The reading on the wall

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A lot is being written about the dearth of reading in Malta and, separately but associated with this, about the state of our libraries. The facts are very hard to deny. The Maltese as a people are not the most avid readers in the world; quite the opposite. A Misco study a few years back showed that they do read but very few do so regularly and even fewer prefer to read books.

Another fact is that the state of our lending library, in spite of all the work being poured into it by a dedicated group of minders, is poor, in every aspect. The volume of borrowing pretty much reflects this and the lack of reading, which all research indicates to be a fact.

I will try not to belabour the point here and look forward rather than backwards. Enough research has been carried out for us to have, at least, an inkling as to what the causes are for this but perhaps a few ideas need to be put in place, rather than in perennial discussion, as to how this national malaise can be handled with long-term solutions in mind.

Let’s start with the libraries.

There are a number of positive elements already in place. There is a visionary team made up of a CEO and two librarians working hard to implement change against all odds.

There is a University department and a library council led by a person who knows her stuff and an association that is constantly proffering positive suggestions.

But they do not have the money, nor do they have the political clout to make the changes that need to be made to turn our libraries into points of socialisation, built around information and entertainment with books of the print and ‘e’ categories at the centre of the operations.

Nor do we have an attractive, cosy venue for our central lending library. We have perpetually endorsed Dom Mintoff’s mistake in placing the library in an inaccessible, quite horrible building, with gorgeous views but little else. Complete with metal, warehouse-style bookcases and no comfort in the reading rooms. This is a mistake that needs to be rectified.

A central, appealing location has to be identified and given over to the people who know what to do, so they can turn it into what needs doing.

Then, of course, there is the persistent problem of reading, or the lack of it. There is no panacea here. Do not believe anyone who tells you that a mentality stuck in concrete can be turned round in a few years. The thinking needs to be long term. And it needs to be far-reaching and consistent.

Piecemeal solutions that appeal to the camera are risible political ploys that leave no lasting effect. Planning and a vision are needed here. One hopes that there are people in power who can do both. But, in any case, here are a few suggestions.

Catch them when they are young or even before they are born. Work with midwives in antenatal classes to infuse the concept of bedtime reading in the minds of parents-to-be.

Make sure they understand that having enough books around the house will surely leave some sort of effect on the offspring. There is enough research to support this. This might also, eventually, eat away at the ignorant mentality that some parents have of tyrannically imposing books on their children, counter productively making them hate books.

If the next generation, not born yet, reads, then we are on the way.

But children actually do read, in spite of the tantalising allure of so many electronic distractions. Studies in Sweden are even showing that the new generations are being re-awed by printed books, having gone full circle from the fascination with the alternative.

We lose them in teenage. If there are enough good books for teenagers out there and if there are programmes in schools that foster reading in ways that promote it as fun rather than letting the ‘learn-by-heart’ brigade ruin their perceptions, then there is hope.

Let local councils come on board too. Have this corroborated by visionary local council culture plans, including reading clubs, discussions, multimedia spanning of what stems from reading. Get youth clubs on board. Work on a national strategy that includes goodwill and people with a mission rather than political imposition, and we might get there.

Help the publishers. We have precious few of them as it is. They work hard and against the odds. They have done miracles and it has all been on their own. They have little to no help from the authorities and European programmes that are supposed to help culture more often than not do not fit the demands of our tiny market and are therefore not viable options.

Create a needs analysis to see what is missing and help them diversify, promote and be a force to be reckoned with rather than let them struggle to keep their noses above water. They are commercial entities that are keeping a market alive that contributes massively to our national culture. Find out what they need and help them get it, for our sakes as well as theirs.

Help the booksellers too, if you can. Give them back their book fair and then create a festival another time and another place. They need their once-a-year outlet to see some returns on their outlays.

Put books within the reach of those who have no books at all. Work with social workers, parish priests, local councils. Find the depressed areas and slowly introduce the concept of reading to the people there. They might laugh you out of the house to begin with but leaving a book behind will eventually lead to a trickle of interest that might, with time, turn into a torrent.

Flood the media with talk about books. Do not hide culture on television in the slots nobody watches because they are asleep. Make the programmes interesting and watchable. Put drama in there and documentaries that do not involve just one talking head. Pump the social media for all it is worth.

Put very short story collections in waiting rooms. Subsidise these if need be. Make sure there is something that can be read in 15 minutes. Nobody will pick up a book in the doctor’s waiting room if all that can be read is a chapter.

And also fill our beaches with libraries. Make deals with hotels to have book exchange programmes. Give them the bookcases and a crate of books to begin with, help them with expertise, then let them take it from there.

And so on.

I am just an individual and these are only some of the ideas that I have. There is no place here to list all of them. Imagine what a think-tank of like-minded individuals can come up with, just how many other practical visions can fuel the list.

This list is just the tip of what can be done. All ideas here are practical, though they need finances and goodwill to be implemented.

We cannot go on just talking and doomsaying. We cannot keep on dreaming of bringing back what has been lost, thinking that the whole situation can be solved if only we can go back to a different time. The friendly bookseller seer has gone the way of the manifk and Wenzu tat-Titotla.

We need to be proactive and get on with the job at hand. The minds of our people deserve no less.

(From THE TIMES, March 28, 2014)

 

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