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“The absence of books in a life is a bad thing”

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I’ve just spent some of the happiest hours of recent months re-arranging my collection of children’s books.

I’ve done it by my soon-to-be patented Emotional Dewey Decimal System – a section for best-loved books of my youth, plus a subsection for the four extra copies of all-time great The Phantom Tollbooth acquired over the years, a section for the most significant (not the same thing), second-tier favourites the next shelf down, children’s books I’ve read and loved since near the wall, the unloved towards the bottom, and so on. It’s impenetrable to the untutored eye but instantly clear to me.

It’s a system that reflects how important books are to children. So I learn with despair of the latest findings from the National Literacy Trust which show that a third of all children – nearly four million – do not own a single book.

Not a single one! No Little Women (even if Beth is a drip who’s better off expiring on the sofa), no The Secret Garden with furious Mary and proto-sex-god Dickon! No buns for tea with The Railway Children! Imagine.

The absence of books in a life is indubitably A Bad Thing – knowledge made inaccessible, windows onto other worlds shuttered, a galaxy of pleasures unknown, intellectual impoverishment immeasurable and so on. And it’s especially so when you think about just what else that absence signifies.

Books and reading are a luxury. They require not just cash but what sociologists call ‘social capital’ – an amorphous entity that includes the time and energy to seek books out and then read them, a calm environment in which to do so, an awareness that these things are on offer, and a rough working knowledge of how to access them and distinguish between rather than become overwhelmed by the choices on offer. Spare time, energy, and peace and quiet are primarily the preserve of the already relatively privileged. And an awareness of what’s being published is absorbed by cultural osmosis via newspapers, programmes and websites which again are generally aimed at and accessed by people who have already accrued certain advantages and a degree of comfort in their lives.

Who needed friends when I had Jo March, Charlotte and Wilbur, and everyone at Malory Towers?

Books in a home are generally a sign that something – quite a lot of things – have already gone very, very right for that child, that family, that household. And their absence is a sign that things have not. In 2004, the Trust notes, the proportion of children without books of their own, leading lives bereft of Aslan, Moominland’s gentle madness and who had no idea What Katy Did, was just one in 10. The fact that their number has tripled in the last six years is a clear signal that more and more households are falling into the latter category.

It’s a sign to add to the more obvious examples customarily given – FTSE bosses being paid 120 times what their employees earn, compared with ‘just’ 45 times as much in 1998, that kind of vexing but apparently even-in-the-middleof- a-globalfinancial- crisis unstoppable thing – that the gulf between the haves and the have-nots is deepening.

We fetishise books, and rightly so. When I look at my shelves and handle their battered, beloved contents, I am dealing in memories. They made me who I am. “Pallid,” says my sister, leaning over my shoulder as I type this. “Bespectacled. Friendless.” Which is also true. And yet, who needed flesh-and-blood friends when I had Jo March, Charlotte and Wilbur, Margaret of Are You There, God? fame and everyone at Malory Towers and St Clare’s at my beck and call?

But it’s not their mere absence that is the problem. It’s the inequality the absence represents even before it goes on to reinforce it. We should remember that this inequality is increasing and every library closure should remind us that the government, whatever lip service it pays, doesn’t give a damn about leaving anyone behind. And, as we stare down the barrel of George Osborne’s promised six more years of austerity, I’ll bet you my favourite copy of The Phantom Tollbooth – the red-spined Fontana exactly the same as the one our lovely student teacher Miss Greenwood used to read to us at story time on the primary school classroom mat before she deserted us for another job – that we ain’t seen nothing yet.

Contact Lucy Mangan at lucy.mangan @stylist.co.uk; twitter.com/lucymangan

Main picture credit: Rex Features

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