Reality Check

I’ve written before on this blog of my passion for encouraging literacy, particularly among children; if I had my way, every child on this planet would be exposed to books at as early an age as possible. If there was one thing I could do – given unlimited power and funds – it would be to equip every child in the world with their own mini-library, and with the skills to read it. I truly feel that one of the most useful things we can do for our future generations is to ensure they can read as well as they are able, and that they read as widely as possible.

Of course, there are children who just don’t like to read – that’s sad, but it’s a fact. However, they should, at least, be given the opportunity to read, and encouraged to try, and exposed to as many different types of book as possible, just in case something might engage their imagination and spark off their interest. I have a belief – and it may be a naive and silly belief, but it’s mine just the same – that there is a book for every child.

A sight that gladdens my heart... Image:

A sight that gladdens my heart…

Yesterday, I had an opportunity to put this belief into practice. I was in a bookshop – one with which I’m long familiar, and which I can never resist dipping into if I’m close enough to visit it – and I was, of course, browsing intently in the children’s section. A young mother approached me, her six-year-old daughter in tow, and asked me my opinion on what she should purchase for her little girl to read.

I’m not sure if she thought I was a staff member, or if it was a case of ‘once a bookseller, always a bookseller’ and she caught the whiff of enthusiastic knowledge from me, but whatever the reason for her question, I was happy to help. I learned this lady was the mother of a ten-year-old, the six-year-old I had the pleasure of meeting, and a four-year-old, all girls. The eldest child was a strong and enthusiastic reader, she told me, but the others struggled. They found it hard to emulate their sister, and found themselves bored by a lot of the books they’d tried in the past. They liked ‘funny’ books, and were growing tired of the princessy-type, pink and glitter books that they had once loved.

I threw my eyes around the shelves, and came up with a few ideas. Andy Stanton’s ‘Mr Gum’ books were my first suggestion, followed by Francesca Simon’s ‘Horrid Henry’ series (enthusiastically grabbed by the six-year-old); for the older girls, I thought of Jeremy Strong’s ‘There’s a Viking in my Bed!’ and the wonderful books of David Walliams, which are funny but also sweet and uplifting, with a comforting focus on love and friendship and family, so important to young readers. I think the lady was touched by my efforts and glad of the suggestions, and I certainly appreciated being asked for help.



However, as pleased as I was to have helped these young readers to find something good to exercise their brains, there was one aspect of the situation that has been on my mind ever since, and it centres on the fact that the bookshop we happened to be in was one that deals exclusively in second-hand books. The reason I like to go there so often is because I always find new authors to follow and new series to start collecting, and it’s fantastic to dig around in the piles of books and uncover some lost classics and rarities. It’s also wonderful to be able to pick up a book for less money than it would be if I bought it new – but with a view, always, to purchasing the writer’s back catalogue in a ‘proper’ bookshop if I like what I buy second-hand. I discovered Catherine Fisher this way; I got heavily into Kate Thompson by browsing the shelves of this very shop. The same thing applies to Jenny Nimmo, who I adore, and most of whose books I have subsequently purchased new. Sometimes, I don’t mind buying books second-hand if the author is deceased, or if their work is out of copyright – then, I don’t feel like I’m dipping my hand into a fellow writer’s pocket and taking their earnings from them – but normally I try to purchase books new as often as I can. Not everyone feels this way, for a variety of reasons – some of them excellent, unassailably logical reasons.

The mother of these young readers, for instance, was enthusiastic about second-hand books not because they were a gateway to new writers and their back catalogues, but because of their cheapness and relative ‘disposability’; it’s always easier to give a book away, or not to mind if it gets wet or torn or dirty, if you didn’t buy it ‘new’. I can’t blame the lady for thinking this way – as important as it is for children to read, it’s also important for them to have shoes and clothes and school uniforms and food, of course, and I can completely understand why new books would slide down a parent’s list of priorities. But, as an aspiring writer, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of pain at the thought.

Every book bought second-hand benefits, in financial terms, nobody but the person selling it; the author gets nothing. If a book is borrowed in a library, at least the author gets a tiny fraction of a payment for it. It’s tough, realising that something which benefits readers so much (i.e. second-hand book purchasing) can be such a bad thing from a writer’s point of view, but that is the reality of the world we live in. I do not judge the lady I helped for her choice, particularly because I also frequent second-hand bookshops (though I do try to support the authors I love as much as I can); I just hope that, perhaps, encouraging children to read when they’re young will turn them into not only enthusiastic consumers of books, but also enthusiastic supporters of writers when they grow older, thereby ensuring there will always be a flow of new books to read. I also hate reducing the whole ‘book creation-book consumption’ thing to crass economic terms, but that’s a reality, too. Writers need to earn a living, however meagre, and that’s becoming harder and harder with every passing year.

It’s important to clearly state that of course I believe it’s more important to encourage children to read than it is to ensure they only read from brand-new books – literacy concerns trump all else – but thoughts of ‘what will become of writers?’ have been playing on my mind since my encounter with this lady, nonetheless. I’d love to hear your opinions on this, if you have any. If you buy your books in hard copy, do you like to browse in second-hand shops? What’s your thinking on the economic issues I’ve laid out here? Do tell.

