23 May The pleasure of reading
In the summer of 2009, the year after my husband Simon died, I found myself in a small bookshop in upstate New York. The young man at the checkout asked me if I’d like to give someone a book. They had a local scheme collecting books for single mums. There were three titles to choose from. I gave a copy of Great Expectations to a single mum I never met living in a trailer park in rural New York State. I hope it did something for her; I know it cheered me up.
Back in the UK I became convinced that there would be a way of doing something like this through the internet. I tested the idea on more experienced acquaintances. I wrote to a bookseller suggesting that the moment when the world is worried about the future of the book was the perfect time to celebrate giving a book. All reactions were positive.
Give a Book (UK registered charity no. 1149664) went live in May 2011. Our firm belief is that to give a book, to pass on a good read, is a transaction of worth — not something thrown away, but a gift that is thought about and passed on out of generosity and respect. Our initial aim was to offer books in such places as Maggie’s Centres, Age UK and First Story – for escape, companionship, imagination and challenge. We were adamant that we would not get involved with primary schools or prisons – they were too huge for us and there were plenty of long-standing organisations who knew what they were doing.
Five years on, our largest projects are in prisons and primary schools. We frequently go in with the long-established organisations who indeed know what they are doing and have been privileged to learn from such places as The Reading Agency, National Literacy Trust, Beanstalk and Booktrust. But we also cherish partnerships with newer smaller organisations who share our values. Book Clubs in Schools is just such a one—their model for book clubs immediately engaged us —it’s workable, practical, inspiring, enlightening, brilliant in fact. We’ve sat in on their groups and so have seen them in action for ourselves—we’ve even heard boys exclaim that they didn’t know reading could be so much fun. These groups work and it’s a pleasure to work with them.
There is more information about all our projects and partners on the website www.giveabook.org.uk. We go on donating books for book groups in Maggie’s Centres and Age UK. But the groups Give a Book connects to mainly come from language-deprived worlds. As well as Book Clubs in Schools we have set up Magic Breakfast Book Clubs for primary school children who come to school hungry in all sorts of ways, helped make a library at a mother and baby refuge and supported Prison Reading Groups. We give mini-dictionaries to prisoners who complete the Reading Ahead (Adult Literacy) Challenge and supply book bags for children visiting on prison family days. We have recently set up a reading corner at an asylum seekers’ drop-in centre.
The people who support us take having and giving books for granted, as second nature. It is the sea we swim in. This is also why we have our Book of the Month slot on the website where new guests tell us about the book that they particularly like to share. Every reader has one – or more than one. There are people just around the corner who are nothing like as lucky, for whom reading is a pleasure closed off to them. Giving a book to a person who really needs one helps open a door – introducing them to the pleasure of reading.
Updated from VG’s preface to The Pleasure of Reading, 43 writers on the discovery of reading and the books that inspired them ed Antonia Fraser