Since 2003, Bristol’s annual Great Reading Adventure has encouraged everyone in the city to read the same book at the same time with tens of thousands of books being distributed free of charge at the start of each year.

Today, the seventh Great Reading Adventure is launched with The Lost World Read. Festival Director Andrew Kelly looks at the project and champions the book as both a source of fun and still the best way of conveying ideas.

There is a lot of talk about crisis in publishing. There are even claims (again) that the book is dead. In a time of bloggers and twitters, the book is irrelevant: why read 100,000 words when 500, or even 140 characters, will do? So why are we encouraging everyone in Bristol to read The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle, a book that’s nearly 100 years old?

There are many reasons: promoting higher standards of literacy; stimulating creativity through the promotion of reading; learning about the past; bringing diverse communities together through a shared experience. Most of all, we believe in the book: for the communication of ideas, learning and as a source of pleasure and relaxation.

2009 is a special year for the Great Reading Adventure. It’s Darwin’s 200th birthday, and the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species, his book that changed the world. Doyle’s tale of the search for dinosaurs brings science and Darwin to life for the reader. Our graphic biography of Darwin, which forms part of the package of material we have produced, presents Darwin’s life in an accessible way, without sacrificing the science. A free, downloadable MP3 version of the novel is also available on The Lost World Read website: www.lostworldread.com.

In the past we’ve encouraged learning about Bristol’s seafaring past (Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson), GM technology (The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham), the city’s wartime experiences (The Siege by Helen Dunmore) and the legacy of the slave trade (Small Island by Andrea Levy). In 2009, the themes are evolution and science, religion and faith.

Is encouraging people to read futile though? Is the book dying? There are worrying signs. Though the recent American survey of reading habits showed a slight upturn in numbers of books read, the trend is downwards; a long tail undoubtedly exists for sales, but publishers are driven by the search for the next Richard and Judy bestseller; celebrity memoirs still attract high advances and only a few sell well; 3 for 2 offers boringly dominate book shops.

The decline of newspapers is seeing book review space plummet. This is an American rather than a British problem at present, although it is hard to see how the space given to books in newspapers here can be justified in the light of little advertising revenue and the fall in sales.

At the same time, the book remains strong. E-readers mean that books will still be read, only in new ways, and will reach a tipping point with the launch of the Amazon Kindle. Having seen one work, I’m keen to have one – so much easier to carry and, for fiction especially, it’s easy to read. Books are more available than ever too, which makes ideas more transferable – it used to take weeks to get an American book, but now, through online booksellers, it takes just a few days.

And we have, in the election of Barack Obama, a striking example of a President who can write, and clearly reads a lot; another reason to be impressed by him. Obama has often been compared to Lincoln. In reading and writing, there are striking similarities. Over Christmas I read Fred Kaplan’s new book Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer. This shows a man transformed by words and writing. His deep understanding of a very few writers and books – Burns, Byron, Shakespeare, and the Old Testament – made Lincoln the most literary of American presidents. Obama’s books, especially his memoir,Dreams from My Father, emulate Lincoln’s ability to write well and connect ideas to people.

This is not to say that reading makes you good – or even a good President. Someone who clearly learned nothing from his extensive reading was George W Bush. Karl Rove (another reader) revealed late last year that Bush, to the surprise of many, had read hundreds of books during his presidency – they were in competition to see who could read the most. However, he seemed to have read little that was different to his views. Reading should be about reflection and challenge as well as racing your staff.

Do our reading projects work? Will they encourage literacy and learning? Much of the impact will be in the long-term so we don’t know. We do know that all social sectors participate. There is perhaps inevitably a disproportionate level of participation from Wealthy Achievers (using the ACORN classification system based on postcode analysis), but in 2008, for example, over a third of people reading The Bristol Story were categorised as people of Moderate Means or Hard Pressed. We also know that more women than men participate – the split is normally 70/30 per cent. And the take up of books suggest that all areas of the city join in.

Our 2008 project, The Bristol Story, certainly made an impact. “To know that so many others value and share a love of books increases your own self worth”, “I feel ‘closer’ to Bristol now, like my affection for it as a place has grown” and “It’s about much more than simply reading a text; it’s about finding common ground and causes for conversations” were some of the comments.

I believe The Lost World Read will be a success. It’s still true, surprising though it is in the digital age, that an old medium is still the best mechanism for thinking about, writing about and reading about ideas – as well as being a form of leisure and entertainment that will pay dividends the more that you do. That’s something to defend and encourage.

About the author/

Andrew Kelly is Director of Bristol Cultural Development Partnership. He founded and led At-Bristol; Brief and Animated Encounters Festivals and Digital Arts Development Agency, and is currently Director of the Bristol Great Reading Adventure and the Bristol Festival of Ideas. He is the author of 12 books. He is currently directing projects on Charles Darwin, and BAC 100, which will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Bristol Aeroplane Company in 1910.

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