Books on the NHS? A lovely, fairy­tale idea

The Guardian - Journal - - Opinion - Arifa Ak­bar

We read to know we are not alone,” wrote CS Lewis. He was clearly on to some­thing. A new re­port claims that books are pow­er­ful enough to halt lone­li­ness and so­cial ex­clu­sion. The 50-page study, un­der­taken jointly by the think­tank Demos and the lit­er­acy char­ity the Read­ing Agency, ar­gues that read­ing could also as­sist with so­cial mo­bil­ity and men­tal health, and even “hold off ” de­men­tia. It backs its ar­gu­ment with an ar­ray of com­pelling re­search and rec­om­mends a gov­ern­ment in­vest­ment of £200m, in­volv­ing the NHS sup­port­ing “book­based in­ter­ven­tions”, as part of its so­cial pre­scrib­ing strat­egy, along­side a ma­jor Comic Re­lief-style cam­paign to raise money for book char­i­ties, book cir­cles and read­ing aloud schemes.

Wouldn’t it be won­der­ful if the gov­ern­ment heeded this rad­i­cal ad­vice? We would have a Red Nose Day for books, as well as mil­lions of pounds de­voted to read­ing. I hope the gov­ern­ment, and Tracey Crouch’s suc­ces­sor as min­is­ter for lone­li­ness, reads the re­port and lis­tens.

But I won­der if they will, be­cause this is hardly the first time we’ve heard about the ther­a­peu­tic ef­fects of books. Stud­ies have long shown how read­ing in­creases em­pa­thy, and cer­tain au­thors have long been noted as balm for the soul. We know of the long-term ben­e­fits of read­ing aloud to chil­dren and how it could give their ed­u­ca­tional prospects a boost, and of pro­vid­ing books to prison­ers.

Any book­worm knows that sto­ries can take us out of our in­te­rior des­o­la­tion and trans­port us in­ti­mately into some­one else’s life, how­ever trou­bled it might be – help­ing us to feel part of a shared hu­man­ity. Anna Burns’s Man Booker-win­ning novel, Milk­man, which puts us in­side the mind of a teenager and her ex­is­ten­tial lone­li­ness as she nav­i­gates life dur­ing North­ern Ire­land’s Trou­bles, is one ex­am­ple. Libby Page’s 2018 de­but, The Lido, drama­tis­ing twen­tysome­thing lone­li­ness and show­ing how it might be al­le­vi­ated, is an­other. There is the wider ques­tion of what books mean to the iPhone gen­er­a­tion, which the re­port does not ad­dress. A story, for a young per­son whose brain is wired for the ha­bit­ual flit from In­sta­gram to Snapchat and back again, may just as eas­ily be found in Flash Fic­tion, or in a Net­flix box set.

Ei­ther way, we al­ready knew how pro­found and al­chem­i­cal the read­ing ex­pe­ri­ence can be. It is ac­cess to this life-en­hanc­ing read­ing ma­te­rial that is the real prob­lem.

The re­port comes as li­braries con­tinue to face gov­ern­ment cuts and the threat of clo­sures. A pe­ti­tion is a jour­nal­ist and critic that calls on par­lia­ment to ringfence li­brary fund­ing and pro­tect pub­lic re­sources was launched at the end of last month, and has so far col­lected more than 26,000 sig­na­tures.

This places re­spon­si­bil­ity for li­brary clo­sures firmly at the gov­ern­ment’s door and de­scribes vol­un­teer­run li­braries as un­sus­tain­able in the long term. This doesn’t sound like the kind of gov­ern­ment that will hap­pily cough up the £200m needed to create a so­ci­ety of read­ers. Li­braries sit at the heart of any so­lu­tion to lone­li­ness through read­ing – we must know this by now. Where will el­derly peo­ple, young peo­ple, sin­gle moth­ers, un­em­ployed or the par­tially sighted peo­ple ac­cess books that they can’t af­ford to buy if their lo­cal li­brary has closed down or has de­pleted its re­sources?

The Demos re­port men­tions one scheme in Coven­try where peo­ple were pre­scribed li­brary books by their

GPs for bet­ter men­tal health. Imag­ine if this be­came a front­line strat­egy for anx­i­ety or de­pres­sion born out of lone­li­ness or so­cial ex­clu­sion.

My mother, who came from Pak­istan to Bri­tain and now lives alone at the age of 74, has spo­ken to her doc­tor of feel­ing anx­ious and has been of­fered an­tide­pres­sants as a re­sult. In an al­ter­nate re­al­ity, she would be given a pre­scrip­tion for an au­dio­book or a novel writ­ten in Urdu in large print, be­cause of her fail­ing eye­sight and her lim­ited lit­er­acy in English. But how much would this cost on a na­tional scale?

Surely any co­her­ent strat­egy on read­ing re­quires a thor­ough anal­y­sis of where pol­icy is cur­rently go­ing wrong and why. Per­haps it is not even a case of rein­vent­ing the wheel: if we poured that £200m back into the li­braries we seem so in­tent on clos­ing or starv­ing, we could magic up the large print and au­dio books, the read­ing groups, the well-stocked shelves of sto­ries that could help us in our dark­est times.

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