Readersforum's Blog

August 13, 2011

Reading the riot acts: why wasn’t Waterstone’s looted?

Are books just for the middle class? As society puzzles over its divisions, perhaps the publishing industry should follow suit.

A closed book ... the branch of Waterstone's on Islington Green, London, down the road from the riots in Hackney. Photograph: Graeme Robertson

By Nikesh Shukla

Oh how Twitter scoffed and acted unsurprised as we woke to find our local bookshops had escaped the attentions of the looting riotniks. Waterstone’s even challenged rioters to loot them as “they might learn something”. Ha ha! LOLZ! Sigh. It’s difficult to argue with the stark economic realism of those who weighed up their looting options and came down firmly on the side of widescreen TVs and box-fresh kicks. Maeve Binchys don’t fetch a huge resale price on the black market – especially if they’re already in the 3 for 2.

But while the rioters’ indifference to the intellectual riches on offer at Waterstone’s may or may not be attributable to the much-touted death of the book, it does throw up some stark questions. Is reading just for the middle classes? Are you more or less likely to riot if you read? What could books offer the looters anyway?

As the riots fade and the talking starts, all the rhetoric is about community, education, offering the rioters prospects and life expectations and qualifications and journeys towards growing up as well-adjusted members of society.

How better to do all these things than with books?

Maybe it’s just a question of class. As the author Gavin James Bower says, “Jobs in publishing overwhelmingly go to white, middle-class people. The product reflects this, which isn’t much good if you’re a working-class kid.” If publishing is full of white, middle-class people is it any wonder that bookshops are too? The writing community can be as diverse as it likes – in class, race, religion and genre – but if publishers don’t know how to market these books, they’re not going to find readers. Or maybe it starts even earlier, in school, where according to the journalist Kieran Yates “young people often don’t feel like they can empathise with a syllabus of literature that is so far removed from their own lives”.

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