Sunday, 13 September 2015

Snobbishness in Reading and Why We Need to Stop it

What is wrong with reading?

I can’t help noticing that reading can cause a strange reaction in public places.

For example, at the workplace, or the bus stop, I sit in my free time and open a book. I have often been met with stares close to disapproval and even questions, like ‘what are you doing  that for?’
Yet I know if I was to  instead take out my mobile phone and read on that, it would be suddenly much more ‘acceptable’, no cause for difference. These days, a book-reader can be quickly characterised as ‘eccentric’ and ‘old fashioned’ which seems odd considering books are an essential basis for exploration, as well as knowledge.

Snobbishness is not necessarily a factor associated with a certain class elite. A possible definition from the OED includes ‘a person who believes that their tastes in a particular area are superior to those of other people’(1) – and reading is a prime example of an area where this behaviour occurs. Snobbery can occur at all levels, from the upper-class being assumed to ‘have all read Wodehouse’  and headlines as blatant as  ‘rich people only read self-improvement books’ , to a recent example of a  young survey correspondent saying ‘Books are for an older generation, younger people on the whole do not read books(2).’ Assumptions and separations of groups of people regarding reading as a whole I believe need to be challenged in order to make reading accessible to all.

The varying attitude to books reveals some of the prejudices we have towards reading – and something we all need to evaluate for ourselves.

Divide between 'readers' and 'watchers'

What is more acceptable about a mobile phone or screen than a book? A  screen provides us with a paradox, it is a private device often   the owner can only see at the time of use – whether they are browsing the internet, tapping away on Twitter, messaging friends, the list goes on. Yet whilst in one sense it is private, in another sense, it is a kind of public affirmation of a ‘busy’ life. People look ‘connected’ when they are using a mobile phone for example, and this can communicate an image of a larger life outside the immediate circumstance – they have so much more ‘going’ on. It is a ‘screen’ in more than one sense of the word; it can be used to project a picture, as well as  to hide behind. In contrast, a book is more insular. It doesn’t necessarily say anything about the individual’s connections, or social life. It is public in another sense though, as the spine of a book acts like a kind of confession – ‘this is what I like to read’. People might be ashamed of reading books in public, for example, there is a pervasive judgement amongst some reading circles that some kind of literature is just ‘trashy’. I don’t think this is helpful.

In the age of pressure to ‘keep connected’ are books and reading falling by the wayside? The BBC have termed the situation as a ‘divide between readers and watchers’(3) – and this a segregation which I believe needs to be stopped.

The above exploration of books and technology in contrast is just one example of where divides lie. Another is in the form of age - as older people appear less likely to engage with electronic reading material than younger people.  Not only are older people less likely than younger people to have accessed online material, they also make less frequent use of it according to research by the Nominee Trust, as whilst amongst 55-64 year olds the figure for home internet access is 69%,  this falls to 51% for 65-74 year-olds and then only 23% for those over 75.  (Ofcom, 2010)(4). This means that many older people may be in position where they are missing out on  reading material – with some publications only exclusively online. This is in contrast  to younger generations, with up to 97% of  primary school-age children  saying they have access to electronic devices and the internet at  home according to The National Literary Trust(5). In actuality, it is suggested that children were more likely to read online electronic material than print – with 68.7% reporting reading on a screen, compared to 61.8% in print. Not only do there appear divisions in the way people read according to age, but also in enjoyment of it – as more than half of the children surveyed by The National Literary Trust said they preferred to read on screen rather than paper.

Yet the state of preferring one method over the other – placing electronic print and hard print in a hierarchy - is what needs to be addressed. As may be unexpected, I am not going to start decrying e-books as a cause of unhealthy reading habits; actually they can be incredibly helpful. Want I want to uphold is an attitude to reading like endorsed attitudes to food – a balanced diet with variety. Why gorge on one form when you can try different flavours?