Happy Tuesday! And, naturally, I hope you’re reading, no matter where you bought your book.

6 thoughts on “Reality Check

  1. Kate Curtis

    *guilty face*

    I’ve have never thought about it that way before. As you know, I buy a lot of pre-loved stuff and I suddenly feel relieved that nearly all of the second-hand books I’ve bought over the years are quite old and well out of print or the author is deceased. But I *have never thought about it before*. You’re absolutely right and it disturbs me that I missed it. Especially as I’m conscious about how I purchase second hand music for *that* very same reason.

    Thank you for this perspective, and this post 🙂

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Oh, thank goodness you didn’t think I was being mean, or stingy, or unfair! *relief*

      I completely understand that people have to take the cheapest option open to them when it comes to buying things like books – well, I mean, most people see books as a ‘luxury’ and not a ‘necessity’, which I wouldn’t agree with 😉 – but this idea, that I’m taking money from the author, has always been in my head. I’m glad I’ve given you something to think about, at least. But keeping books in circulation and getting them to as wide an audience as possible is a good thing, so don’t stop buying books, or anything crazy like that… 🙂

      Thanks for reading, Kate, and for your thoughtful comment. 🙂

  2. Sam

    Morning Sinéad!

    An insighful post to start my day with, and I agree with what you’re saying. I discovered, to my horror, that my 3 nephews have barely set foot in a book shop since they were able to walk. They don’t read. I felt unwell when they ‘fessed up and insisted they paid a visit to one asap.

    I’m a recovering Amazon Junkie. Since they … annoyed … me a few months back, I’ve taken to using Abebooks. On a limited budget, second-hand is essential for my reading survival.


    The ethics of buy books (thougth I’d never say that) is on my mind so if I buy second-had (sometimes, to my disgust, through Amazon because options are limited), I choose indie sellers who pay toward charities. Those that support literacy charities are top of my agenda.

    If I buy new, I buy direct from the publisher. If possible. I have no qualms in saving up for full RRP and making sure all of that money goes direct to those who release the book and therefore have closest ties to the author. I don’t know if it makes a difference but I’d rather see £20 go to Penguin than £12.59 (and much, much worse) go to Amazon and I certainly refuse to buy ebooks or get them ‘for free’, unless uetterly impelled i.e. only in digital format.

    Children and adults alike shouldn’t just be reading; they should know where their books come from and what their real price is. Hint: it’s not the £7.99 printed on the back.

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Thank you, Sam, for this wonderfully insightful response. I wish more people were like you – i.e. thoughtful about where they buy their books (and, indeed, their *stuff*, in general). I hate this fashion we have nowadays for saying a book is a ‘bargain’ if it’s available on Amazon (or elsewhere) for 99c, or something – to me, that’s a travesty, not a bargain. I hate the way books are becoming a disposable thing, like a handkerchief, instead of a piece of work that takes money, time and investment to bring to the reader, and should be paid for accordingly.

      But then, of course, sometimes people just don’t have the money. Making books cheaper has democratised reading and making words more widely available is also something I would champion. I guess I’ve tied myself in an ideological bind, again! 🙂 I guess everyone has to make the choice that’s right for them, and as it stands with me right now. I choose to do as you do, and pay a little more for something I love and believe in.

      Thank you for your comment, Sam. 🙂

  3. Sophie Playle

    This is a bit off topic and probably a bit of a silly point… I’ve been told by two different opticians that my short sightedness was caused, not be tv or computer screens, but reading often as a child, while my eyes were still developing. I absolutely love books, but I almost wish I had known this when I was a kid… I wonder if it would have limited my time with a book pressed to my nose in a dimly lit room!

    I used to work in a large publishing house. All of 15 of us editorial assistants wore glasses and were avid readers as children! One girl said that she didn’t actually need glasses until she went to university and spent most of the day with her nose buried in a law textbook.

    Maybe there is a reason why so many bookish people have to wear glasses. I’d be quite interested in some research into this area. I wonder if it would affect the way reading is encouraged in schools.

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      That’s funny – I’m a glasses-wearer, too, as is my brother (who’s also a great reader). Having said that, my mother also wears spectacles and wouldn’t really be (nor would she ever have been) a hugely enthusiastic reader; I guess my brother and I were ‘doomed’, genetically, before we ever put our eyes anywhere near a printed page!

      I’ve never been told my reading affected my eyesight. I suspect though that even if I had been told I had a choice between perfect vision and books, I’d have weighed up the options and come to the conclusion that reading was worth a life of short-sightedness. My glasses don’t bother me in the slightest any more, though they did when I first got them at the age of 7. I have also often wondered why a lot of bookish types wear glasses but it never occurred to me before that there could be a link – I thought shortsightedness was caused by the shape of the eyeball, which reading (unless you’re banging the book off your face, or something) shouldn’t really affect – but I’m not an optometrist, so…

      Thanks for your comment! I really enjoyed it, and it’s good to get some food for thought… (I’m still not giving up reading, though.) 😀


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