Books on the NHS? A lovely, fairytale idea
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.