Marc Lambert: Turning the page for a new era in reading

A youngsters lost in a book

A youngsters lost in a book

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Book Week Scotland – Scotland’s first ever Book Week – begins today. During the next seven days, the written word will be celebrated here as never before, with nearly 500 free events taking place in every corner of the country, from Shetland to Galloway, and from the Hebrides to the Tay.

Libraries, workplaces, care homes, gardens, prisons, a variety of community and charity organisations, as well as institutions like the National Museum of Scotland, Dundee Contemporary Arts, VisitScotland and the STUC are all taking part.

A total of 390,000 free books will be given away to Scots of all ages – and that’s just the start of what is a multifaceted programme.

But given that 64 per cent of Scots say that reading is their main cultural activity, is there any need? Look at the numerous book festivals that take place every year in Scotland, such as the mighty Edinburgh Book Festival, catering to ever-expanding audiences who are thirsty for literature, literary encounters, ideas and information. Many would say that in a country strapped for resources, Scotland was already well equipped as a place of books.

It is certainly true to say that a culture of literature and literacy runs deep in this country. But, as we all know, statistical surveys and audience numbers can sometimes mask realities, depending on how they are conducted. And there is other, perhaps more compelling evidence that suggests that there is still a real and active need to promote the book, whether it is made of paper or electronics.

The really significant statistic is that, according to the OECD’s respected PISA educational assessments, nearly 75 per cent of 15-year-olds in Scotland think reading is mostly a waste of time. Now add to this the strong evidence that literacy levels and educational attainments are tied to socio-economic background, or that – according to the National Literacy Trust – one in six of the population has literacy difficulties, and one begins to build an altogether different picture.

A regular finding of CBI and Scottish Enterprise surveys, for instance, is that Scottish employers struggle to find employees with the kinds of communications skills that are required in a modern business environment, and we know that good writing comes from good reading.

Finally, consider that around 70 per cent of our prison population is functionally illiterate and, clearly, there is a job to be done here at many different levels, from basic literacy to the development of more sophisticated and nuanced skills.

All the same, Book Week Scotland isn’t about solving these issues, in and of itself alone. That would be asking the impossible. Deep-seated problems require long-term efforts which are defined, agreed and committed to by the whole of Scottish society.

What the week does do, though, is create a national platform to raise awareness of illiteracy in Scotland, the social and individual costs of it, and the many benefits of a regular and rich reading diet. It celebrates reading, readers and writers by demonstrating, through an inclusive, multi-level programme the sheer inspiring fun of the written and spoken word.

Book Week Scotland is an invitation to participate and enjoy in whatever way seems comfortable. It is an opportunity, whether one is a child, parent, reluctant reader or avid one, to be informed and entertained in discovering great writers – many of them Scottish – and great books.

For these reasons, schools, libraries and workplaces sit at the heart of the week’s celebrations. With the support of the Scottish Government, Education Scotland and our own Bookbug programme, every child starting primary will receive a family reading pack with four books to share and enjoy at home with their parents, plus a host of ideas of how to do that.

Libraries are putting on special author events and reading promotions, including a full day’s festival at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow where Sheena MacDonald will be debating the future of the book with Waterstones’ chief executive James Daunt, authors Pat Kane and Ewan Morrison, plus others.

At the same time 150,000 copies of a free book, celebrating Scotland with contributions from Michael Palin, Liz Lochhead and the general public, will be distributed through a host of national partnerships, many of them reaching Scotland’s busiest workplaces through the STUC’s learning arm.

Tying into Book Week, BBC Radio Scotland will be broadcasting a selection of these stories, which is also available on the Scottish Book Trust’s website in audio and e-book formats, thanks to the RNIB.

There’s a lot more in the programme, but I think the intention is plain. Book Week celebrates the central place of literature in our culture and the ease of our access to it. It allows and encourages us all to discuss, explore, and celebrate – on a national, local and individual level – books and all their many wonderful benefits.

Marc Lambert is chief executive of the Scottish Book Trust.

It’s the write stuff

HIGHLIGHTS of Book Week Scotland include Scottish acting legend John Cairney talking about the life and work of Robert Louis Stevenson at the Central Library on Thursday.

The founder of Scots language children’s publisher Itchy Coo, writer James Robertson, will discuss slavery and enlightenment in the Capital at St Giles’ Cathedral tomorrow.

For details of other Book Week Scotland events taking place in Edinburgh and the Lothians and to get tickets, log on to www.scottishbooktrust.com