World Book Day happened last week and I was pleased to see so many children getting involved in dressing as their favourite characters. World Book Day is a great day to champion quite how magical reading a good story can be and the levels of participation seen across the country.
Last week also saw the frankly heart-breaking story of Callum Manning, a 13-year-old boy from Newcastle bullied for his love of reading.
Callum’s story really got to me as I do relate very much – even from my own secondary school days, reading was an almost weird activity to admit to enjoying. Perhaps that’s due to secondary school being the domain of adolescents with other more physical pursuits that leaves those content with nestling away with a book in the library seen as “abnormal”.
As a secondary school kid myself back in 2001 I found it very difficult to fit into the cliquey nature of secondary school as I didn’t really share many of the more “mainstream” interests in sport, nor did I find socialising with my peers at an all-boys school particularly easy because I didn’t share those core, keystone interests that boys bond over. For some reason, then and now, boys who don’t seek the pleasures of sport – or the opposite sex – aren’t seen as “normal” boys.
Is this because of a predilection to assume masculinity in this country (and perhaps the Western world generally) does not promote intellectual prowess as a key trait? Perhaps it keys back to prehistoric times where physical strength was valued as a survival trait?
Both of those questions are a little beyond the scope of this post but both pose interesting questions about how boys are raised in this country, on a societal level. Maybe World Book Day is seen as a more “childish” thing, so reading in general is lumped in with that?
But getting back to the point of reading, I feel that there are very few male role models in Western society that seem to champion the power of thought. Most boys have sporting icons as heroes and the few that seemed to exist (the Doctor from Doctor Who, prior to 2018 at least) seem to have largely fallen by the wayside.
Therefore, I understand the mindset of those that cruelly tormented Callum for his love of reading, but pity it immensely. As an adolescent myself I recall I had to be very select about who I shared my “esoteric” interests – history, computer games that weren’t the usual “boys” staple, like The Sims and SimCity, and books – and it’s this that likely made me the very private person I am today. It’s something I’m attempting to shed as a characteristic in my 30s now because I’ve stopped caring, frankly.
That said I think this perceived anti-intellectualism that pervades society to look strangely at readers continues. When I joined Facebook in 2008, a disappointing number of people listed things like “I don’t read” in their favourite books section. Even now, researching this post, 78,000 people have this on their page as of 2020. It’s sad and heart-breaking because it’s such a missed opportunity.
I also apportion some of the blame for this sentiment to mass media – shows like Love Island, Geordie Shore and The Only Way is Essex are harmful as they actively promote a “it’s cool to be stupid” air to them. It’s a race to the bottom, and society seems to be dumbing down.
Even back in my more formative years, shows like Big Brother catapulted people such as Jade Goody to public consciousness. While what happened to Jade at the end of her life was awful and not something I’d ever wish on someone, was Jade quite the person to be front and centre of British society like she was? I was sceptical at the time and remain so.
Of course, I don’t propose we bring up kids on a diet of Radio 4, classical music and Tolstoy. These shows, the most egregious I think being Love Island, actively promote this apparent “bimbo” culture – if you have a “hot bod”, it doesn’t matter that you know nothing. You will succeed on no discernible “talent”, but on how marketable your image is. Indeed, there’s already some consternation about the hidden toxicity of the show right now.
It’s a superficial culture that seems to actively promote a lack of thought, a shallowness that I find, personally, distasteful. While I would never begrudge these people their “trash TV”, I do find its prevalence in a race-to-the-bottom worrying. And as we’ve seen with Love Island recently, the brightest candles burn shortest.
But let’s get back to the more positive nature of World Book Day. I think it’s wonderful to see so many kids celebrating their love of stories. I think reading is a magical activity – you stare at ink on a dead tree and imagine things. It’s totally engrossing and I’m so glad my own reading has taken up this year, I am very much enjoying it. More and more people should take the time, challenge themselves to a book and they’d realise too what an engrossing and amazing experience getting lost in a good (or bad) story can be!