Reading is a wonder drug: pop into the library for a free sample

Posted 25 Mar 2019 by Ian Anstice in Opinion

The following is an edited version of a talk I did at LitFest, Lancashire's literature festival, in March 2019.

I didn’t go into librarianship for the money and the power. So there’s a difference between me and your average drug dealer. Drug dealers are generally not also in the game to help everyone and to give their product away for free. So there’s another one. But there are similarities as you'll discover below.

I have been a user and a dealer in books all my life. I am thankful that I don’t remember much of my early years but one early memory was of the mobile library coming to the school. Let me tell you now that school in the 1970s was not much fun and it was especially not fun in Newport, the loser close cousin of Cardiff, which was no more glamorous then than it is now. And significantly more beige. But the mobile library, oh the mobile library, was amazing. We were lined up in class, taken out the car park and given two minutes each to choose a couple of books, any book from it. And there was no charge.

The book I most remember from it was one on butterflies. And I most remember it because, first confession time, and this is the most terrible of al, I never returned it. The guilt and stigma stays with me to this day.

Roman Army ConnollyBut I remember another book from that time. I’d done something clever in school and was allowed to choose a book from the reward bag in the headteacher’s office. I naturally went for a book on the Romans as there were soldiers and the promise of bloodshed on the cover. It didn’t let me down. Those Romans were ruthless and efficient murderers with surprisingly good public relations. I must have read that book twenty times. I was hooked. That book, and the complete series of Asterix books again from the library - led to my love of history and a direct path can be drawn from it to me doing a History degree more than a decade later.

But between my childhood and university, I had – as we all do sadly - my teenage years. They were tough days for all sorts of reasons I won't go into here and I needed an escape. So it was catching a bus to Newport Central Library for me. I remember going there as a child and seeing the ladies – they were all ladies – using an amazing library filing system of the time called Browne Issue. This was where every book had a little corresponding card pocket and borrowers had eight tickets and, through alchemy, if you put the right ticket into the other right pocket, you could tell who had what. I remember standing there as a child and seeing the librarian fingers blurring through the tickets and being amazed. Such wonders were gone by my teenage years and they had boring computers. But I remember taking out loads of books from there. I know what I liked and science fiction was the main thing on the menu. I may have been a spotty teen on the inside but I spent most of the time being a star traveller in my head. I think that, and a dog, saved me as a teen. I was off school a lot due to depression – this was Newport after all – but my reading meant I caught up quickly when I got back.

Right, now I’ve told you all about my childhood, let’s talk about addictions for a bit.

I eat a lot, it’s fairly obvious, and that’s an addiction I feel guilty about. There’s a stigma about over eating but it’s not something I can easily stop even though I know the short pleasure – sometimes it’s not even pleasure – I find in eating results in me feeling bad about myself afterwards and the need for buying ever bigger shirt sizes.

Thank goodness that’s my only real bad habit. I was unsurprisingly with the uncool kids in school and so cigarettes were never really on the menu. It’s now estimated according to a study I quickly googled yesterday that that has saved me from losing a decade of life. I never got into beer, wine or spirits either.  According to another study, it turns out not being an alcoholic has saved me another 7 years of life and probably a driving conviction. Suddenly all those biscuits don’t seem so bad.

And that’s just the legal stuff. A line a day of cocaine costs a decade. A dose a day of meth – good grief – 20 years.  Heroin can take 31 years off. 31 whole years. And I’m willing to bet the years you do have on a lot of those are not worth living either.

"Reading, it has always seemed to me, is the one exception to the rule that if you do too much of anything it is bad for you"

The addiction online calculator that told me all those terrifying statistics does not have an item in its drop-down menu for reading. Reading, it has always seemed to me, is the one exception to the rule that if you do too much of anything it is bad for you. If you’re a sporty type then you’re likely to break bones, sprain muscles and develop an unhealthy fascination for Manchester United. Watching a bunch of television turns you into a couch potato.

But reading? There is no such thing as too much reading. I’ve never felt guilty reading. Well, apart from that Jeffrey Archer novel but that was youthful indiscretion. If you read “too much” then you’re likely to be able to spell brilliantly and find getting a degree easy. Not too much of a problem.

But there’s more to reading than that. Reading, my friends, is a bit of a wonder drug.

I had the privilege of listening to Frank Cottrell Boyce talk to a bunch of librarians – I checked up the collective noun for librarians, suggestions included a “catalogue” and “shush”, of which more later – about the advantages of reading. A point he made was that reading is complex. Now that sounds like a bad thing but all the time these days we are bombarded with simple views. Vote for Brexit and you’re an idiot, vote for Remain and you’re a loser. TV is full of soundbites and social media is full of what you want to hear.

"Reading, my friends, is a bit of a wonder drug."

