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

Country Life Every Week - - Opinion -

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

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