Does reading a book make us happier?


Public libraries face an uncertain future but the value of reading is irreplaceable, says Joan Bakewell in her A Point of View column.

I was returning a library book last week. It had been important in some research I was doing so I sought to renew it. "No, I'm afraid it's in demand by someone else," came the reply.

A book first published in 1964 was still needed. I'm not surprised. Many books last a lifetime and go on being read. Then, on the library counter, I noticed printouts from our local newspaper. The headline was a question - Libraries slashed? - it asked.

I recall a Latin grammar construction defined as "expecting the answer 'yes'". I felt this applied to the headline. We in the London borough where I live know there will be massive council cuts. In London as a whole there are fears that 130 libraries could go.

And things are bad across the country. Buckinghamshire is said to be considering closing among others the Great Missenden library, inspiration for Roald Dahl's Matilda, who read library books. He would be appalled.

Another book event. Last week I helped celebrate the publication of probably the definitive account of the life and art of the painter LS Lowry, by Dr Tom Rosenthal. It was held in the gorgeous setting of Christies sales rooms, where a fine array of Lowry's work graced the walls.

Later in the week some 20 of his paintings sold there for nearly £5.2m. There was an irony in seeing Lowry's bleak depictions of the Lancashire poor going for such high prices. Here they were, the huddled masses, hurrying from the factory, to the football match, crowding round a street accident, or spending their unsmiling leisure still fully clad on Lancashire's beaches.

Lowry's work divides people There are those who admire his bleak vision of the world he knew in the 30s and 40s, and those who demean it as nothing more than a host of matchstick men. I am of the former persuasion.

My reason is more than aesthetic, I have a local connection. My own great aunt lived in Salford at Crescent View, just such a row of terrace houses as Lowry painted. I knew the feel of Salford's streets, its little picket fences, and I loved the smell of Nana's stuffy kitchen, full of cooking and drying clothes.

The meaning of books came to me from just such a background. From the age of seven my father attended what was then called Chetham's Hospital in Manchester, a charity school for 40 poor boys founded in the 17th Century as the legacy of Humphrey Chetham. He was a wily old wool merchant whose motto "Quod tuum tene" - hold on to what is yours - just about sums up the industrial revolution that was to engulf the city and make it rich and make it poor.

But Chetham was a philanthropist and left provision not only for a school, but for a library within the same building. That library survives in its original glory - theology, law, local records, leather bound, beautifully preserved. Its Jacobean setting is one of the unsung treasures of Manchester, part of what is now the illustrious Chethams Music School.

The schoolboys in my father's day didn't read such books of course, they had their noses into Rider Haggard and Harrison Ainsworth. But my father - and his brothers - held the library in awe, acknowledging as everyone then did that learning and scholarship are among man's highest pursuits.

In the poverty that was then Salford, libraries were cherished. They were seen as the resource for the poor, where they could learn and begin to understand about the world beyond those Lowry streets.

The book I was returning to my local library is subtitled A Study in Protest. It is in fact an account by Christopher Driver of the rise of the anti-nuclear bomb campaigns of the late 50s and early 60s. Then as now, unruly groups grabbed the headlines. They always do.

But the book tells of concerted and sustained action to bring pressure on world powers to abandon nuclear weapons. We know they failed, but along the way they influenced public and world opinion to an extent that perhaps contributed to the test-ban treaties that were to be signed in the 1960s, in the years after the Cuba crisis.

The young have again been out on the streets in their thousands and students are meeting and plotting more protests even now. Will those of us who love libraries be able to make our voices heard? It would be hard to combat allegations of middle-class elitism, and indeed there is a case to answer. If the pressure on finances is so great, at least as far as the coalition believe, then the availability of free books for all will need its defenders.

Image caption, Reading is a pleasure enjoyed on the move

My defence should not be seen as the attempt merely to rescue a small building in a particular borough, or any other particular places threatened with closure. Rather it is a rallying call for the concept of free libraries. In our culture the library stands as tall and as significant as a parish church or the finest cathedral. It goes back to the times when ideas first began to circulate in the known world. I worry where wisdom will come from.

I am a major consumer of information on the internet. I know that academics and students access information there more quickly and more specifically than they can faced with a shelf load of books. But it's not that relationship I'm concerned about.

I offer you two scenarios. I am on a train going north, the scenery beyond York is glorious and in the slanting light of a winter afternoon has a magical quality not to miss. So I put down the paperback to enjoy it, then I resume my read. Again, on holiday, deck chair beside a blue swimming pool, a landscape of rolling hills and green pastures unfolds before me. I set aside the paperback to enjoy the view, and then return to the pages.

I live with the tensions between the world out there I want to see and even contemplate, and the inner world to which the book gives me access. It is the inner rewards of reading a book in a private and concentrated way that lead you into realms of your own imagination and thought that no other process offers. Something happens between the words and the brain that is unique to the moment and to your own sensibilities.

It is why, at such moments, it is so awful to be interrupted - and why I am frequently late at meetings because I find it hard to tear myself away. Any society that doesn't value the richness of this encounter with ideas and the imagination will impoverish its citizens.

Of course, there are loads of books around. You can pick up a paperback for a few pounds that will last many years (my shelves are full of ageing paperbacks whose yellowing pages crack when I open them - only hardbacks last forever). Publishers think books are worth publishing, supermarkets think they are worth stacking on their shelves. But these are market transactions. The free public library service is the only way for everyone to have access for free to objects that carry the world's wisdom.

Soon we will all be asked to tell the state what makes us happy, what increases our well-being. No doubt someone will come up with measurements of stress and depression. We might be asked about our sense of neighbourliness or degrees of family closeness. Whether we are hungry or cold or neglected.

There are clearly data about social conditions that are worth collecting, but happiness is a dangerous word. It embraces all the subjectivity of our emotions and inner serenity. It is a reflection of our character, the degree we are wracked by ambition or resentment, by envy or greed. It embraces what might be called spiritual well-being, the sort that might be underpinned by a happy marriage, a satisfying career, deep religious conviction.

Already television vox pops have asked people in the street what makes them happy and had replies that range from their children's laughter, to the music of Beethoven.

I think there might be many who consider one kind of happiness to be a deep armchair, a warm fire and a favourite book.