Age is no object

 In incorporating and encouraging a balanced, interchangeable use of electronic and hard print, research shows the potential negative impact of  screen devices on sleep, whilst books have beneficial effect(7). In this sense, reading books appears to hold a relaxing quality which is also enjoyable, and this extends to children – with children who incorporated a combination of print and electronic reading reporting greater enjoyment than screen- only users(8).
advantages are extended. For example, screens may be enjoyable, but limitations of use are recommended for health – with recent recommendations including that  Children aged 2-5 years should have no more than an hour a day, whilst children aged 5-18 years should have no more than two hours a day according to Tech Advisor(6). For all who use screens, commonly cited benefits including using them in conjunction with other mediums – like books and newspapers, which could not only be seen as variety but beneficial for a healthy lifestyle. Just one example is that various 

Therefore, the benefits of reading across devices should be  celebrated across age. Because it is reading which matters – the essential method of taking in information, interacting with narratives, acquiring information and ultimately, appreciating one’s own personal space. The personal benefits appear to extend beyond too,  with  a recent online issue of the Neurology journal  highlighting that those who engaged in  reading both earlier and later in life  experienced a slower decline in memory, with improved social function and stress-reducing benefits frequently cited too.

What is essential to see, is that whether it is book or device, what we hold in our hands is a capacity to learn and explore; and this shouldn’t be undervalued. Although I am a book lover, I think it is time to stop decrying the electrification of books, but this does not mean I am supporting the decline of hard print.

That both young and older people are missing out on opportunities to read needs to be considered. For example, whilst some younger people ignore books in favour of the internet, some members of the older generation may read books, but be missing out on reading content they would find highly interesting, on a computer device. That some works are only now released in e-book format, whilst others are exclusively in print form, highlights the need for a balance here. It is enjoying both physical and electronic books which can open up opportunities for furthering reading. Encouraging people, young and old, to engage across a variety of mediums can significantly enhance the amount of information they are exposed to and can learn from. 

'When you were young / And your heart was an open book' 
As is evident, if these divides in reading behaviours continue, whether in reality or assumed, certain groups may feel dissuaded away from reading at all.  As research by Gray and Rogers indicated, reading practices have roots in social participation(9) – and in terms of the age divide – the older generation may more readily discuss books and meet at libraries, whilst young people can connect over technology. Therefore their reading behaviours can be limited by sphere not only of age, but social associates. This is not necessarily beneficial and it is through considering the advantages of a wider scope of reading that reasoning can be seen. Electronic books may offer more facilities for the elderly, such as the capacity for larger and illuminated print. On the other hand, when I attended university,  I became accustomed to some of my peers express anger that they could not find all the reading materials in an electronic format – even though we were sitting in a library where some of the works were pieces of history in themselves!

Lack of engagement with reading, or only associating with certain methods of it, can obstruct our opportunities.

Did you resent electronic library check-outs?

Libraries are potential places where the best of  print as well as electronic can be brought to the people. A library which matters a great deal to me is Manchester Central Library, re-opened in 2014 following restoration to the neo-classical building. Inside now hosts a variety of interactive technologies which quickly engage public attention, including touchscreen tables, timelines and boards. My initial reaction to this seemed, in retrospect – tainted with an element of reading snobbery – ‘screens, not books, how is this a library?’ and ‘It just isn’t the same.’ But perhaps that  is the lesson which needs to be learned – reading isn’t  going to remain ‘the same’, it is  evolving. What ultimately matters is that both books and technology are celebrated as part of that. After all, take a quick walk up the steps in The Manchester Central, to quickly encounter the beauty of the historic Wolfson Reading Room with its enigmatic domed ceiling. Around the dome reads an inscription from the book of Proverbs, part of which in translation is ‘Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore
get wisdom, and with all thy getting get understanding.’ Therefore, appreciate reading for what it can bring – rather than just the method of bringing it. Last time I visited, the reading room was filled; some people reading books with piles beside them, others using their tablets and laptops.  In the case of Manchester, the library highlighted a fusion of technology and hard print which I feel should be encouraged, if that is what it takes to get people truly enjoying reading and the ‘wisdom’ it can yield.
But the snobbishness can emerge  even when we don’t like to admit it.

Were you one of the people who decried the bringing of electronic methods of ‘stamping’ books at the library – ‘Why it is all machines now?’: or something along those lines (?) – I know I was. The reduction of staff contact and instead mechanisation is a personal loss, and obviously sad. But with libraries under increasing pressure, and the technological check-outs potentially saving time and money, I would rather have these new features in libraries than no libraries at all. This loss of the personal can be regained in other ways through the right means – placing emphasis on how a range of material can enhance the individual as well as their interaction with others.

