Teenagers – how do you find the time to read?

I was hoping to be writing a very different post this week, but the publishing industry being what it is, that post won’t be happening any time soon (boo).  

So I’m doing this instead. 

I was in Chester on the 23rd May, at the schools literary quiz, giving out the prizes.  The schools taking part did amazingly well – I’ll admit that most of the the questions had me stumped.  And the winning school richly deserved their win. I’m thinking of poaching a couple of their team members for the Bollington Festival literary quiz that I’m organising in September.

Anyway, I had to give a speech and was asked to talk about teenagers and reading – this is the speech I gave …

I’m so honoured to be here and see so many teenagers, so avidly interested in reading.  And that’s what I’d like to talk to you about – about reading and how important it is.  I realise that I’m preaching to the converted here, but that’s what will make you such a nice audience …

I was an RAF kid – I moved around a lot and that made it hard to have good friends for any length of time.  You’d meet someone and three months later they’d move. You meet someone else and three months later, you’d move.  This made me a fairly solitary child.   

Obviously for me reading was escapism into worlds where I had friends who never went anywhere – every time I opened a book with a bent spine and dog-eared pages – there they were, waiting for me.  It was action and adventure – my favourite books at that time were heroic fantasy and science fiction – Anne MaCaffrey, David Gemmell.  I could literally get lost inside a book.

But reading was more to me than that.  It was a way of connecting with my Dad, who was away a lot. We had the same taste in literature.  As a teenager I worked my way through his entire bookcase – Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Larry Niven, Philip Jose Farmer, Frank Herbert – and that gave us something to talk about – a common ground.  I remember long conversations with Dad about books, about writers, about stories.  He was my first sounding board for ideas.  He was my first and most avid supporter when I started writing.  He’s still desperate for me to write about dragons …

And reading was more to me than that.  It was something to do – my parents wouldn’t have a telephone in the house, we had one TV (with only four channels) and that was only allowed on from 6pm so the adults could watch the news.  We had a Sinclair ZX64 computer – not exactly a Nintendo and in those days there was no email, no mobile phones, no YouTube.  On a Sunday afternoon there was the Top 40 on the radio, but other than that, if I wasn’t doing homework, I was reading.  In almost every photograph of me as a teenager I’m reading.  

And more – reading has given me a university degree – I did English Literature at Cambridge, not possible without a wide reading background, I’m sure you will agree.  And it has given me a career.  I wouldn’t be a writer without reading.  Reading books by other writers inspires me, teaches me, raises my own work to a higher level.  

That’s me and it’s pretty obvious why I needed to read – but what about you?

How can you possibly find the time?

Seven hours and 38 minutes.

That is how long the average teen devotes to using entertainment media in a typical day.  Television, films, social networking, texting, youtube, computer games, iPhone, music.   

Yet despite all these areas increasing, the time spent reading books has remained pretty steady. 

Why?  Why haven’t you dropped reading in favour of watching films or gaming?  What does reading give you that those other media cannot?

Why is reading so important to you?

Well I guess, on the practical side reading helps you improve your language skills.  It helps you with vocabulary and spelling. 

It helps you feel all sorts of emotion – happiness, sorrow, hate, love.  A 2008 study found that people who read more fiction score higher on tests of empathy and social acumen. 

Reading widens your experiences, takes you on adventures – gives you things to talk about, challenges your thinking. 

It’s proven that people who read are better writers and public speakers. Seeing how different writers put down their thoughts enables you to better communicate your own.

In fact studies have shown that teens who read actually do better in their careers.  One particular study conducted with 17000 people showed that teen readers were 10-14% more likely to rise to a professional or managerial position

But why read instead of watching television?  Most modern television programming is designed to capture your attention by constantly pinging your brain with abrupt sounds and transitions.  This can create stress.  Research at the University of Sussex has shown that reading reduces stress levels by up to 68 percent. 

Yet reading is active, not passive, you are involved: you need to concentrate, imagine what the world is like, what the characters look and sound like.  You become a part of the story by creating all these things with your imagination. 

You become complicit with the author, you work alongside the author to bring worlds to life. 

Without you, the reader, I the author am nothing.

So on behalf of all authors – thank you.  Thank you for working with us to create great loves and epic battles, worlds beyond our own and adventures beyond those we can have on the school run.

Reading is good for your mind, your body and your future.  You are all readers.  You all know what reading means to you.  You know how important it is to get lost in a book.  Now you have an answer if someone tells you to stop reading and do something useful …

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