When I was a child, reading didn’t seem important. It just seemed like eating chocolate cake, or going on fairground rides – something I wanted to do a lot. Except that, unlike cake and fairgrounds, my parents were happy for me to do it over and over again. Well, within reason: I was one of those children who are gently relieved of their books, drawn out from their corners, and not so gently pushed towards grandparents or party guests with instructions to Talk to People, and Stop Being So Rude.
Which is to say: I didn’t think of books as something that was good for you. I thought of them as something in between living and entertainment, as indispensable as breathing, but a lot more enjoyable. I have no idea what my favourite book as a child was, because our house was full of books, and I read most of them, even the adult ones. I do remember reading the Gormenghast trilogy, and how completely that transported me to another world. I remember the disappointment that attended putting the book down, to eat dinner, or to Talk to People.
Then, at university, I met people who had never really read fiction – even one friend who, aside from the books he had been made to read at school, had never read a novel. And they seemed fairly well-adjusted; it didn’t seem like not reading had affected them much. So I got into the habit of thinking it wasn’t that important: that it was something you enjoyed or didn’t, like cabbage. (I presume there are people who enjoy cabbage.)
Now, though, I have realized something different. Books and reading, I have come to see, are important. Not because of literacy per se. Not because of grammar, or getting a good job (though these thing do matter, to an extent). No: because reading is training for decisions, and it is training for morality. Ursula K le Guin said this before me, but if you think about it, it’s obvious. What does a book do, but place us behind the eyes of other people, so that we can see the world they see? This is an act of empathy, and novels don’t work if we don’t empathise with the characters: unless we understand their feelings and motivations, we literally can’t follow their choices, and the mechanics that drive the plot.
In other words: reading novels both teaches, and requires, an ability to see the world from other perspectives. It shows you all sorts of different scenarios too, and challenges, and problems and dilemmas, as well as possible solutions to all those things – but that’s a practical side-effect, which also happens to be beneficial. The really key thing is this notion of moral training: this idea that, by reading stories about other people, we can learn greater skills of empathy, and by extension, greater compassion for other human beings. In certain cases, novels have even directly influenced society, such is the impact they have on their readers (Oliver Twist changed the law in Britain regarding work houses; Uncle Tom’s Cabin, though its importance has probably been overstated, at least had a little to do with the civil war in America, and the freeing of the slaves.)
So: books aren’t important because they’re fun, and they aren’t important because they teach you how to spell, either. They are important because they help children to become better people, by placing them in the shoes of people they might not normally think about – such as a boy in the slums of Haiti, to use the self-serving example of my novel In Darkness – and in the midst of choices, events and moral challenges they might not otherwise encounter in childhood.
What does a child learn from Harry Potter? Not just that Hogwarts sounds like a fun place to go to school, but also that cruelty and corruption do exist in the world, but that friendship, loyalty and courage can vanquish them.
My friends who didn’t read were lucky, I think now, in that they happened to be kind, compassionate people anyway. An awful lot more people get that way by reading fiction – and that’s why every child should be encouraged to read. Not for phonics and not for grammar, but for their essential development as a human being.
Not that we have to tell them that, of course. For now, they can just look at it like chocolate cake, or fairground rides. Only better – because they can read all they want, unless there’s a party going on. Or their grandparents have come to visit.