After all, a recent YouGov survey highlighted that almost half the population, approximately 47%, have used a public library within the past year(10). This figure holds great promise and could be even higher if the sense of accessibility is increased. The acceptance of new ways of reading is part of this, and something I have paid more attention to myself.  With at least 400 libraries potentially threatened by a 10% cut in budgets for local government between 2015/16(11) – it is essential that those open can encourage people to use them; and if this is through a cost-effective combination of books with technological investment then let it be so. In libraries, the older generation can encounter the new too, and vice-versa for the young. In my family alone, I know many older people who have gained experience in using and reading on computers in the local library, whilst a library space provides an environment where books are perhaps more of a ready prospect for young people too; as when displayed and free to borrow, their accessibility is enhanced.

Reading into the issue of class

I also think one of the reasons why ‘displays’ of reading, therefore often books, can create  such a negative response, is the unfortunate social assumption that the reader is making some kind of statement. They are gaining knowledge, and in some cases, seen as making a gain on others.  The research on apparent class divides in reading books (thus another divide) shows why this may be the case too - 62% of ABs read daily or weekly (upper and middle classes, according to NRS social grading system)  compared with 42% of DE’s (categorised as lower in the class spectrum)(12). Therefore, you are potentially more likely to see  a person of greater class status reading than someone of lesser class status(13). It is interesting to consider how this may colour perceptions on those who read, and may even discourage some from  reading  as they have come to associate it with a certain stereotype.  This suggests that reading is at risk of becoming not only an age and tech-segregated activity, but also subject to class segregation. Whilst 85% of ABs  cited reading as making them feel good, only 69% of DEs reported a similar benefit;  emphasizing differing class perspectives on the enjoyment of reading.  Therefore it is important that the different  methods of reading (and the enjoyment they bring) is advocated across society – and a combination of print and electronic surely enhances the accessibility of reading  material.  Whilst it was found  in the same  DJS Research for Booktrust that ABs on average  own double the amount of books than DEs, the  encouragement of reading across a range of material surely makes ‘ownership’ less of an issue and  not as acquisition-orientated, which can cause further socio-economic tensions in the class divide.

There are so many ways to view the text, but we don’t know how to view reading - it is full of divisions.

In turn, prejudice and divides seem to run through our reading behaviour. I have been guilty of a kind of prejudice myself, especially towards e books. It is easy to resent change, especially in the way we take in information, and reading is our personal method of doing so. Yet accepting this change is possibly one of the best things we can do – as technology changes, workplace demand changes, the internet evolves, writer emerge with new views, the ways we are expected to take in information for people to succeed will change too. I want to celebrate the range of ways people can read, and encourage variety within that.

So although we may be quick to blame electronic books, perhaps the real problem and unfortunate tension, is that many still do not read at all.  It is estimated that nearly a fifth (18%)  of people never read physical books, and 71% never read e-books (14) – so it is not the case either of ‘e-books  killing reading’ as is argued by some. However, the accessibility of hard print does need to be addressed, with  A fifth (20%) of these involved in the survey saying that they never buy physical books at all (in a shop or online).  Reading  seem quashed by the ‘connected’ life, not that in electronics kill print, but that reading is superfluous – or more of a challenge, a slow-burner, compared to the instant information we so often expect. Whilst television, video and games for example are fast-moving, reading is a gradual process,  the unfolding of events – but this  is often more accurate to life, where concentration is a highly-valued asset.

It's not The End

That 36% of people often take up a book but get bored and a similar percentage say they cannot find the time to read, emphasizes that a revitalised social attitude to reading should be encouraged.  Rather than split between age, the camps of electronic and print – people should be made aware of the variety of reading material available, and how they can utilise a range of resources to find material they find interesting. Let us silence the type of snobbery which has pervaded reading for so long; accessible for some and not to others. I’d urge anyone to take even just to take the time to think about how they read and consider the new prospects on offer – especially through libraries. Because rather than reading as something to ‘find time’ for, it actually gives time in itself – time for self-reflection, relaxing and with a sheer number of those who read saying it improves their life and makes them feel good; it  is something we should all strive to get involved in.