Do books still matter?

Contributed by Rich Simpson

English teacher and blogger

Fri 20 Nov 2020

In today’s ever more technology-filled and dependent world, where instant answers, up-to-date information and current events are available at the touch of a button, what is even the point of books? 

Why look things up, searching for an answer, reading through pages of text to create a world in our head when we can look at a screen and see that someone else has saved us the bother and done it for us? And quickly.

Well, that’s exactly the point…someone else has done it – it’s not your fantasy world!

I’m going to show my age now, but when I was growing up in Northern Ireland in the late 70s and early 80s, we had one TV (with only four channels and no remote control), a record player, and – well, actually, in terms of technology, that was about it really! I wasn’t an outdoors/activity-loving child, so my escape and entertainment came from books.

Books2All blog -books still matter BBC test card 1970s
BBC Test Card programmes were limited in the 1970s

It didn’t start that way, as I’d not been an easy child. Starting school had been tricky – my behaviour was appalling, and my mum was struggling with it, so I ended up medicated so that I could be in school at all. Until my teacher, Mrs Riddle, introduced me to reading and the world of books and quite literally changed my life. I became hooked on books, and, from that moment on, everything changed. I did well at school, excelling at English, and even graduating from the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, at the end of a four-year B.Ed. Degree in English. So yes, I’m pretty passionate about why books matter!

Getting me reading was the turning point

It enabled me to occupy my mind, escape what was going on around me, and do it independently. I could escape into books, engaging my imagination and occupying myself with the events within the pages. I discovered new people and places, ways of thinking, ways of doing things and gained a new lease of life, even if it was only within the pages of the book I read. I loved reading, discovering and learning. All this might sound a bit much for a five-year-old to have worked out. At that time, I was addicted to books and did not understand the psychology of what was going on. Now, looking back, I can see what was happening –  I’d found a passion, and it has stayed with me to this day.

Books, for me, are so much more than just stories. Sure, some are better than others, and there are even some (shock/horror!) that I don’t like at all. All books are important because they allow the reader to connect and empathise with what is going on in the pages and experience the enjoyment that comes with seeing themselves in the printed situation by having something in common with the characters.

Now, that’s certainly not true about all books. Non-fiction, for example, might not be an obviously empathetic genre but, when I was growing up, books about the military and aircraft allowed me to dream of becoming a pilot, to look at the Second World War experiences of my family members and connect with/understand their history and their stories.

I really was Oliver Jeffers’ character in The Incredible Book-Eating Boy! I read voraciously – everything from Stephen King to Kipling, from The Hardy Boys to Alistair Maclean. Some of my favourites were Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt adventures and the Observer’s series of pocket-sized fact books. I continued this addiction right through my schooling and, even now, I am rarely without several books on the go. We’re lucky to have a house full of books and, though I put no pressure on my two children to read, as I want them to discover a love of books for themselves, they both love reading. Their choice of reading material is not always what I’d like (or what I’d recommend if asked!), but they have their own favourites and much-loved series, and that’s part of the joy of books – it’s your own, and you can keep it entirely for yourself. 

Books2All blog -books still matter the Incredible Book Eating Boy by Oliver Jeffers
The Incredible Book Eating Boy published by HarperCollins (2015)

It’s that personal engagement with the book that, for me, is magical – it’s mine alone. Yes, the effort of reading, comprehending and picturing what’s going on in your head might be harder work than staring at a screen and having the story ‘given’ to you by someone else who has created the sets/costumes etc. But that’s what makes the reward so great. I enjoy movies, TV shows and online content, yet none are a patch on the feeling and enjoyment I get from a book.

Understanding the impact books had on me made me want to be an English teacher and still inspires me to be passionate about books and reading. I want other children to have that enjoyment, that sense of ownership of a book. And to find something that inspires them and generates feelings of accomplishment when they finish it, whether they feel satisfied or have feelings of anger when things go right/wrong for the characters.

Books are still a vitally important part of life

Although technology moves on and times change, Twitter/Facebook posts seem transient – they get lost. They’re there in front of you for a fleeting moment, then they get pushed/scrolled on and are gone. The books on my shelf are more constant – they’re always there, staying in place, and there’s a sense of contentment and security in that. They are like old friends in the room, having shared experiences with you, and they stick around afterwards!

Books played a major part in my life and continue to do so. They are the mainstay of my practice as a teacher, and watching a pupil, who used to jump up and run outside the instant the bell sounded, now stay seated because they are so engrossed in a book that they have to finish that page…well, that’s the power of books! So, I’ll keep on doing my best to be a Mrs Riddle for a child who has yet to discover that power for themselves.

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