Adapted from a speech I gave this week for World Book Day at Highgate Wood School, north London.
World Book Day is about far more than dressing up. Millions of pounds of book tokens are given out to school children., many of whom dress up as favourite characters. Thousands of books are donated by Book Aid International to libraries in sub-Saharan Africa. Authors are commissioned to write special books. It was invented by UNESCO and is celebrated in more than 100 countries. This year an online book festival for teenagers was organised, involving nearly 50 authors with blog posts, live chats, videos and much more (www.wbdteenfest.com)
It’s a big deal, reaches lots of people, and costs a lot of money.
Why do we bother? What’s the point? Aren’t books being left behind by YouTube and Google? Is it all a big conspiracy by the publishing industry to promote their products?
We bother - that’s everyone from the head of UNESCO, through politicians, publishers, librarians, teachers, authors, illustrators and costume-creating parents –because we think books are special. We think books have more to offer than most media. We think books will enhance your life.
Books make you more successful. They give you a wider vocabulary, a firm grasp of grammar, information about many random things and they improve your written English (or whatever language they are written in). Some research suggest that they improve your results at school. Even if they do not, books can give you an alternative to formal education which will stand you in good stead whatever you do in your future life.
Books make you more attractive. Take a look at the tumblr Hot Guys Reading Books. OK, reading a book may not change your face, but it will always make you look more intelligent than if you were playing Candy Crush. And what’s more, reading books gives you insight into how relationships work, and empathy for other people, which is often the most attractive trait that anyone can have.
Books make you more creative. They don’t give you everything on a plate, so you have to use your imagination to fill in the gaps. Every time you visualise just how blue someone’s eyes are, or just how a forbidding castle looms over the landscape, you are using a power that is too often neglected in our education system’s mania for stuffing our heads full of facts. Every job needs some imagination, whether you’re an engineer thinking up bridges to build, a doctor trying to diagnose a patient’s ailments, or a shop keeper working out which goods to sell and how to promote them.
Books make you stronger. You might use them as a way of escaping your problems, or you might feel solidarity with characters going through the same things that you are. Either way, books are such a powerful tool for mental health that doctors and counsellors prescribe them as a way of fighting everything from anxiety to depression.
As one teenage reader wrote to me: It’s strange how books can be more comforting than people.
So, enjoy World Book Day. I hope it's the start of a habit for life.