Do you read me?
Matthew Dennison sets the cheering resurgence of the printed novel and the high quality of literaryprize shortlists against the demise in libraries and a national embarrassment about reading
HE news is good and bad. Figures released by the Publishers Association earlier this year point to the buoyancy of the UK publishing industry. In 2015, total sales of book and journal publishing rose to £4.4 billion. The best bit for anyone born pre-2000 is that, for the first time in four years, this includes a rise in sales of what are now called ‘physical books’—those old-fashioned amalgams of paper, gum and board that line bookcases across the country. However, against this are the library closures. By December 8, 67 libraries in England, Scotland and Wales had closed their doors, bringing the total number this decade to nearly 500. Library funding fell by £25 million this year. The implications are significant. Libraries enfranchise new readers—children love them—and make books available to those with limited disposable income. Depending on their acquisitions and stocking policies, they extend the shelf life of many books that deserve to be read beyond their brief moment in the sun in high-street bookshops. Next week, a panel of judges—of whom I am one—will announce the 2016 Costa Book Awards. Since 1971, the awards—formerly the Whitbread Award—have nominated books by British and Irish authors on grounds of quality and readability. This year, almost 600 novels, first novels, children’s books, poetry collections and biographies were entered. Clearly, there is still not only an appetite for new books, but, among authors and publishers, for the accolades literary prizes confer. Prizes maintain a place for books and reading within our national dialogue—the highest-profile ones are widely reported across all media. Intellectualism
Thas always been a fringe activity in British life, regarded with suspicion by the majority. As a nation, we have traditionally revelled in a complacent philistinism that leaves creativity to the unconventional few.
No stigma attaches to the admission that one doesn’t read. It has become as permissible to explain that one doesn’t have time for reading as it is to say that one doesn’t have time for church. The irony is that, at a moment of preoccupation with the national diet, obesity, fast food and refined sugars, we are happy to neglect this form of nourishment: food for heart, mind, soul.
John Betjeman once categorised reading the Victorian novel, a crowning achievement of the British literary genius, as an ideal occupation for winter days, when the pace of life naturally slows and long hours of lamplight are conducive to the expansive narratives of our 19th-century forebears.
‘We are still a nation of book lovers and, crucially, of the idea of books
In the early 21st century, our preoccupation with immediacy makes such an assessment as much a part of history as the novels themselves. We encounter our world in snapshots and soundbites. One effect of social media is to accustom us to instant-hit communication and exaggerate the significance of short-term impact. Writers traditionally deliver their nuggets of meaning in more leisurely fashion— and they are right to do so. Writing that aims to unravel aspects of the human condition is of no benefit when swallowed at a gobble. As anyone outside their teenage years knows, life’s lessons are learned over years not seconds.
At their simplest, literary prizes serve as aides-memoires for a society that, despite rising book-buying figures, has been reluctant to acknowledge the importance of writing or any purpose to books beyond diversion. They also reward writers for their contribution to maintaining the health of our rich, flexuous and beautiful language.
Criteria for the Costa include readability and enjoyment, requirements that save the prize from the great British bugbear of the ivory tower. This means that the prize remains of the moment—i’m avoiding the word ‘relevant’, which is invariably abused subjectively to promote dumbing down in the interests of ‘inclusivity’ and ‘accessibility’.
Our reading tastes have changed: memoirs dominate the biography section and the firstperson narrative is increasingly used in fiction. But everyone who reads hopes for pleasure; in many instances, exposure to quality is pleasurable in itself. And wonderfully, inspiringly, high-quality, enjoyable books still abound.
Each book submitted, alongside every title that contributes to the annual £4.4 billion generated by the British publishing industry, is proof that, however embarrassed we are to admit it, we are still a nation of book lovers and, crucially, of the idea of books. Matthew Dennison is a judge for the 2016 Costa Book Awards