This post includes the text of the speech I gave at a local secondary school about the importance of reading
Although I spent thirteen years (a figure which still astonishes me seven years on) working at Westonbirt School, the pleasure of visiting the stunning Grade I listed house and grounds never wears off, and I am still in contact with many of the staff and girls (past and present) as a member of their alumni organisation, the Westonbirt Association, for which I publish their annual news magazine.
I was therefore swift to accept an invitation from the school’s excellent Librarian Mrs Bomford and Head of English Mr Mew to visit one evening in January to judge the school’s Inter-house Reading Competition. In any school, rivalry between houses can be a great spur to achievement, and in the case of a school like Westonbirt where so many pupils are boarders, house spirit is usually especially strong.
That’s certainly true of Westonbirt School.
The Role of the Judge
My duties were straightforward and enjoyable, though I must say it is a weighty responsibility of judging between which house and which girls gave the best performance, reading from their chosen piece of poetry or prose.
I was intrigued to hear their choices, which ranged from set exam pieces to popular children’s books, and from timeless poetry classics – Kipling’s “If“, Shelley’s “Ozymandias” to up-to-the-minute authors and books that had not yet entered my radar. I am kicking myself that I didn’t think at the time to congratulate the poetry readers for choosing poems written so long ago but still so relevant in 2017. (Indeed, the girl who read Ozymandias inspired me to write this short story a few days later.)
For privacy reasons, I won’t name any of the participants here, but suffice to say, as I told them, they were all winners for being avid readers and sharing their love of books, though I did ultimately have to single out one house and two competitors for awards. They were also competing from very different backgrounds, and with different natural levels of ability. For some, reading before a crowd came naturally – they were clearly born performers – and others had to conquer stage fright and other challenges such as having to read in their second or third langauge.
I was impressed not only by the plucky readers, but also by the audience of fellow pupils who listened, rapt, to their friends read, at the end of a long day, on a cold dark night. Their good manners may be a testament to the standards of the school, but their unbroken attention was surely down to the excellence of each individual’s performance.
All in all, it was a wonderful way for me to spend the evening, and I’m delighted, with the school’s permission, to share a photo of the winners at the top of this page, and the text of my speech below.
My Speech at Westonbirt School’s Inter-House Reading Competition
Thank you, Mrs Bomford, for inviting me to come and judge the Inter-House Reading competition tonight. What a wonderful way to spend a chilly January evening, listening to you share aloud some of your favourite books.
There are lots of great settings for reading books – in a hammock in the garden, curled up under the duvet with a torch, in the home-made den I made when I was a child out of an old dog kennel – it was a big dog – but there can’t be many settings to beat the wonderful library of Westonbirt School, built by a man who loved and valued books and reading. Surely if Robert Holford is up there somewhere listening now, he ought to be feeling very pleased.
I too love reading, and though my little cottage down the road is nowhere near as grand as this, my life revolves around books. I write them, I review them, I help other authors publish and sell their books, and I talk about them at events and on the radio.
I’ve written three collections of short stories, some non-fiction books, and now I’m writing mystery novels, the first of which, called Best Murder in Show, will be published in April.
I’ll be launching it at the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival on 22nd April – the festival that I founded to share my love of books and reading with the local community. We’ll have lots of authors there, holding events and readings and workshops, and if you’d like to come and join the fun, I’d love to see you there.
But why do I love reading so much and why is it so important?
There are lots of reasons, many of which I only really became aware of when I went to work for the children’s reading charity, Readathon.
Firstly, there is lots of research that tells us that people who read books are more successful in every aspect of their lives – not just academically or at work, but in their relationships with other people and how happy and contented they are.
I expect some of you have heard of George RR Martin, who wrote the Game of Thrones. What he says about reading is:
“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”
That’s because reading allows you to travel to places you’d never be able to go (including made-up ones – I bet I’m not the only one in this room to have reached to the back of an old wardrobe, hoping to find Narnia!) It allows you to meet people you’d never encounter in real life and to be in situations that would otherwise be outside of your experience. It enables you to pack so much more into your years than if you didn’t read at all.
Reading helps you find answers to questions, not just to facts that you need to look up for your prep, but to answers about problems in your life.
Reading allows you to escape from your worries and to switch off by entering a whole different world. Books are like comfort blankets, and I bet you all have your old favourites that you like to go back to when you’re feeling down.
Sometimes the comfort to be found in a good book can be especially valuable, for example for refugees in camps waiting to move on to their new lives and homes, for people who are ill in hospital, bored, anxious, and maybe in constant pain. The Readathon charity I mentioned, for which I’m an ambassador, takes free books into children in hospital exactly for that reason: even when you’re poorly, life seems better with a book.
And even if you’re hale and hearty, but your life is feeling a bit dull, an exciting adventure story or a brilliant travel book can be just the thing to help your imagination take flight.
You may be thinking, “It’s all very well for her to bang on about how we should be reading for all these reasons, but how do we find the time, when we’ve got prep and assessments and matches and parties to fit in?”
I would say to you that you should make the time – and once you start, you won’t want to stop.
If even Barack Obama could find time to read for an hour every night while he was president, I think you can too. In fact, he said books were the one thing that helped him survive his eight years in the White House.
He said “At a time when so much of our politics is trying to manage this clash of cultures brought about by globalization and technology and migration, the role of stories to unify …is more important than ever.”
As Obama says, books bring people together too, and the act of sharing a story aloud, as you girls are about to do tonight, is one of the oldest forms of social bonding in history. Even before reading had been invented, and before people knew how to write things down, people loved to share stories aloud, and storytellers who could entertain their community by reciting stories aloud were held in the highest regard.
Of course in those days they had no choice but to do everything from memory, but even until a couple of generations ago, learning stories and poems off by heart was commonplace, because printed books were very expensive, before the paperback was invented early last century. My grandmother, who was born in 1900, used to do recitations as her party piece, and her daughter, my aunt, who is 80, recites poems silently in her head to entertain herself when she’s travelling.
You’re the first generation to grow up with all the advantages of modern technology for reading all around you. You’ve got not only affordable printed books but ebooks that you can read on your phones and tablets when you have an idle moment (or in bed after lights out! – you don’t so much need a torch these days). You’ve got audio books that you can listen to. You can write your own stories and print them out on your computer to share with your friends or post them on apps or blogs. The possibilities are growing all the time.
But for now, as seems so fitting in this splendid traditional library, I’m really looking forward to hearing you all sharing your favourite stories aloud, just as early civilisations will have done thousands of years ago. Thanks to all of you who have worked hard to prepare this treat for us.
I’m sure it’s going to be a difficult competition to judge, but to my mind, as readers, you’re all winners, and I hope you will enjoy the many adventures and the great wisdom that reading can bring you for many, many years to come.