The Future of Reading

In case anyone’s in any doubt about my position, it’s this: The future of reading will be on the screen. Using the Web, of course, but with both online and offline reading experiences.
Now, at this point, I’m sure you’re asking, “Well, we read on the Web today. So what’s the problem? Aren’t we done?”


Well no, we’re far from done. I’m going to talk in this blog about why reading’s so important and what still needs to be done (a lot!). I’m going to share my vision of the future, and I’m going to share a lot of history – some of it my own, most of it the history of mankind, reading and communication.

Reading is one of the most critical skills we have to develop as humans if we ever want to rise above a basic existence.

I guess in some ways, I’m a poster child for how reading can change your life. So I’m going to share some personal history to illustrate how that happens.

I was born and brought up in the East End of Glasgow in Scotland – most of it in pretty brutal housing projects. It doesn’t get much tougher, anywhere. Unemployment at least 30%. Substance abuse. Domestic (and plenty of other) violence. Kids who left school at 16 and ended up in dead-end jobs with no prospect. About the best many could hope for was that their jobs wouldn’t disappear as the industries which supported them folded. (like shipbuilding, once the major industry on the River Clyde which runs through Glasgow, and now just a memory – with two yards left out of dozens).

I took a completely different route. And it all started when I learned to read. I was about three years old at the time. We were living in a house in Allison Street, Glasgow which had formerly been a shop. It still had the glass front, which had been painted over to give us privacy and create the one bedroom in which my father, mother, my sister and I slept…

My mother and father would go out occasionally, and Tommy, the 16-year-old son of a neighbor, would come and babysit me.

One day, he produced an old school exercise book. It was filled with drawing and writings. He’d produced his own comic-book, and he read it to me.

Before long, I was reading, too. My parents noticed. The most lasting memory I have of my father was of him holding out his hands to me and saying, “Son, I only ever learned to work with these. You’ve got to learn to work with your head.”

My Dad had had a pretty tough life. Born in Glasgow in 1919, he left school in 1933, right in the heart of the Depression – and it didn’t get much more depressed than Glasgow…

Unable to find a job, he joined the British Royal Navy as a boy sailor. He spent 17 years in the Navy. He served on the battleship Hood (named after a famous British admiral). He was lucky enough to be posted out of the Hood a few months before it was torpedoed and sunk with the loss of well over 1200 men. I think only six survived.

For my dad, though, it was a case of narrowly missing the frying pan and jumping straight into the fire. He served right through World War II as deck crew on a destroyer in the Atlantic convoys. He took part in a number of the brutal convoys supplying fuel, arms and food to the Russian port of Murmansk. During the whole war, ships on which he served were torpedoed three times.

To the end of his life he always laced up his working-boots in a certain way. I asked him why, and he explained that with one stroke of a knife you could cut all the laces, kick off your boots and start swimming if you ended up in the water. A survival trick which became an unconscious habit…

His job on deck was to fire the Hedgehog – a multiple depth-charge thrower used to attack submerged German U-Boats.

It didn’t get much tougher than the Murmansk convoys. Since Norway was then occupied by the Nazis, any convoy was subjected to continuous air attacks, sinking attempts by U-Boat “wolfpacks”, the ever-present threat that the German capital fleet (including the battleship Tirpitz) would leave its anchorages in the Norwegian fiords.

It was also a constant battle against rain, snow, ice, gales, and heavy seas so cold that you couldn’t survive in them for more than two minutes.

If you want to know what it was like you can’t do much better than read the novel “HMS Ulysses” by the writer Alistair MacLean.

When he left the Navy at the end of the Korean War, the only job he could get was as a high-steel construction worker.

Anyway, both he and my mother knew the value an education could have brought in their lives, and were determined to give their own children every chance.

When I was four, they bought me a set of The Children’s Encyclopedia, written and compiled by Arthur Mee. I can still picture it, red bindings with gold-tooled lettering. God knows what it cost them as a percentage of their annual income.

But for me it was a godsend. I used to spend at least a couple of hours a day with my head buried in those books. I took incredible care not to get a single mark on a page.

By the time I was ten years old, we were living in a housing project called Barlanark, in the East End (closer to my father’s family).

I attended a four-classroom school in a prefabricated building with zinc-galvanized steel walls, called Pendeen Road Primary School.

I watched as kids left there to go to the local junior high school, and leave to get jobs at 15 and 16 years old.

But by then I was reading huge numbers of books a week which I borrowed from the local Glasgow Public Library (commandeering the library tickets from the whole family) and I knew there was more to life than the default option.

I went to the head teacher and asked for more homework so I could work towards a scholarship to the only good school I knew of, Allan Glen’s High School of Science in the center of Glasgow.

Cut a long story short, I succeeded, and that changed my life.

In November 1998, I found myself waiting to go onstage at the Las Vegas Convention Center. I was in the Green Room with Bill Gates, who’d asked me to come on stage during his major keynote speech of the year to announce and show ClearType, which I’d helped to invent, along with Bert Keely, Greg Hitchcock and Mike Duggan.

Bill went out to start his speech, and I was left alone in the room. Just before I walked out on the stage, the thought ran through my head :” It’s a helluva long way from Old Shettleston Road to here!”.

And it was reading which had brought me all the way. Without it, none of it would have happened.

That’s enough for a first posting. In the next post, I’ll talk about how I became a professional writer, then how I got involved in personal computing as it changed the publishing industry for ever.

I apologize for all the personal history so far, but, each stage taught me something about how reading needs to change for the 21st Century.

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