A brave new world for books and reading: World Book Day 2017 and the evolution of reading (and dressing up)

Yesterday was World Book Day 2017 (WBD) a day where schools across the country celebrate books and reading by asking students to attend in fancy dress, representing a character from a book. From the beginning of the week, my little son returned home from school each day, excitedly reporting that his Year 1 form teacher was insisting that he and his twin brother’s costumes for WBD must portray a character from a classic novel. It didn’t take me long to count the classic books my children and I have taken turns reading aloud, nestled down next to a crackling fire, sherry in belly, fatigued from our nightly bugle practise and piano-side family renditions of “The British Grenadiers” (none of which I hasten to add is true… save for the sherry… and when I say sherry, I mean half a bottle of gin… and that’s just the kids!)

I digress…

The point is, to my shame, or indeed the shame I feel society (or on a slightly less lofty level my children’s primary school) has laden upon me, I have not read any classic literature to them yet… They are five. I could, for the WBD costumes, have attempted to fashion a cute little Dr. Faustus or a Charles Marlow (Heart of Darkness… keep up) but of course, it would have been meaningless to them, and I dare say their form teacher… I feel it necessary to add a “lol” here to cushion that last sentence and make me appear less of a prig. It’s not working.

The UK news coverage of WBD 2017 spun a predictable class-divide angle, with reports of parents sending their children to their state primaries, dressed up for the day as Argos catalogues. Plus news of children not wanting to attend dressed as an actual book character for fear of being branded as “gay” by their school peers. These stories were reported in conjunction with research, from the charity Booktrust, finding that on average, the poorer someone's background, the less likely they are to read. "More frequent book readers tend to live in areas of lower deprivation with fewer children living in poverty, while respondents who never read books tend to live in areas of higher deprivation and more children living in poverty," the study says. This is, of course, a depressing fact and appears to suggest that poorer people see reading as some kind of elitist whimsy.

As a child, I enjoyed the hush and 1980s sepia haze of our local library. I was admittedly more interested in borrowing videos (that’s right – a moronic millennial) whilst my bookish sister proffered a Dahl or gulp… a ghastly Blyton. My love for reading evolved, as did I. Reading culture for future generations is too evolving and we must embrace it. It’s tempting to over-romanticise books and reading; we all love the idea of volumes bound in rich burgundy leather, embossed with gold-leaf, holding the key to intellectual (and social) elevation. However, the Internet has sidelined that idea and given us an incomprehensible resource for knowledge and ultimately empowerment, regardless of background or education. And whilst it’s sad to think of books becoming obsolete, we have to positively appreciate that access to online reading and self-education has become universal. That has to be a good thing and can only close the class gulf that is so widely associated with books and reading.

I am not academic but I am a reader. Certain snobbery says the two can’t be independent of each other but I don’t agree. Now, I am not about to say I smashed through Ulysses in an hour (*6 months) however, the exulting rush I experience from reading indescribably beautiful turns-of-phrase, from say Edith Wharton or John Banville, strike me as amongst the most viscerally piquant art forms. No one taught me what I should feel as I read or indeed what I should read. This is a treasure I wish to bestow upon my children by reading with them and enjoying books, but I am keen for them to discover the power of reading organically in all mediums and not because “they should”.

Regardless of my failing to produce a costume to fit the “classic character” requirement, I am deeply grateful for World Book Day and the schools alerting our children to the wonder and potential in reading, online or otherwise. And in case you’re wondering about the costumes… In place of the sublime Classic, comes the ridiculous Contemporary, in Where’s Wally and The Dinosaur That Pooped Christmas (fake turd not pictured).


*I lie – I never finished Ulysses – I can’t even spell it - but what was it that Mark Twain said? Oh yeah... “ 'Classic′ - a book which people praise and don't read.” (…Cheers Google)


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