About a month ago, I visited a couple of schools in Basingstoke as part of the Wessex Book Festival and had lunch with some librarians from the Hampshire School Library Service. Over our sandwiches, we were talking about the future of books, reading and libraries, and one of the librarians made a fascinating observation which has lingered in my mind since.
Children aren't being taught to browse, she said. If they can't browse, then they can't use libraries and bookshops properly. They can't discover books for themselves.
Of course, children know how to browse on the internet. They can use search engines; they can hunt down information; they can leap from page to page. These skills are taught to them at school.
But no one teaches them to browse the shelves of a library or a bookshop, hunting for new books, new authors, new connections.
I'd never thought about browsing before. To me, it's an almost instinctive activity and feels so everyday, so ordinary, that I could hardly even imagine it as a teachable skill. I wander into a bookshop, glance at the array of covers spread out on tables or stacked on shelves, pick up a book, skim the blurb, read the first line or two, and, usually, put it back and look for something more interesting.
I'm always hoping that something will snag my attention: a cover, an author, the distant memory of a review or a recommendation. But, even more, I hope I'll find something by accident, a new writer, a book that I've never heard of. I'll open the book. The first few sentences will suck me in. I'll have to hurry away and find a quiet place and read it to the end.
According to those librarians in Hampshire, most of the children who walk into their libraries don't have this skill. Unable to browse, they're bewildered by the array of books on offer. They don't know where to start or how to progress from one author to another. So they are very conservative. They pick the next in a series. A book by an author that they know or have been ordered to read at school. Rather than discovering new authors, new books. Rather than exploring.