Did you know that about social media by the way? Google, Youtube and everyone else tailor their results to what they know you like. Follow Farage and your newsfeed is all about the evils of the EU. But the thing is that it reinforces your prejudices. Youtube is fantastic but it’s set up to give you more of the same of what you want. Watch one conspiracy theorist video and more will pop up leading you to see and thus eventually believe only one view. And don’t get me started on the Daily Mail. The world is presented to you in black and white, good and evil, and you don’t even realise it’s happening. Simplicity and telling you what you want to hear is a cause of a lot of the fighting in the world today.

But reading. Ah, reading. Frank Cottrell Boyce pointed out that you get multiple viewpoints in a book. Complicated positions can be fully explored. Due to the marvellous immersive nature of reading you can become the person you’re reading about. There’s no other drug that can let you know what a person’s thinking or feeling. A book can. And by doing so, you start understanding that person’s point of view and perhaps start rebalancing your own. And you’re less likely to go out with an assault rifle and kill a few people because the propaganda that has ended up being your whole life, and the end of theirs, tells you to do so. Books get you to do that thing we do so little of nowadays. Question your beliefs. They put us in the place of other people and lets you be more understanding.

Library Book OrleanTo me, book burning is a huge crime. I’ve been reading a wonderful book called “The Library Book” by Susan Orlean recently and there’s a whole section on there about book burning. We all know about Nazi’s burning books – Susan Orlean says they got rid of a hundred million - but she mentions the first recorded one in history was in 213BC when the Chinese emperor decided to get rid of any book that disagreed with his version of history.

Thankfully, though, burning books is as often only as useful as burning poppy fields. As long as the demand is there, more are simply created. But the demand needs to be there.

I see creating and supplying that demand for books as a key part of the job of being a librarian. That’s why I love doing assemblies. As a librarian doing a junior school assembly is the most fun you get to do. Getting 200 kids motivated about reading is my crack. I go into a hall and sit at the front reading a book. Ooh, he’s different. I choose a big book so they can’t see my face. Ooh, mystery man. If it’s a fun school I then poke a finger around the side of the book and start wriggling it around. That’s hilarious if you’re eight. I’m one of the few people who can say they caused hundreds of people to howl with laughter by waving a finger. When I return to that town now, I have adults come up to me in Asda and other shops to say that they still remember my school assemblies and they often say “ooh” and “ahh”, which were my catch phrases and I know that, no matter what their normal view, for a few minutes there, libraries were cool.

If you get people to laugh, you have them. I then go on to tell them about the amazing magical place called the library where it’s free – free – to take out up to twenty books at a time. I make them go ooh and ahh. If it’s July, I tell them about the Summer Reading Challenge and get them excited about the stickers and the small unnecessary plastic objects we give out as prizes. Then I see hundreds of them come to the library. And, oh my goodness, because I’m the one that buys the books, I get to see them excited about the books I’ve selected for them. You see a child literally jumping up and down in excitement because of a book they’re taking out and you know life is good.

And that’s the thing. There is no down side to this. Do you know all those awful life expectancy figures I was giving out earlier? Turns out that you can do one for reading. The National Literacy Trust did a survey last year where they looked at literacy levels in Oxford. There was a 26 year life expectancy gap between the area with the highest and the area with the lowest literacy rates. 26 years are gained if you are living in a highly literate area.

That’s more years lost than if you’re doing meth.

Let that sink in.

"26 years are gained if you are living in a highly literate area. That’s more years lost than if you’re doing meth."

There’s a lot more to it than that of course. Those areas are likely to look very different. There’s going to be a lot more problems, and a lot less exercise and healthy eating, going on in one than the other. But still, 26 years.

And reading allows you to get out of those areas. We may think that we live in a digital age but an inability to spell, write or reason is going to stop you doing a lot of things. Like getting decent GSCEs or going to university. Like crack addicts who infect their babies, illiterate parents often have illiterate children. And illiteracy can mess up countries. 15 percent of adults in England now, today, are functionally illiterate. A third of businesses are not satisfied with the literacy skills of young jobseekers. There’s a lot of wasted opportunities out there because people cannot read the signs to get out.

We discuss something in libraries called “Argos families”. These are the homes where the only book a house has is the Argos catalogue. There’s nothing else there. If the child wants to read then they cannot. Imagine. One of the most heart-breaking things I heard is when I did a school visit and was walking back to the car afterwards as the kids were leaving school. A kid asked his father if he could go to the library. The dad said “What do you want to do that for?” and the matter ended. That parent helped make sure the child, like himself, did not develop a love for reading. And thus the cycle of hopelessness goes on. I was tempted to do an intervention.

