Book Neglect: a Twenty-First-Century Crime by Jacob Armstrong

As a member of the so-called ‘cyber generation’, computers and mobile phones have long been a staple of my environment, and my education. Although social networking and new communicative technologies can be useful – we saw social media broadcasting blossom in the Arab Spring of 2011 – I am concerned about the effect these technologies have on our daily lives and consumption of literature.

Over the last four-ish days, at the point of writing, I have spurned Facebook. I logged out on Sunday night and didn’t log in again until Friday. I decided to immerse myself in the books I had lying around the house but had as yet been unable to successfully devour, between bouts of ironing.

On Monday I explored the guilt-ridden, post-war Germany of Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, which had been lying in my room collecting dust for weeks. Tuesday saw me trawling Jean-Dominique Bauby’s thoughts and hospital room, engrossed in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. The fictional town of Macondo, rife with suspicion and hatred, dominated a Wednesday spent turning the pages of Gabriel García Márquez’s Leaf Storm, whilst Allan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning provided the setting for a Thursday finish.

The last four days have been some of the most enjoyable for many exam-ridden weeks, although I am now racked with guilt that no female writers were included in my reading week. Then, as I logged back in this morning, I considered how much, or rather little, literature I had read in the past months, and how much my Facebook friends will have.

With the rapid development of technology, there’s an increasing encroachment upon the language skills and attention span of the youth, resulting in an unsettling impact on the uptake of literature now, which doesn’t say much for the future. Today’s infants are over-stimulated and in some cases plonked in front of a TV screen while parents check their notifications or Instagram, their bundles of joy watching Cbeebies. Children are more than likely navigating tablets and phones before speaking.

Without the ‘traditional’ one-to-one interaction, and the impossibility of a conversation with a television character or the Angry Birds, their language development will be stunted. Children and teenagers are able to flick between channels or apps immediately and constantly, fostering an attention deficit and lack of imagination, both of which are detrimental to reading skills.

It doesn’t help that reading is often seen as ‘uncool’. As a self-confessed bookworm (I didn’t choose nerd-life, it chose me), I enjoy a great read but frequently, and shamefully, I neglect the bookcase along with my peers. This trend may be in part down to a lack of receptiveness to literature. Many people chose to take duck-faced ‘selfies’ over the last four days rather than read. Each to their own, but will these narcissistic snaps contribute to our culture? Is it really creative to become a pixelated personification of superficiality and bravado?

I can’t imagine Tolstoy, Dickens or the Brontës would have thought so. That said, neither would they approve of my incessant name-dropping.

We should actively encourage the young from all strata of society to read for pleasure, and for their parents to read regularly to them too, in order to heal cognitive gaps between social groups and leverage social change. A 2010 Sutton Trust study found that ‘those who were read to every day at age three had a vocabulary at age five nearly two months more advanced than those who were not’, and as a child grows up the differences between them are compounded.

In an environment in which library closures are limiting access to books, it’s no wonder that the youth more regularly watch television or chat on social networks than read a book. Without the pressure placed upon regular reading to children, the social benefits of reading for pleasure cannot and will not be secured.