting access to books in any other way.

  12. I had a bookworm for a mother and I could read before I started school. Folk knew if they couldn’t find me in the playground I was definitely in the library. My children were all early readers and we lived next to a librarian who encouraged them to read the latest books on the shelves. We are lucky to live in a country where books are valued. Sadly, we in Britain are losing some libraries. Our local one has recently been revamped and now hosts musical sessions etc. It has become a community hub and I love seeing children leave with armfuls of books. 🙂

    • I like that, too, Glynis, seeing young people get excited about books. They do some of those community events at my local library, too, and I’m glad for it. It sounds as though you got a lot of encouragement to read as a child, and I think that’s just so important. Little wonder you turned out to be a writer. 🙂

  13. I’ve read 2 of Frank D Sweazy’s Marjorie Trumaine books. She – living in 1960s N Dakota – relies on books and the library for info, and in the 1st book, See Also Murder, Calla the librarian helps her a lot. (Will not say any more about the 2nd book, See Also Deception, for spoiler reasons)

  14. kathy d

    I only read the second Marjorie Tremaine book, but liked it so much I can’t wait for book three, which takes place in my city.
    Speaking of children loving books, a friend whose children are grown-up now, used to be confronted by her twin sons when they were 3 and 4 years old, armed with piles of books for their mother to read to them at 6 a.m. — before she even had her morning coffee! Needless to say, they went to college and are readers, along with their older brother.

    • It certainly sounds as though they really love books, Kathy. And what a dedicated mother, to, to read to them before she’d even had any coffee! That’s heroic, if you ask me.

  15. tracybham

    Although my parents did not read fiction, they read to me and we went to the library a lots and my father would bring non-fiction books home from the library to read. I think that environment and encouragement makes a huge difference. I have a couple of Ian Sansom’s books, I must give them a try.

    • I think that’s exactly the key, Tracy. Encouragement, and having plenty of access to books, is what’s really important. I’m glad to hear your parents gave you both. And I do recommend Sansom’s series. It’s got a fine sense of setting and atmosphere.

  16. World Book Night. What a wonderful idea. We are so fortunate to have such an abundant access to books (whether hard copy or online). Thanks for this reminder, Margot.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Carol; I’m glad you enjoyed the post. And you’re absolutely right. We really are incredibly fortunate to have so much easy access to so many books. I think keeping that in mind helps us to understand why it’s so important to provide access to as many people as possible.

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