Free book initiatives fight illiteracy

As the National Literacy Trust publishes figures suggesting children are reading less, a variety of projects across the country are working hard to keep books cool and are making it easier to get hold of a good read

A raft of literary initiatives have been set up to counteract figures from the National Literacy Trust that suggest reading is going out of fashion and that illiteracy remains a prevalent problem within the UK.

According to the Trust, more than 5.2 million adults in England are categorised as functionally illiterate, meaning that they have literacy levels lower than those expected of an 11-year-old. Furthermore, the trust found that 17% of children say they would be highly embarrassed if their friends saw them with a book; more than half of the children questioned prefer watching TV than reading; and one in three children do not own any books at all.

Meanwhile the latest statistics from independent media verifier ABC, show that sales of printed books fell 12% at the start of 2012, and that magazine sales are dwindling too.

Research by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2002 found a direct link between reading for pleasure and educational success, revealing that it is more of a factor in children’s attainment than their family’s socio-economic status. Indeed, in 2003 the Department for Culture, Media and Sport stated: “People cannot be active or informed citizens unless they can read. Reading is a prerequisite for almost all cultural and social activities.”

With this in mind, a vocal community of book-lovers is refusing to let reading die. Passionate about encouraging people to absorb themselves and explore their feelings through a good book, community-led initiatives are springing up across the country, all aiming to get more people excited about reading.

For starters, how about a free book? An initiative of Healthy Planet, a charity focused on sustainability, Books for Free exists to put books that would otherwise end up in landfill or be pulped, into the hands of would-be readers, for no cost at all.

“We have over 30 centres throughout the UK, run by over 180 volunteers,” says founder Shaylesh Patel, adding that the charity has rescued over two million books in the two years it’s been up-and-running. “We’re able to do this through the support of high street locations and landlords giving us their space rent-free, as well as giving us a donation.”

Offerings range from adult and children’s literature through to blockbusters, picture books, cookery books, biographies and non-fiction, and all are hungrily devoured by visitors. “Turnover is rapid,” says Patel. “People who use the shops often return to recycle them or make donations, and we also get books from second-hand dealers. We’ve also found that many centres are evolving to become community hubs. A Books for Free shop in Upminster has even become the site of a knitting club for seniors.”

Meanwhile, villages across the UK whose library services are diminished or suspended have, with the aid of BT’s Adopt a Kiosk scheme, taken to turning old, unused red telephone boxes into much-loved community book exchanges. In the Derbyshire village of Little Eaton, for example, a public payphone purchased by the parish council for the princely sum of £1 was transformed into a mini-library and is kept stocked through local donations.

Readers without a book exchange or library in their local area aren’t missing out either. has over 350,000 books available for readers to swap with other members for free – only modest postage charges apply.

Those looking to escape with a book among the hustle and bustle of London are also spoilt for choice with exciting literary projects. A good start for readers wanting to dip their toes into the literary pond is The Underground Book Club magazine, which features the first three chapters of three books, giving commuters the chance to sample the latest releases.