Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am delighted to be with you again on the most exciting evening of the literary year! As a passionate reader myself, it is a huge pleasure for me to join this gathering of the great and good from the world of books. I am sure that all of us here - readers and writers alike - cannot wait to hear who has won the 2014 Man Booker Prize for Fiction.
Why is the Man Booker Prize important? I believe it’s because every year writers and their books hit the headlines. We are interested in who the judges will be and what books make the long list; we read and judge them for ourselves over the summer. We argue about the shortlist and who was left out, and wonder why. The Man Booker Prize puts books and authors at the top of the agenda and reminds us all of the pleasure and power of reading no mean feat in a world where there are so many other calls on our time and attention. And, more importantly, those newspaper articles or that opinion on Twitter might convert a 'non-believer'. (I hope the Chairman of the judges will forgive my turn of phrase.) It might just be the key which opens the door into that magical kingdom of the written word.
I was lucky to grow up in a house full of books, and to have a father who read to us with such enjoyment that we never found reading anything but a huge pleasure. All of us here tonight feel the same passion for good writing.
But let us remember that reading is not only a source of pleasure, but also a vital skill that those of us, who are fortunate enough to possess it, take for granted. And it is shocking to learn that there are so many people, even today, who are deprived of that advantage. The latest figures from the National Literacy Trust show that nearly 15 per cent, or about
5 million adults in England, have literacy levels below those expected of an 11-year-old. That is why every opportunity to trumpet the importance of books and reading is so crucial.
As Patron of the National Literacy Trust, I am particularly pleased that the Booker Prize Foundation continues to work with the Trust as part of its commitment to building the bridge between literacy and literature. And it is worth reminding ourselves that without literacy there can be no literature.
One of these joint projects is Books Unlocked, which funds library reading groups in prisons across the UK. 48 per cent of prisoners have difficulty with basic literacy skills so this is really worthwhile work. This year Books Unlocked has joined forces with Quick Reads, a scheme which commissions books aimed at adults who are less confident in their reading. Roddy Doyle is the first Man Booker Prize author to write a 'Quick Read' and I am delighted to say that his book, Dead Man Talking, will be sent to a number of prisons and Young Offenders Institutions across the UK in 2015.
But I mustn’t keep you any longer. Tonight is all about the books and I’m sure you will agree that all the titles on the shortlist are outstanding. May I congratulate the panel of judges, under the peerless direction of A.C. Grayling who I believe knows a 'Good Book’ when he sees one, or should I say when he writes one? I love reading, but I would quail at their gargantuan task and enormous responsibility! Now as we hear more about the six authors shortlisted for the 2014 prize, I am sure none of us will be able to resist making our own guess at the winner. Congratulations to you all and the very best of luck!
Ladies and Gentlemen,