Why we should be encouraging everyone to read for pleasure

Book clubs, and in particular parent/child clubs, are a way of connecting, bonding and broadening the reading diet

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 July, 2015, 11:15pm
UPDATED : Monday, 27 July, 2015, 11:15pm

Over the summer, every student, administrator and teacher at my son's high school will read Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi. Carefully selected, I suspect, for the themes of race and identity, this book should ignite conversations and spark debates around the campus. Curious, I decided to read the book, too, and it prompted me to consider further the value of a common literature reading experience among a large group of people.

I have had the pleasure of being a member of an active book group in Hong Kong. We take turns hosting, providing a simple meal over which we earnestly discuss the book without a moderator or prescribed set of questions. Like many expatriate communities, the composition of our book group has changed over the years - more members of our original book group live in New York than in Hong Kong - but we have always replenished with perceptive and literate women who love books.

Beyond the social aspect, the value of this group has been the broadening of mind and perspective that occurs as the result of reading books I never would have chosen myself, or didn't even particularly enjoy after reading. When members share personal history, cultural references and academic expertise relevant to the book, my understanding and my appreciation for the book is always enhanced.

When children's author Deborah Wiles visited Hong Kong the entire Hong Kong International School upper primary read one of her books to build enthusiasm in preparation for her visit. Children were able to discuss the book, gained confidence meeting the author and shared the experience with their peers. Unlike didactic work in which a book is assigned and taught by an instructor, this type of common literary experience is voluntary, undirected and intended for fun.

Parent/child book clubs are another way of connecting, bonding and sometimes broaching difficult or embarrassing topics through literature. Difficult circumstances faced by characters in a novel provide distance and hypothetical scenarios that are useful in initiating tricky discussions with children. These conversations offer insights from parents and peers that can translate into real-life lessons.

Sometimes common reading experiences expand beyond a personal network to larger communities. The One City One Book programme started in Seattle in 1998 has been embraced around the world.

Often initiated and managed by public libraries, these programmes encourage all community members and visitors to read a carefully selected title, and many host creative events to encourage discussion, bring the community together and enhance the reader's understanding of the book and the underlying themes therein.

The UN Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) has designated 11 cities around the world as Cities of Literature. These cities embrace a rigorous process to demonstrate a fervent appreciation and support for the creation, consumption, critique and celebration of literature.

Bookstores are closing all over Hong Kong and less than half of our city's adult population admits to reading for pleasure.

The benefits of reading purely for enjoyment have been widely reported, but the advice is rarely heeded. Hong Kong might consider striving to be the next Unesco City of Literature to encourage reading for pleasure and to set a good example for the younger generation.

Gweneth Rehnborg is a board member of Bring Me a Book, the leading advocate for family literacy in Hong Kong