Bob Jones: Teach kids to read books and they will flourish

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All of my domain's state houses had bookcases containing at least 100 books, and library usage was normal, writes Jones. Photo / Thinkstock
All of my domain's state houses had bookcases containing at least 100 books, and library usage was normal, writes Jones. Photo / Thinkstock

The most influential person in my life was my sixth-form history teacher. He repeatedly emphasised that absolutely everything is interesting. As there were only six pupils - our fellow "students" mostly gone at 15 into the labour-short Hutt factories - we had virtually personal tutorage and quickly bolted through the syllabus.

Thereafter, the teacher introduced diverse topics such as medieval church architecture, alchemy and the Scottish clearances. But what he was really promoting was not simply knowledge but inquiring minds, surely the most important tool to maximise one's life in every sense. And I have no doubt the best way to achieve that is through reading.

Recently, in my favourite Wellington haunt, Quilters second-hand bookshop, I asked John Quilter how many of his clientele were young folk, for excluding America, it's now rare to see people under 30 in bookshops. "We get students with a sense of curiosity," he replied, this reflected by their purchases.

In my youthful pre-television and pre- near everything else days, reading was a principal activity. All of my domain's state houses had bookcases containing at least 100 books, and library usage was normal. Today, reading is uncommon with the young and so too newspapers, reflecting a dull lack of curiosity. I believe they're hugely the poorer for that, as evidenced by their often-startling ignorance, despite possessing law and other degrees.

My libraries in Sydney and Wellington total more than 20,000 books, about a third fiction, which is my true love. "How can you possibly read them all?" people ask. Quite easily, actually. I point out the mostly unmitigated garbage on television and the hours wasted watching it, or playing computer games, so by omitting these, it's easy to bowl through three or four books weekly and still live an active life in other areas.

Today's book world is under pressure. The number of British bookshops halved over the past six years, principally through internet discount purchasing. I would never do that, as the joy of bookshop browsing is so pleasurable.

On my Auckland trips, together with my book-loving Auckland managers, we routinely visit the splendid Unity bookshop, then on to Jason Books in the Law Society building, a treasure trove of incredibly cheap, esoteric riches. So, too, when in Sydney in Berkelouw's three levels of second-hand books, their success spawning two rivals across the road.

Thanks to technology, books have never been cheaper to produce. Small runs are now feasible, resulting in an avalanche of titles for retailers to struggle choosing for their limited shelf-space.

For 99 per cent of authors, writing is a labour of love, which is why I respect prolific authors such as Auckland history professor Paul Moon. Paul produces always fascinating new books on aspects of our history every couple of years. His latest, Encounters - The creation of New Zealand, comprises a kaleidoscope of essays on a rich diversity of elements that have made us what we are, and is highly recommended. Having 22 published books under my belt, I can understand Paul's motives, best explained by an incident back in 1986.

I was the guest speaker at the launch of our then cricket captain Jeremy Coney's autobiography. I suggested authorship was a man's creative equivalent to a woman's childbirth experience. As I spoke, Jeremy looked distressed. He hissed at me, "You've stolen my bloody lines. That's what I was going to say." Say it anyway, I suggested, and outline the pleasure you gained in the exercise, which he did.

Mind you, child-bearing, while arduous, is a poor analogy as it's essentially passive. True creativity comes in child-rearing. The best mother I know is one of my adult daughters, possibly because she was such a ratbag herself in her teen years. She's also a good writer, with a book to her credit, but claims - falsely, given her household staff - to have no time for more. When I once condemned her for this, she made an interesting comment: "I can't write any more as I'm too happy."

Probably she's right. Authorship does require an underlying unsettled edge. That said, her children's television and computer usage is strictly rationed and their home recreation has been book-reading from the outset, with excellent results.

If we could persuade our welfare-dependent underclass of the merits of this approach, they'd disappear in a generation. That's not supposition. In Glasgow in the early 1980s, an experiment was conducted in the Gorbals. Those infamous slums, now demolished, were disastrous, their Irish Catholic occupants descendants of the 19th-century potato famine refugees. Criminality, unemployment, welfarism and alcoholism were their hallmarks.

Some willing parents, however, were persuaded to do their bit at home and their children were then drenched in books at school. There was a concentration on the classics, the theory being that the ancient Greeks' myths, poetry and philosophies would open the children's minds. The results were stunning. Within a few years, those kids were top academic performers and doubtless went on to greater things. We need that approach here.

- NZ Herald

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