I know, what a shocking conclusion to this report. Four in ten 11-13 year old boys own no books, and 3 in 10 girls. Poor kids and those from ethnic minorities tend to own fewer books and have lower literacy rates.
I wouldn't be too bothered about the ownership figures if it wasn't that the government's closing libraries to pay for the bank bailout. I read my first school's entire library in two years, then they had to buy more just for me. That still makes me proud. I was also taking out the maximum number of books from the local library each week. Having exhausted the kids' section, I started on the adult collection, only to find my mother interfering constantly (anything secular was a point of contention). Libraries are brilliant and every kid should be marched down there once a week. If parents won't do it, schools should, like the weekly trip to the swimming pool.
So (even though I obsessively buy books), I'm not too hung up about ownership. But without free access to libraries, we need to find ways of getting books into houses and persuading parents to communicate enthusiasm for them. There are plenty of charities, but I'd target the Sure Start Centres: literacy can be included in the parenting classes. We can prescribe reading like doctors prescribe exercise or medication. Free boxes of books can be presented to every child on his or her birthday for the first 5 or 10 years: it's bound to be cheaper than remedial classes and unemployment benefit.
So: what would you put into the Big Society Library? We live in a Golden Age of children's literature: what should they be reading? I'd try to avoid anything to obviously educational: enforced reading and 'improving' literature will only lead to a book-free, drug-fuelled adulthood. I'd shovel the most shocking, lefty propaganda available at them: Kenneth Grahame, Pullman, The Phantom Tollbooth, Trease… keep adding them. If you're into children's literature, you really need to read Alison Lurie's wonderful Don't Tell The Grown-Ups: The Subversive Power of Children's Literature.
What have I received today? Belloc's translation of Joseph Bédier's reconstruction of 10th-Century Tristan and Iseult, Gottfried von Strassburg's 13th-century Tristan and the version he based it on, Tristan by Thomas (in translation) because I'm on a European Arthurian kick at the moment. Also a collection of Paris 1968 Uprising posters (Beauty is in the Street) and 2 more volumes of the DMZ series (think Baghdad transplanted to New York).