"We discuss something in libraries called “Argos families”. These are the homes where the only book a house has is the Argos catalogue. There’s nothing else there. If the child wants to read then they cannot. Imagine. "

Those same kids will have a mobile phone likely before High School and a games console. These are the shiny new drugs that are taking children away from books. But they’re not like books. I’ve played computer games. They give you a headache. And so many are based on killing each other which is exactly what a book is not about. It’s hard to go to sleep sometimes because you’re so keyed up. I see tired looking children in schools and that’s because they’re playing games late into the night. Books don’t do that to you. As I say, read books late in the night and you do better in school, generally, not worse.

Loneliness is a big problem in our society, not least amongst adult males who too often are seen as big babies if they raise their hand for help. Reading itself helps reduce that but I think the actual presence of the library helps too.  There was a scare a few years ago and, for the first time, the thought entered people’s minds that the library may close. We had so many people coming up to us and saying how important the library was to them and it should never close. I had twenty in one day. But one man sticks in my mind. A man I did not know.  He came up to the counter, leaned over, and told me that without the library there would be nothing else in his life for him. Remember that I worked full time in that branch for two decades. You get to know almost everyone who talks to you in that time. You get to know not just them but their families, how many kids they have etc. But this man must have been so quiet he faded in to the background. Perhaps that was his life. But for him books were the thing and the library was the setting.

That man deeply moved me but other library users show the importance of reading while raising a laugh. For example, there’s the case of the two elderly women who walked in. One had clearly got a serious hearing aid problems so was talking loudly so, unusually, you could hear what they were saying. I was expecting something about, I don’t know, groceries but not a bit of it. No. The lady turned to her friend and shouted “I want a book with lots of sex in it. It’s the only thing that gets me going these days.” Hmm, I felt more like I was running a prostitution ring than a library at that time. But, hey, it’s a social need.

" I felt more like I was running a prostitution ring than a library at that time. But, hey, it’s a social need."

We have reading groups in libraries as well. They’re tremendously popular and it’s amazing listening in to hear what is being discussed – often nothing to do with books – but the book is the key. And, of course, the different members of the group will all come up with different views and interpretations. The book is materially the same for each one but what they take away from it, based on their own experiences, is different. It’s almost as if the effects of the tablet are different on each person who takes it.

Emma by Jane AustenFor instance, I was forced to read Jane Austen’s Emma for A Level. I’ve always felt that it took a special kind of brutality on the part of the examining board to make a teenage boy read Emma. For one thing, at that age, it seems like nothing happens in the whole novel. A rich person meets other mostly rich people and they get along, marrying each other off. There’s no shootouts or car chases in the entire book. Coming back to that novel now, I have an entirely different experience. I can see the humour and the intricacy. You grow up and your reading grows up with you. Going back to a childhood favourite book can be either a fascinating or disappointing thing for that reason.

Perhaps books may be seen as a drug in another way. Not in the bad illegal sense but in the medical healing sense. There’s something in libraries called Books on Prescription. Instead of the doctor prescribing a pill, he prescribes a book. Instead of an anti-depression drug, a book on how to deal with depression is recommended. The patient then comes into the library and we give them the book. Brilliant. Because even a prescription tablet can be addictive but, unlike with tablets where the opposite is true, the hope with a book is that reading will become habit-forming.

And that habit is best started at an early stage. We started story times and then rhyme times in our libraries to encourage parents to come in with children. Through BookStart we give hopefully every child a free picture book. Think of it like the “free sample” a drug dealer gives you to get you hooked but without the downside. But there’s another symmetry. These rhyme times and story times then become support groups, not for withdrawing from drugs, but to keep the parents and children socialising and talking to each other. Being a parent of a toddler can be lonely. Being a toddler can be lonely. But give the child a place to meet and free picture books to read with their parent afterwards and it’s all good.

Yes, toddlers can be lonely and ignored but learning how to live with each other is essential. When I was a governor of a primary school we started something called nurture groups. The teachers could identify at the age of six the children without the necessary social skills. Six! A few hours invested then could get the child put on the right track that no end of years of social work later on could achieve.

And a vital part of this was books. Because books show you the world outside yourself and brings it inside you. No man is an island and no child should be either. The famous saying, attributed to the Jesuits, is "Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man" and there is much truth to it. If a child can’t read then, or at least have a love of books, then the future is darker for them.

I’ve seen a lot of these disadvantaged kids later on. People thinking working at a library must be a pleasant and quiet job. "It must be nice to read books all day" is one thing I hear a lot. "Don’t you get bored?" is another. Those asking the questions haven’t been in the libraries I’ve worked in.

If you’re the only public place open to all until 7pm in a tough town then you’re going to see people that would give the people who ask such patronising questions heart attacks. In my first month on the job, I got between a group and a man they wanted to beat up. I’ve seen things I won’t share with you because they’re disgusting but I will say that you learn that the way to deal with antisocial behaviour is not to shout but to whisper.

