I have in front of me a copy of the Nelson Lee Library for April 13th, 1918 (Wartime Price 1½d). It contains a story set in St Frank’s, a public school, about a sadistic teacher who turns out to be a German agent (“Hunter the Hun”). The story is not very sophisticated, but is exciting and involving. What is more, it is 24 pages of double-column type, in a small font – about 9-point, I think – that is quite a challenge to my aging eyes. Only a couple of illustrations are there to give visual clues and add interest to the reading experience.
Yet the readers of this weekly magazine, like those of the Magnet, the Union Jack, and a fair number of others were by and large teenage boys – the age group about whom educationalists despair these days because they won’t read anything. These boys, most of whom had no more than primary education, spent their own money on the magazines each week, and invested a good deal of their own time in the pleasure of reading.
Today, if I visit the newsagent round the corner, there are very few magazines or comics aimed at boys, and those that are there are picture-led, with strip cartoons and photo features, and with not even one page of solid print, let alone twenty-four. Even in bookshops, the unillustrated children’s book is becoming a rarity, and larger font sizes pad out exiguous narratives to something that looks book-length.
Why have things changed? The general explanation is that that ninety years ago print was the only available source of fiction, but there are easier ways to get excitement these days. Easy forms of entertainment drive out those that require an effort. This is partly true, but I don’t think the boys of 1918 saw reading Nelson Lee as something requiring an effort. Back then there was a print culture into which children slotted as easily as adults, and reading was taken for granted (So much so that the snobbier parents would disapprove of such sensational reading-matter as Nelson Lee or Sexton Blake.)
That culture has eroded. Not completely, of course. When I was a secondary-school teacher I taught some splendid groups of boys who were enthusiasts for Tolkien, and took the intimidating bulk of his books as a challenge. J.K. Rowling has also done her bit to make real reading cool. On the whole, though, boys now bypass the printed word, and go straight for the DVDs and the computer games that give them the thrills of fiction in a more immediately visceral manner.
The government sets tests and gets pompous about literacy targets. Teachers and librarians do their best, but the use of books (particularly among the working-class boys who in other times would have been the avid readers of the Nelson Lee Libary) declines.
Some years ago I was pondering the reasons why some children read and some don’t. I wrote a piece which I never did anything with, and it lay abandoned on my computer. This week, transferring files to a new computer, I re-read it, quite liked it, updated a couple of references (though most of it is solidly old-fashioned), and have put it on this site, as a page available to anyone who might be interested.
The main idea of the piece is that real reading (not just sounding out the letters, but imaginative involvement) comes to those who have picked up clues on how to read – and that the best purveyors of such clues are the books themselves. Anyway, it’s there if you’re interested.