A new report entitled A Society of Readers, commissioned by the charity The Reading Agency and conducted by think tank Demos, finds a significant body of evidence to show that reading can help to combat the growing issue of loneliness, as well as acting as a tool to protect future generations from loneliness. With nine million people in the UK currently feeling lonely "often" or "always", the research shines a light on the benefits of using reading as a form of social connection. To find out more about the report and what it means, we caught up with Edward Cutler, Digital Communications Officer at The Reading Agency.
Why did you decide to do this research with Demos?
We know, from observing the results of our own programmes and from existing research, that reading can have a powerful, positive impact across a broad range of challenges, from social mobility to mental health. Commissioning an independent report from a leading think tank with a record of influencing policy was what we needed to show not only how important reading is to our present-day society, but how vital it is going to be in ameliorating the symptoms of loneliness and dementia – both of which figure to be enormous obstacles among an ageing population. With recommendations like a £200 million government investment in reading, A Society of Readers adds another layer of evidence to the argument that we should be investing in reading now to future-proof coming generations.
The research suggests that reading is on the decline - how are the Reading Agency working to address this?
Well, 1.2 million people take part in our reading programmes every year. We work with adults and young people as well as children because we know how important it is for children to have adult role models in their lives, as well as the opportunity to participate in programmes like the Summer Reading Challenge, which is now in its 20th year. What we hope is that as well as maintaining their reading and literacy levels during the holidays, many of the children participating in the Summer Reading Challenge are inspired to go back to libraries and develop a lifelong reading habit. Anecdotally, we know that people who participated in the first few Summer Reading Challenges are now watching their own children complete it. We work closely with our library partners to maintain the primacy reading in British society and to ensure that everyone can take part – our Reading Well programme, for instance, links the health service and libraries by providing a wide range of titles to help people better understand and manage particular conditions. And through our newest programme, Reading Friends, we use reading – in group or one-to-one situations – as a way of combatting social isolation. We constantly stress the economic, health and social benefits of reading.
What initiatives have you seen around the world that are changing things?
We know from the evaluation of our programmes that ours are doing this A Society of Readers was covered on Canadian television, in Indonesia and France to name but a few countries across the globe, demonstrating that our message has a universal appeal and that there is real interest in the power and impact of reading. The work Book Aid do in sending books to children in warzones around the world is hugely significant; there are also many brilliant organisations that share the Free Word building with us. English PEN defends writers’ and readers’ freedom of expression around the world, while The Literacy Consultancy provides free editorial support to writers – both are laudable and vital.
Reading Well is now an established programme and used by GPs who can do social prescribing. What successes have you seen?
We recently published a case study on our website about Andy, a Library Team Leader in Gloucestershire. He’d been feeling ill for two years but GP visits and testing hadn’t been able to identify the cause. It was only when Andy found a book, Overcoming Chronic Fatigue, in the library that he was able to pin down his condition and begin to get treatment. It’s important to note that Reading Well isn’t only for those with medical conditions. The books about understanding mental health, for example, can be very beneficial to family members and friends of someone going through a crisis period. Our latest Reading Well evaluation showed that programme has reached 931,000 people since 2013.
Social mobility is often considered to be quite a concrete and tangible thing, whereas reading and arts are softer. How do the two work together?
We display a fact very clearly on our website: Reading is more important to children’s cognitive development than their parents’ level of education or social class. In other words, getting children reading, via libraries, can overcome those challenges and disadvantages. Reading may have a gentle image – that’s a good thing, of course – but its benefits are measurable and demonstrable.