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TRCH The Da Vinci Code

Dawn of the Unread and Illiteracy in UK Kids

5 February 15 words: James Walker
illustrations: Andy Tudor

One year ago, on National Libraries’ Day (8 February), our Literature Editor James Walker created the graphic novel serial Dawn of the Unread with Paul Fillingham. The aim was to raise awareness about Nottingham’s literary history and warned there would be trouble if the dead went unread. Calm down, it’s only an abookalypse…

I despise illiteracy. I would go as far as to classify it as a form of child abuse, given how profoundly it can shape a life. England’s never had it so good when it comes to this shameful social problem. According to a major study by the OECD, England holds the unenviable position of being the 22nd most literate country out of 24 industrialised nations. The study involved over 166,000 adults and went as far as suggesting the potential threat of ‘downward mobility’, whereby the younger population is less educated than the older generation.

The long-term economic implications of these findings were supported by the Confederation of British Industry who found, brace yourself: one in six pupils struggle to read when they leave primary school; one in ten boys aged eleven has a reading age no better than a seven-year-old; and at fourteen, six in ten white boys from the poorest backgrounds are still unable to read properly. The solution from our former Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, was to give them more ‘complex books’. That’ll sort the problem. I’ll come back to numbnuts later...

Books are bobbins
The National Literacy Trust suggests the reason for this depressing trend is that books are deemed a thing of the past by a ‘YouTube generation’ of readers. Consequently, the number of children reading outside of school has dropped by 25% since 2005. Finding engaging reading material is a particular problem for boys.

The survey of 34,910 young ’uns found that 35% of boys agreed with the statement “I cannot find things to read that interest me”, compared with just 26% of girls. Jonathan Douglas, the director of the National Literary Trust said, “There’s a really strong relationship between literacy – reading and writing – and social outcomes, whether it’s earnings, home ownership, voting, or a sense of trust in society. If children are not practising reading, they will miss out.”

There’s also a strong relationship between socio-economic background and illiteracy. Unsurprisingly, if your parents have low levels of education, you’re five times more likely to have poor proficiency in literacy compared to peers whose parents enjoyed higher levels of education. The digested read (for those who can read): If you’re born into poverty, you’re screwed.

Visibility of books
When we look at access to books, the hole gets deeper. How are those 35% of boys ever going to read if physical access to books is diminishing? Despite the Public Libraries & Museums Act 1964, the law that makes public libraries a statutory service, 201 libraries were closed down as part of government cuts in 2011-12. In 2014 Nottingham City Council announced cuts of 25.5m which took a large chunk out of budgets for libraries and arts organisations.

The outlook for independent bookshops doesn’t make for pretty reading either. In 2005 there were 1,535 independent bookstores in the UK. This dropped below 1,000 for the first time in February 2014. This means the most visible place for books are the supermarkets. I don’t want to live in a world where Tesco determines taste, not because I’m a literary snob, but because only large publishers can afford to stock mass-produced books at such a low rate. Independent publishers simply can’t afford to compete and so inevitably, literature is reduced to fifty shades of sleb biogs.

These issues raise a few problems, in particular: How do we make libraries a focal part of the community? How do you engage modern readers obsessed with their phones? What happens to the publishing industry when taste is dictated by supermarkets?

Books aren’t boring. Libraries are. If they’re to survive the recession and fend off proposed cuts then they need to become fortresses. Vancouver Public Library is the personification of this ideal. It’s an outrageous, jaw-dropping monolith of knowledge that resembles the Amphitheatrum Flavium in Rome. Closer to home is the recently-completed £189m Library of Birmingham. Prior to its eco-friendly redesign, it was once described by Prince Charles as looking like a place “where books would be incinerated” rather than read. Both libraries define themselves as cultural hubs rather than book banks. They have multiple purposes, in particular they share their space with the wider community, and have invested in state of the art technology. If all libraries followed suit, the mere utterance that they should be closed down would be ridiculed.

Just to be clear, a fortress does not have strip lighting, and a cultural hub isn’t somewhere you can pay your council tax.

Unfortunately, Nottingham is a tiny city in comparison to Birmingham and so it would be naïve to expect renovation and investment on a similar scale. Similarly, grand scale investments that make spectacles of certain buildings aren’t always the solution and can lead to smaller libraries being closed down or staff cuts. It’s a complicated mess.

Therefore we need to think of a different way to entice younger readers. We need to make books exciting. We need zombies…

Word War Z

Dawn of the Unread is an attempt to address these issues by imagining what would happen if the great literary figures from Nottingham’s past went unread. If their ideas are not preserved and made accessible, will they effectively disappear from our minds? Sillitoe, Lawrence, Byron et al would never put up with such an insult and so return from the grave, in a twist on the zombie genre, in search of the one thing that will ensure their survival: ‘boooks’.

On the eighth day of each month, we publish an eight-page comic that gives a snippet into the lives of a local literary figure, and we’re absolutely spoilt for choice in Nottingham. These comics are available online and across all media devices.

Thinking inside the circle
If you want to engage reluctant readers then you have to draw upon all elements of the ‘communication circle’. This is the idea that maths, english, art, music and film are all equal in their creative practice. At one side of the circle, we have maths with its precise, cold, logical forms of articulation. At the opposite end we have more emotive forms of communication such as music. All are integral to our development.

If we start to think inside the circle and not get boxed in to particularities such as ‘more complex’ books, we might just have a chance of capturing the ever-diminishing attention spans of the ‘YouTube generation’. We’re hoping that Dawn of the Unread will engage readers emotionally and intellectually through a unique gaming function which allows them to ‘read’ or ‘play’ each comic in the serial. Scores are recorded on a virtual library card and the person who does the best will feature as a character in our final comic.

The tasks are:

BWAINZ: Answer a few multiple questions about the literary figure.

GO: Visit a literary location related to that comic and discover there’s more to your home than trainer shops and Paahndlands.

CREATE: Upload a response to the comic and see it on a screen outside Broadway Cinema and New Art Exchange.

READ: Get one of our recommended books out from the library and get stuck in.

And before you accuse us of turning to the Dark Side, Mr Gibb, this isn’t selling out, pandering, or dumbing down. It’s about finding a place for reading within the circle of communication.

The remit of Dawn of the Unread is not to thrust ‘complex’ books on people to read. It’s to create a thirst for knowledge. To tease, tantalise and inspire. To use digital technology to enable numerous routes into literature, knowing that our reading paths are ultimately solitary and taken at different speeds. And if kids go to the library to get out books, it will be because they want to learn more.

Reading has changed. People have changed. Digital technology insists on active participation and readers expect to share their opinion. The relationship between physical and digital will never be a happy marriage but there’s nothing wrong with it being a fun, open relationship. Hopefully our rounded approach to reading might just help the generation that’s been so conveniently written off.


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