The gang is always going to be louder than you and they’re used, so used, to shouting. But speaking quietly forces them to give you their attention. Being a six foot male is a disadvantage in such a situation. Young men score social points by standing up to me that they would not with a woman smaller than they are. I learnt quickly not to rise to the insults of "gayboy". They thought I must be gay because I worked with books, such is their worldview – or, later, "baldie". You find that the best approach is to act bored. The most effective person I’ve ever seen with those wanting to trash the place is a library worker who sat down with them and told them about her holidays. They tended to clear out quickly after that.

But those kids who we dealt with like that had already been failed but there was some hope still for them. We were there - libraries, books are there – for when the same child or teen came in later without their peer pressure gang and asked for a book for college. Or needed somewhere quiet to study. You learn not to bear grudges against people who are screaming in your face the week before but need your help today.

Quiet study. There’s a thing in libraries about being loud places. You say "hush" to a librarian and they tend to take it a personal insult. Needing to stay quiet in libraries was thing of the 50s and 60s but now an opposite doctrine has taken its place. Today libraries do rhyme-times and baby bounce and coding and music and many librarians think that it all that it should be.

But the thing is that reading is a quiet activity. In this world of loudness, of being constantly sold this or that or being told this or that a book stands out by its solitary calmness. Come sit with me it says. Let me share my life with you.

It’s not often that many people sit in quiet these days. There is always some sound on, headphones on even in public places, mobile phone pressed to face or the racket of a television at home. But a book feeds on quiet and expands to fill the space given. Without other distraction it can envelop you. And it probably won’t sell you anything in the several hours it takes to read it. That’s unusual these days. I’m fighting a fight – I’m fighting a few fights actually but this is one - in my profession for quiet spaces. Libraries have moved too far along the spectrum from being quiet to being loud. You need quiet in a library, even if it is just one room or afternoon.

Manchester Central Library reading roomThe chief librarian of Manchester took me around Manchester Central Library after it had reopened a couple of years ago. The place is a palace. There’s bronze, marbles, statues and paintings. For those who want them, there’s computers and a 3D printer and two cafes. If you’re lucky, someone gifted is playing the piano in one of those cafes and, if so, it’s magical. But the busiest place every time I have been in is the reading room. There can be two hundred people in there and you don’t hear a word being said. This is because they shush you. Not the librarians but the public. The chief librarian told me before we entered the room that he could not speak to me while we were in there. This was the manager not just of that building but of the whole service. It was not his rule, there was no official rule, not to speak but it’s rigidly enforced by those who need the space to study, to read. Such is the value of silence in a big loud city and in our lives.

There was something about seeing those hundreds of people of studying all at the same time in the same space. We are seeing the atomisation of society, not just with austerity devastating public services, but also with mobile phones meaning that even if a family is sitting together then they are rarely talking to each other. That study space was shared space. Reading groups are shared reading. They both help shared understanding. Meanwhile, the individual digital universe of social media divides understanding. And any look at the news shows the problems with that.

Well, we’ve covered a lot of ground in this talk. From Ancient China onwards and I’ve used the metaphor of a drug more than once. But, actually, it’s more than a jokey comparison. Reading does actually do things to your brain. It calms you down for one thing. If you want to reduce your stress levels, just read a book for ten minutes. It will do more for you than anything else in that time period. Having a cup or coffee or listening to music doesn’t come close. But reading a book resets the brain, and with the information contained within, expands it as well. If I wake up with the night terrors at 2am then the best thing for me is to read a chapter of a book. It resets the brain.

Lost wordsI started this talk by saying I wasn’t in it for the money and the power. But actually, there’s a lot of power in working in libraries. It’s not every profession that can change lives and we most definitely can.

I got called pretentious the other day for tweeting this lovely quote from Rob Macfarlane:

"The word Library comes from the Latin "Liber" meaning both "Book" and "Bark" from the early use of tree bark as a writing material. As the word’s roots tell us, libraries are story-forests, wildwoods of words".

But then Rob made my day by retweeting me and calling librarians the "Guardians of the Story Forest". Now that’s a job title I want to have. But really I’m a dealer in the best drug in the world. A drug under threat from others but still the original and the best. There’s nothing like it.

Pop into a library tomorrow for a free sample.

North West Libraries

Librarians in the North West have pioneered partnership working to encourage new readers into libraries. Time To Read is a partnership of librarians engaged in reader development activity in public library authorities in the North West Region. 22 public library authorities in the region currently support Time To Read.

Keep up to date

Follow Us

  • flickr
  • twitter
  • facebook
  • twitter

We use cookies to help us provide you with a better service, but do not track anything that can be used to personally identify you.

If you prefer us not to set these cookies, please visit our Cookie Settings page or continue browsing our site to accept them.