On 14th April I introduced a fascinating panel at an event joint hosted by Book Aid International and the London Library. The London Library very kindly offered up their stunning Reading Room for a debate around the future of reading. As a charity that believes that books can change lives, we were keen to explore how reading is changing and how this might affect the next generation of readers. What will a typical reader look like in 20 or 50 years' time? Will they be sitting on the tube with a care-worn paperback? Will they be reading novels on their mobile phone? Will they be reading fiction at all? And will it matter if they're not? These were the questions we sought to explore with our brilliant panel - founder of Bloomsbury Publishing, Nigel Newton; Ghanaian novelist, poet and publisher Nii Ayikwei Parkes who was involved in the Hay Festival's Africa 39 project; and founder of the Big Issue and cross-bench peer, The Lord John Bird. Our panel was chaired by Emma Shercliff, Director of Cassava Republic, an independent publisher based in Abuja which specialises in publishing African fiction.
What really came through for me in this debate was the moments that books can create in people's lives. Each of our panellists had strong memories of their earliest encounters with books - a heady mix of Peter and Jane, The Famous Five and The Scarlet Pimpernel (!) - and each mentioned a moment when books had significantly impacted their lives. For Nigel, this was reading the same book (Babar the Elephant) to his grandson that he remembers listening to as a child. Nii told his moving account of the drought in West Africa in 1983 and how his family ate only once a day. Nii and his brother would crawl into bed and read to pass the hours. As he put it, "there's such music in poetry that you forget your hunger." Few of us could better articulate the beautiful escapism that can come from reading.
John spoke about his own experience in a boys' prison when he was a teenager and the prison guard who helped him to improve his reading. He didn't much like the book, but it gave him a new direction which would eventually lead to his founding of the Big Issue and devoting his life to helping people beat poverty. John put it like this: "When I learned to read and write, it changed the whole trajectory of my life."
The panel also discussed how people read and how this could change. Will the increase in digital reading force a change in the way that books are written? In Japan for example, there has been a huge increase in reading on mobile phones, which in turn has led to authors writing in a shorter form. Novels become snippets, essays become tweets. Is this the future of reading?
Nii pointed out here that long-form fiction "comes with leisure" and has been fashionable recently because people (particularly in the western world) have had time to read. He mentioned that in Ghana and many other developing countries, people will read anything they can, without concern for form, be they novels, newspapers or poetry and that we should be less concerned about form so long as people are reading. As he said, "We happen now to be in a time when people are busy doing other things...maybe this is the time for short stories."
For me this debate had deep resonance with the work of Book Aid International. Each year we send up to one million brand new, carefully selected books to libraries in Africa because we believe that books can change lives. What we want to do is to give people the opportunities that books can bring.
Sometimes an individual book or an experience of reading can be life-changing - like those of our panellists. Most of the time though, we can't pinpoint one book or one day in a library that changed our lives - certainly we can't claim this for many of the people our work supports. But what we can say is that a life full of reading, a life lived with the information, pleasure and inspiration of books is a better life than one without. That a person who has access to reading has an opportunity to learn, to enjoy and to shape their own future.
We believe in the power of the written word in all its forms, and that's why we have recently developed projects that introduce digital content into libraries in Africa. Together with a collection of brand new books, pre-loaded e-readers and tablets are now in use in 10 children's libraries that we support - we are encouraged to see that library user numbers in these libraries have gone up as people get to grips with new ways to enjoy reading.
Whatever, however and wherever people read, one thing is clear: the power that books hold within them to change the path of a life. Whether that's the inspiration that a prisoner takes from reading Long Walk to Freedom, the difference made to a student who can access the right academic books for their course or the farmer in a village who learns how to increase their crop production from a book on agriculture - the unchanging principle is that books can change lives. We at Book Aid International know this - we see this in our everyday work. In the future, reading may look very different, but one thing is clear - reading is and will remain central to our lives.
You can find out more about the work of Book Aid International here.