Full disclosure: as librarian, it’s in my job description to promote books to the students and staff with whom I work: books that are ‘worth reading’, to quote Belfast boy and literary legend, C. S. Lewis. Lewis’s works are as comfortable piled on the bedside tables of children around the world as they are nestled on the bookshelves of distinguished academics. His Chronicles of Narnia, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and J K Rowling’s Harry Potter books are works of fantasy that captivate and challenge readers young and old. Ostensibly children’s books, these complex narratives roar along apace and yet offeradvanced perspectives on contemporary society. Lewis wrote, ‘No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond’. This intriguing statement is well worth interrogating, for it provides a useful starting point for considering the value of reading, the impact books have on the pliable minds of the young, their legacy as readers as grow up, and how reading powerful works of children’s literature can catch anyone up, no matter what age they are.
When a young person hands a friend a book and tells them that it’s ‘really worth reading’, what does this mean? And what about when a teacher tells a class the same thing? And does it mean something different when a librarian says it? Well, of course the worthiness of a book depends on the context in which it is being judged, because the joy of reading is that it functions on such a variety of levels. Between friends, reading can pique shared interests, provide a topic for discussion and debate, or solidify or challenge views. Teachers, who often get asked to advise students on those books which might improve them, might provide recommendations of books that are ‘really worth reading’ from a different angle, directing their charges to things related to a specific subject, or written in a particular style. When a librarian suggests that a book is worth reading, certainly there is a focus on reading for pleasure. There is, too, a drive to challenge readers to stretch themselves – both along literary lines, pushing the boundaries of genre and form, as well as in emotional, societal, and political terms.
Books that are ‘really worth reading’ surely do all these things: they give their readers insights into different world views; they’re a fun escape; they allow you to experience things without leaving your armchair. These books help their readers to shape their own identity, develop empathy, and build real-life relationships with those who have connected to the same kinds of literature that they love. There is also an argument for books having an inherent instructive value: whether in the literal mode of an actual manual of improvement, perhaps in another language or a practical skill, or in a canonical way, where readers wish to situate their cultural understanding within the landscape of the greats that have gone before us all.
I drew on three giants of fantasy writing from the British Isles in my introduction: C. S. Lewis, Philip Pullman and J. K. Rowling. These authors layered parent-free adventures, in magical worlds, placing their heroes in perilous positions. In one, a frozen land complete with talking lion is accessible through a piece of furniture; in another, the reader finds an alternative Oxford where one’s soul manifests as an animal; the third introduces a train that whisks hundreds of pupils off to learn magic at a castle in the Scottish highlands. But these are so much more than merry japes and close scrapes. Beyond their fast-paced exploits, these series offer their readers rich representations of relationships and allegorical considerations of the very fabric of society.
So, if worthy books can do this variety of things for the young, what is to be made of C. S. Lewis’s assertion that the same books are equally or even more valuable for those aged fifty and beyond? Perhaps the takeaway is that there are lifelong lessons to be learned from reading books, and if such lessons can be learned by the age of ten, then they should certainly be learned by the age of fifty. Exposure to a wide-range of literature from a young age, stories which draw children across the globe and the universe through the pages of a wonderful book, whipping them through time, from the past into the future with only words on wood-pulp paper, moving them to tears of laughter or joy or heartfelt grief with conjured imaginings playing out inside their own skulls.
It is my contention that reading is powerful, and that most books are worth reading. If you derive a benefit from reading a book, then it was beneficial. Lessons about the lyrical beauty of the written word, the human condition, the state of society, of dynamics of power – these are valuable at whatever age they are learned. Perhaps, it is the fault of old age to forget those lessons so taken to heart at the age of ten. Reading books fit for their ten-year-old selves might teach those who have already grown up about something about how they live their lives. Being older does not necessarily mean being wiser, but being well read probably does.