COLUMN: Reading Elite


If there is a heap of research that shows that people who read fiction have all kinds of advantages in just about every sphere of life over those who do not, is it elitist to say that readers are the best people?

Well, if you put it like that, it sounds terribly crude.

A website which claims to be the voice of Generation Y recently ran an article with the headline “Why Readers, Scientifically, Are The Best People To Fall In Love With”.

Another, on a similar topic, wrote “Reading literature makes us smarter and nicer”.

This sort of unequivocal headline is highly effective at reeling in readers, pushing up hit rates on websites and getting shares on social media.

Both articles, to lesser and greater degrees respectively, parade – in summarised fashion – the sexiest bits of scientific research into the advantages of reading.

Reading fiction really is believed to make people more empathetic, more questioning, more understanding and have a greater ability to try and see things from different points of view, while it also increases their vocabulary, memory skills and ability to spot patterns.

The words like “smarter” and “nicer” and “best” are backed up with references and explanations of, and links to, many of the studies. But they’re catchy, journalistic words which I doubt the scientists themselves would have used.

And boy, did those words get some people hot under the collar!

The tone of the first article was called snarky and sarcastic, and the idea that readers were better, obnoxious and self-righteous.

These were words used by people who were clearly educated and erudite, and many of them confessed to being avid readers themselves. But an article summing up reading’s many merits got them rather cross.

Which is why I keep wondering whether the culture of reading has been hijacked by the intellectual elite to the degree that proclaiming reading’s advantages is politically incorrect.

Is it?

I don’t have the answer. But if it is yes, that’s cause for despair. I may not, like Nick Cave, believe in an interventionist God, but I believe in reading.

Over and over and over again I have heard and read stories about awkward, lonely, impoverished, abused or neglected children who found solace and succour at the library. I believe in reading because so many children’s lives have been redeemed by story books.

I meet successful, rich people every day, but they are not all created equal. I believe in reading because it bestows grace, humility and wisdom that success and money on their own do not bring.

I believe in reading because children who are read to perform better all round at school, and because a solid, equal education is the only hopeful starting point in an unjust society.

I believe in reading because many of my friends and colleagues who were once bullied by their peers or terrorised by their parents survived because they could turn to books.

I believe in reading so much that if I could, I would make it a constitutional law that every child must be read stories from their first months.

I’ve read the studies over the years to back up my belief. Still, my belief stems not from those, but from my experience – however narrow, unscientific and anecdotal – of how transformative it is for a person to read a story that resonates inside them with thundering and almost overwhelming power.

I believe in reading.

Is that elitist?


Posted under: Chapter & Verse

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