Hugo Chavez, saviour of publishing
In the greater scheme of things, the decline of the novel is perhaps one of the least of our worries. If we shift the focus from the hand-wringing world of literary matters, however, there is a huge underlying problem with reading as an activity (or, as the government likes to call it, a key skill). The central issue is the sheer number of our fellow citizens who suffer from poor reading abilities and illiteracy. For the individuals involved, this can be a crushing setback to their lives. Without reading and writing you cannot search for work, surf the net, pass your driving test or even check your utility bills for the inevitable mistakes (what is it with British Gas bills?). Oh, and you will be unable to enjoy the latest Iain Banks or Will Self either.
The most vexing aspect of this problem is that it can be extremely difficult to teach adults who have problems with literacy. They have often been written off as stupid or lazy and have therefore become very defensive and hostile to the process of learning. What they fear, above all else, is to face humiliation in a classroom setting. Again. People with literacy problems are overwhelmingly from deprived backgrounds, with family histories of low educational attainment. Figures also show that adult literacy problems are major problems within the prison system. Poverty, crime and educational dysfunction; all a heady mix of problems that are seemingly intractable. Is there no hope of a solution to all this?
Luckily, I never ask such leading questions in the middle of an article without having some sort of answer to hand. The answer I have is not new and has been applied in many countries that want to educate a lot of people without much money. It involves, get this, FREE BOOKS FOR PEOPLE THAT NEED THEM. It is a fairly simple idea when you come to think of it. One of the indicators of deprivation used in the UK to measure child poverty, for example, is households where there are no books. It is estimated that about 10% of children in the UK grow up in such households. If there are no books around, how can children (or their parents) develop their literacy skills or get into the reading habit?
Now, there are probably a number of very good reasons why people have no books. Maybe you work as a librarian and cannot face the things in your own house, perhaps you favour minimalist interior design and see books as mere clutter, but apart from these excellent excuses, overwhelmingly the answer is simple; people don’t have books because they are just too poor to buy them.
As usual when faced with a problem, your handsome interlocutor takes a solution in the maw of the most dangerous communist regime he can. Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, for example. His government has given away schoolbooks to poor families since he came to office in 1998. The results in increased literacy have been staggering. Furthermore, this programme has been hugely popular with the poor. So there you have it, free books for the disadvantaged. Good innit? And that’s all there is to it. A policy that will popular, good for the educational attainment of the poorest members of society and relatively cheap. Bring back free school milk and cut fuel taxes as well and hey presto, you’ve got yourself a winning manifesto. Are you listening, Gordon? Because I’ve done all the hard work for you. No, thats OK, no need to thank me. Just punch that creep Milliband in the face and post it on YouTube. That’ll do me.
One tiny problem. It won’t be possible to give away school books, as there are, in effect, no nationally agreed subject curricula (different exam boards, you see), so if you write a Physics textbook to suit one exam board, it might not cover areas included by other boards. Furthermore, the UK has a very important educational publishing industry that might get upset if you start giving away the merchandise. The next best thing is to give away novels. My idea would be to give away ten volumes a year for five years to families that qualify. They would have to go to their nearest public library to pick up their books Once there, the librarians could go to work signing them up for a library card, directing them to literacy courses and children’s reading groups (for their kids, obviously) and other useful things.
Together with their books they should be given advice about setting up a family bookshelf, setting times for family reading. Even some DIY advice on how to make a bookshelf for your home. Ideally recipients of this programme would end up after the five years with a family bookshelf containing about fifty novels by a variety of authors. Enough for any family to be getting on with. Welcome to the National Literature Collection. These books could then be produced in a single collection (hardback volumes would look classier) that would look and feel attractive so people would feel proud to display and collect them. The books themselves should highlight the best of British and world literature, have a number of titles specifically for children (particularly adventure stories for boys) and collections of British short stories, plays and verse.
Got the idea yet? Free books leads to increased levels of functional literacy, more people getting the reading habit, which leads to more books being consumed, which leads to greater numbers of books sold. No downside at all. Oh, and it’s cheap. Distributing and printing these books will cost, what? Five million, if that? Peanuts when compared to bank bailouts and other tax-funded bagatelles.
Because of copyright restrictions, most of the novels used should be in the public domain (although agreements with living authors should allow contemporary works to be included). Sadly, copyright for a lot of 20th century literature is held by rapacious trusts that charge publishers a fortune to use the author’s work. Avoiding authors like John Betjeman and James Joyce is therefore wise. Just for fun, I’ve compiled a list of titles that I would use…
National Literature Collection
1 Collected British Verse
2 Shakespeare – Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet, As You Like It (Annotated)
3 Charles Dickens – Great Expectations
4 H. P. Lovecraft – The Call of Cthulu Stories
5 Laura Esquivel – Like Water for Chocolate
6 Grimm’s Fairy Tales
7 George Orwell – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
8 William Thackeray – Vanity Fair
9 Alexandre Dumas – The Three Musketeers
10 Jane Austen – Pride & Prejudice
1 Collected British Humour
2 Shakespeare – Othello, King Lear, Two Gentlemen of Verona (Annotated)
3 Anna Sewell – Black Beauty
4 Emilio Salgari – Sandokan
5 Virginia Woolf – Orlando
6 Herman Melville – Moby Dick
7 Jules Verne – Journey to the Centre of the Earth
8 Robert Louis Stevenson – Kidnapped
9 Magnus Mills – The Scheme for Full Employment
10 Anthony Trollope – Barchester Towers
1 Collected British Theatre
2 Shakespeare – The Tempest, Richard III, Henry V(Annotated)
3 Charles Dickens – A Christmas Carol and Other Stories
4 Joseph Conrad – Heart of Darkness
5 Oscar Wilde – A Picture of Dorian Gray
6 Truman Capote – Breakfast at Tiffany’s
7 Jorge Icaza – Huasipungo
8 Lewis Carroll – Alice Through the Looking Glass
9 Emily Bronte – Wuthering Heights
10 Maya Angelou – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
1 Collected British Prose
2 Shakespeare – Julius Caesar, A Comedy of Errors, Timon of Athens (Annotated)
3 Homer – The Iliad
4 Wu Ch’ung We – Monkey
5 George Eliot – Middlemarch
6 Ken Saro Wiwa – Lemona’s Tale
7 Richmal Crompton – Just William
8 Thomas Hardy – Jude the Obscure
9 Jerome K Jerome – Three Men in a Boat
10 Kurt Vonnegut JR – Cat’s Cradle
1 Shakespeare – Macbeth, All’s Well That Ends Well, Much Ado About Nothing (Annotated)
2 Jane Austen – Emma
3 Charles Dickens – The Pickwick Papers
4 John Bunyan – The Pilgrim’s Progress
5 Daniel Defoe – Moll Flanders
6 Walter Pater – Marius the Epicurian
7 LaFontaine – Selected Fables
8 Sherezade – Tales of the 1001 Nights
9 Charles Kingsley – The Water Babies
10 John Galsworthy – The Man of Property