When I took over at Quick Reads 20 months ago I knew a lot about books, as I was fresh from ten years of selling them at Waterstones.
I also knew a fair bit about some of the causes and effects of low literacy. I had personal experience. My Dad couldn’t read and write well until he was thirty when he braved adult literacy classes because he needed to write shift reports. 'I'll never be able to do exams,' he said to the tutor, 'but I need to know how to do sentences.'
So, I had some first-hand knowledge but over the past months I've realised how narrow my knowledge was. I didn't know how many people arrive in this country, often burdened with terrible stories, not speaking English, often not very literate in their own languages. I didn't know how many people leave the Army, often struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, often with low skills. I did not know the extent to which the prisons of this country are full of people, men mainly, who have hardly any basic skills, who are extraordinarily uneducated and ill-prepared for post-prison life, for the challenges of finding a job and somewhere to live which are the key things that will help them not to reoffend.
I didn't realise what a live problem it was. I thought it was something we were getting better at, yet the recent OECD report shows that not only do we rank 22nd out of 24 countries in literacy but that we are going backwards. We are creating future generations of people who are unable to cope with the necessary administrations of their lives let alone be poised to see the benefits of reading for pleasure.
Everything about reading is connected to social mobility and whether or not people have a sense of entitlement. I met a man in a prison and we were talking about coping strategies. I was telling about my Dad. Afterwards he thanked me.
'Thank you for telling me about your Dad,’ he said. ‘It's amazing to me that someone who sounds a bit like me, could have a daughter who grows up to be someone like you.'
There's so much to unpack in there, isn't there?
My favourite quote out of all our wealth of Quick Reads evaluation is from a woman who learnt to enjoy going to a book club at her library even though at first she was so frightened she wanted to run away.
'I never thought I could go to the reading group. But now I sit and discuss books like I was born to it.'
Like I was born to it. Isn't that fascinating? We live in a society where some people think they are not born to books, where some people don't think they belong in a reading world.
When I talk to what I've come to think of as the hyper-literate, which will be most of us in this room, those of us who can't remember learning to read, who grew up in houses full of books, who believe that the world of words is ours, I find that it isn't that people don't care, it's that they don't know.
It hasn’t really occurred to us to think about what it might be like to be a thirty-year-old father who can’t write in sentences, to consider how difficult it would be to negotiate life without the skills we take for granted. We need to care. We need to care about what's happening in our workplaces, our schools, our prisons, our libraries, our day care centres.
We should do this out of a sense of social responsibility but we should also do this because it's enriching to spend time with people who are not like us and because we should not reserve our empathy for the character in novels.
I am often bowed down by the scale and scope of the problem and the way that literacy is interwoven with all other social ills. Some time ago I read a government report on broken families that was so heartbreakingly depressing that I found it difficult to feel relevant for a few days. And then I pick myself up and think that it is far better to do something good than to do nothing at all. I think of Quick Reads as a good deed in naughty world. We are tiny, but by doing what we do really well, we make an extraordinary impact. The key to it all is partnership and cooperation. We live by the support of the authors and publishers to create the books and then by the work of all our partners to get them out into the world.
I want you to imagine again that you can’t do sentences. You pluck up the courage to go to adult literacy classes. It takes three years but then you can do it, you can write sentences. You’re still a long way off from looking at books as objects of pleasure rather than sources of worry and potential humiliation.
It took my Dad another 20 years before he got into novels and now he reads widely and no longer feels like an outsider. I like to think that if Quick Reads had existed all those years ago he might have got there sooner. Quick Reads are the bridge between literacy and literature. They’re the next step after learning the basics, they’re a crucial tool in the journey from being a non-reader to being someone who has the world of books and words at their disposal.
My other favourite quote from our evaluation is this: ‘I felt like I had climbed a mountain. I was so proud because it was the first proper book I’d read.’
Nothing about addressing low levels of literacy in adults is easy. That doesn’t mean we shouldn't do it. Here's to creating more readers, one book at a time.