'I'm not into all that academic stuff bro, it's not for us', or 'that's not cool man' are the responses I hear far too often whenever I mention the importance of reading books, essays or newspapers to some of my friends and young people within my local community. It's a working class community with a significant BME population, faced by the many challenges common to working class communities up and down the country, ranging from unemployment, in work poverty and increasing levels of homelessness to name but a few.
At my local comprehensive school, I recall many students and friends reluctantly taking books home as part of the school's initiative that was designed to encourage students to read by asking them to take a book home every two weeks from the school's library. Though for many of us, we just read for the sake of reading, a task that we'd been set, something we had to report back on. Many didn't read for enjoyment or a burning desire to learn new ideas that we could use to challenge the status quo. There existed a belief, one that I bought into too for a period of time, that reading wasn't for the likes of us. It was what was done by middle class geeks, whose lives were far different from ours. Get caught reading a book in your spare time, and on occasion you were labelled a nerd, seen as a bit odd. For some young boys in particular, reading is viewed as unmanly, a point that has previously been backed up by researchers.
To those who think reading isn't for the likes of us, I have this message. It is a key form of resistance and empowerment for individuals within disadvantaged communities. Not only does reading books enable us to better understand the societies around us, but it equips us with the ideas and tools to challenge the status quo. It enables us to challenge the assumptions that lie behind so many of the false narratives we currently see dominating our societies, whether it be the myths around rising nationalism that are designed to target minorities or increasing levels of inequality that is based on the premise that such inequality is a natural outcome, we will be unable to change the world for the better without properly understanding how we came to be in the present situation. Reading can be a transformational experience, a point that Malcolm X was keen to stress. He developed a love of reading whilst in prison, claiming that 'people don't realise how a man's whole life can be changed by one book'.
Books are assets that we can utilise to defend our communities. The next time for example the EDL or Britain First come marching down areas with significant Muslim and immigrant populations to intimidate them with the flag of St George, rather than feeling anger, rage and sticking two fingers back, dropping it to them that St George himself was an immigrant, born in what is now Turkey, is more likely to be a stronger comeback.
For many, developing a love of reading will not come naturally, but as with anything, initially it will be difficult, but if stuck with, immensely rewarding. It is only through reading and educating ourselves, whether it be books about history or fantasy, that we can share ideas and challenge propaganda. Reading can act as a form of escape for those of us who dream of a better world, but most importantly we must read to educate ourselves and resist.