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.