Sunday, 7 October 2018

Reading for absolute pleasure - a post for National Libraries Week by Dawn Finch

I have worked with books and reading for a very long time, and as it’s National Libraries Week time again (8th to 13th Oct), it seemed like a good point to take a look at what we really mean when we talk about reading for pleasure.

For a start, that’s a rather fusty sounding phrase isn’t it? Ask people when they last “read for pleasure”, and most people will think of a novel. Outside the world of books and writing they will probably say, “umm…. I don’t know….maybe…” and they’ll struggle. Ask them what the last “anything at all” they read, and you’ll get a different reply. You’ll hear people talk about magazines, newspapers, comics, the internet, and you’ll most certainly hear about non-fiction. That’s still reading for pleasure, and it’s definitely still reading.

That phrase, “reading for pleasure” is perhaps holding back the conversation about what we mean when we talk about reading, pleasure and learning. Hold on, that’s another misunderstood word I’ve thrown in there – learning. When we talk about reading for learning, people often assume that we are only talking about non-fiction or instructional books, but that’s wrong too. I’ve learnt so much from fiction, and you have too.

In 2015 I was part of the Reading Agency’s steering group examining the wider outcomes of reading for pleasure. One of the most useful documents this group generated was a literature review looking at the impact of reading for pleasure on wellbeing and empowerment. For this document the research team examined hundreds of reports and papers looking at the wider benefits of reading. To fit, this had to be reading done as a free and voluntary choice. This was not reading for specific study, or for research, but reading done just because someone wanted to. The study was not limited to novels, and covered absolutely any and all reading material. We called this “non-goal orientated transactions with texts”, which is just a fancy way of making sure we were really looking at the pleasure aspects of reading.

The majority of the research reviewed for this study related to young people, but roughly the same outcomes were shown for adults too. The main outcomes reported were enjoyment, knowledge of the self and other people, social interaction, social and cultural capital, imagination, focus and flow, relaxation and mood regulation. Regular reading for pleasure also showed improvements in young children's communication abilities and better longer-term education outcomes were also reported for early years children. This means that word “learning” was deeply embedded in the process of reading for pleasure.

The Reading Agency's evaluation of its Chatterbooks programme, running children's book groups in schools and libraries since 2001, indicated a number of benefits to children and young people. The evaluation found self and parent reported improvements in confidence and self-esteem, listening skills, self-expression and relating to other people.

Using a sample of around 6,000 16-year olds, another study from 2013 investigated links between own reading and reading in the home, and cognitive scores of vocabulary, maths and spelling. The findings indicated that reading for pleasure at the ages of 10 and 16 had a substantial influence on cognitive progress across the three scores. Let’s take a moment to think about that – reading for pleasure actually improves maths skills? You bet it does. You can download the report for yourself on this link, and access the research we looked at.

A number of studies exploring the outcomes of reading for pleasure on the general population have also found a strong association with emotional and personal development. Studies have found that reading for pleasure enhances empathy, understanding of the self and the ability to understand one's own and others' identities. 

But how does this link to National Libraries Week? Well, there was one element in all of the studies and reports that came across strongly – pleasure. That word again! People (both children and adults) only received the wider benefits of reading for pleasure if they actually enjoyed it. It genuinely had to be pleasurable. The minute we step into lessons, and schemes, and forced reading lists, we lose the pleasure aspect and that damages the relationship with books and reading.

When we, as writers or reading professionals, look back on how we first became readers, we often talk in rosy terms of the libraries we remember from our past. We have no doubt that we became lifelong readers, and it was pleasurable being in libraries. As a library campaigner I used to find these nostalgic recollections frustrated me as it created an illusion that libraries were from the past and they had not moved into the 21st century, and that they were slow to adapt.

But let’s look at this research with a different filter, and look at the nostalgia a different way. We are readers precisely because we have fond and pleasurable memories of what reading means to us. When I talk to people who are habitual readers, they all talk of the first places they read, or the first libraries they knew. They talk of warm rooms, and safe spaces filled with books and lots of choice. They talk of the comfort of books, and the escape of the story, and how a librarian introduced them to this author, or that genre. Reading friends of mine who had hard or impoverished upbringings talk of the safe places that reading took them to, and the part the library had in that escape. They talk of the school library where they found solace and pleasure beyond a stressful education system, and the librarian who cared for them. If we want to see the next generations becoming life-long readers, they too should have places like this. They deserve the same opportunities we had.

This means that libraries in all forms (public, school, academic, work…etc) offer a unique place where we can become a reader. To do that pleasurably we must always make sure that libraries are warm, safe, and full of books. Access to a wide range of material supports a free voluntary choice, and access to experienced librarians and library workers supports choice even more. Libraries may well also have all sorts of whizzy tech, and may offer many clubs and events, but they should never lose sight of their core purpose – to provide a place in the community that nurtures reading. To do that they need a few simple things; books, library workers, central funding, and reliable opening hours. To lose sight of these key elements is to lose what makes libraries unique. Anywhere can be a hub for 3D printing, or for crochet classes, or movie nights, or coding clubs - but places filled with books where you can become a lifelong reader for free are much rarer and far more important.

The wider benefits of reading for pleasure don’t necessarily show in immediate return. People might walk out the door of the library with a life-changing new skill, or a new job, or a new way of thinking, but that deeper positive societal impact is a slow-burn to a better world. That takes time, and investment in the future.

I would rather live in a world where people have higher literacy levels, better mental health and wellbeing, and a greater sense of empathy and social responsibility. To do that people need access to books, lots of books, a huge expertly curated range of books - and that means libraries and skilled library workers.

In a nutshell – the world is a better place thanks to libraries. It might be a romantic notion to think of the warm and safe haven libraries of our childhood, but there is nothing old-fashioned about wanting everyone in society to benefit from the life-enhancing and empowering benefits of reading for pleasure.

Dawn Finch is an author and former school librarian. She is a CILIP Trustee and chair of CILIP's Ethics Committee. She is possibly best known from many library and literacy campaigns, including the current Great School Libraries Campaign which is working towards the goal of having a library and a librarian in every school.

You can find out more about the Great School Libraries Campaign here, and by following and using #GreatSchoolLibraries on twitter

For more information about Dawn - please click here and also follow on twitter @dawnafinch


Lynne Benton said...

Well said, Dawn! An excellent post!

Rowena House said...

Really useful and eye-opening. Thank you.