Wednesday, March 12, 2014

On Poverty & Reading Books

Book shelves with books on.
I'm wanting to get back to more personal blogging, but here's a thing about books and poverty.

England divided into 'readers and watchers', BBC News:
England is suffering from a "worrying cultural divide" with poor adults much less likely to read books than their richer neighbours, a report says. The country is divided into two nations, those who read weekly or daily, and those who prefer TV and DVDs, it says. It finds key links between an individual's social background and how likely they are to read.
There are a lot of statistics in the article, few of which are very shocking. For example, rich people own more books than poor people. Who'd have thought it? Another strange phenomenon I have observed is that although richer people have only slightly more feet on average, they own considerably more shoes...
More than one in four (27%) of adults from the poorest socio-economic backgrounds said they never read books themselves, compared with just 13% of those from the richest socio-economic backgrounds.
Around 16% of the population of England is "functionally illiterate". The chances are that almost all of these people occupy the poorest socio-economic background, for obvious reasons of both cause and effect. That entirely accounts for the difference - in fact, if the sample were big enough, it might even suggest that a slightly greater proportion of rich people who can read choose not to.
And more than six in 10 (62%) of those from the richest backgrounds said they read daily or weekly, compared with four in 10 (42%) of those from the poorest.
Okay, so on these figures, the ones that indicate the worrying cultural divide, we're talking 60:40. To be perfectly honest, I'm pleasantly surprised that the difference is so small, given the massive disparities in educational opportunities, the fact that poorer people generally have less time, less access to books, live in environments less conducive to reading in peace and are more likely to have intellectual, cognitive or sensory impairments that prevent them from reading.

That's if we assume that everyone is being honest. We know that when you ask men and women how many sexual partners they've had, you end up with a statistical difference which simply cannot be true; men feel under pressure to raise the figure, women feel under pressure to lower it. I suspect something similar here.

Among the wealthier middle classes, there is a much stronger hierarchy of the arts; middle class people frequently boast that they never watch the television that takes pride of place in their living room. Meanwhile, although to a lesser extent, working class people (especially men) sometimes feel that the world of books doesn't belong to them. They may even feel that the books they read don't count as proper books.

I suspect that some poorer respondents may have downplayed their reading and I'm absolutely certain that some richer respondents will have exaggerated theirs.
And 83% of adults from the richest group feel that reading improves their lives, compared with 72% of those from the poorest group.
Hmm, yes, well. The difference here is very slight, but here's the thing:

As well as middle class snobbery and mythos surrounding the arts (Art can save the world!), richer people have much easier lives. Thus, when they think about things that can improve their lives, they are likely to think about books, art and esoteric things rather than, you know, decent affordable housing, a living wage, having enough food to eat and everything else they take for granted but others cannot.

I believe wholeheartedly that books do improve our lives, and perhaps make the most difference to the most difficult lives, but I understand there may be a difference in the way this question is understood by richer and poorer readers.

The article concludes:
Viv Bird, chief executive of Booktrust, said: "This research indicates that frequent readers are more likely to be satisfied with life, happier and more successful in their professional lives. 
"But there is a worrying cultural divide linked to deprivation. There will never be a one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to social mobility, but reading plays an important role - more action is needed to support families."
 Yet there are no suggestions about what this support entails. So here are mine:
  1. Keep libraries open and promote what they do to the wider community, including the increasing stock of ebooks and audiobooks you can borrow on-line.
  2. Promote ebook, braille and audiobook formats, to broaden the spectrum of people who can access literature. Audiobooks also raise the possibility of reading as a group activity, which makes it more appealing for people low on time and energy to spend with their loved ones. (Historically, people read out loud much more, but audiobooks are the low-energy option).
  3. Relieve poverty with a living wage and decent affordable housing. However one feels about the inevitability of material inequality, we should aim towards a world where everyone at least has a chance to have a little culture in their lives. People can read in all kinds of places and situations, but having space, peace, time and the absence of immense pressure, is sure going to help.
Also, you know, sort out education so that people grow up enjoying reading, rather than seeing a book as a job of work or a task to be completed for some reward other than its own sake. 


Lisa said...

I read daily. I'm constantly reading news articles, comment articles, blog posts, research reports, etc.

I can't remember the last time I read a book.

That BBC article conflates "reading" with "reading books".

The Goldfish said...

Yes - I think this is another important point about wealth, or particularly socio-economic class. At a lot of workplaces, you'll see everyone reading at break time, but it's magazines, newspapers or on-line content.

This content may be as mind-expanding and life-improving as anything in a book (or it may be as trashy as anything in a book - I wish there was a whole book of these lifestyle tips).

And that's partly about the time folk have and partly about accessibility and practicality, before we get onto cultural attitudes to different media.

Obviously, the same goes for the amount and type of energy you have. I listen to loads of audiobooks, plus Stephen and I read to each other - if I excluded those books (as the article seems to) then I only read three or four books a year (as opposed to perhaps three a month).

Timothy said...

The 'Mr Shiny shoes' post in Rush hour crush..was submitted by Dave Gorman for his show - modern life is goodish. Not a genuine visitor to the train station coffee shop. Just thought you'd like to know, but your point still stands I think even though it was a fictitious person.