Moving home with a big family can be quite a trial. We have done it four times in the last fifteen years. And each time the same question arises: do we need to take all those books?

In a world of Kindles and other electronic readers it does seem a little daft to pack hundreds of crumbling paperbacks into boxes that will take weeks to empty at the other end. And then where do they go? Books take up a lot of room in a world where each square metre of floor space costs of lot of money.

So why keep them? My husband says he and his books will not be parted. They are an aide memoire, reminding him of where he was and what he was doing when he read them. My suggestion that it might be simpler to just buy a diary falls on deaf ears.

But now all those who are wedded to their collection of books – my hubby included – have a new and, it seems, compelling argument to make. It follows a massive 20-year-long study by academics from Australia and the University of Nevada.


It reveals that growing up in a home where there are books on show is far more important than having educated parents. Growing up in a home with a 500-book library propels a child 3.2 years further in education, on average.

You might think, being a natural sceptic like me, that this study suffers from a little academic reductio ad absurdum. In other words, it’s obvious that if there are books in the home, children will do better at school. It’s not because the books are there, but because of the intellectual climate created in the home. The high verbal IQ in use, parents who take homework seriously and all the rest of it.

But the authors of this report say, intriguingly, that the effect of a library of books on advancing education, is just as strong where parents are uneducated. One of the report’s authors, Mariah Evans, says as few as 20 books in a home still has a significant impact on advancing a child’s level of education. “You get a lot of ‘bang for your book’,” she said. “It’s quite a good return-on-investment in a time of scarce resources.”

In some countries, such as China, having 500 or more books in the home propels children 6.6 years further in their education. In the United States, the effect is less, 2.4 years, than the 3.2-year average advantage experienced across all 27 countries in the study.

What the study does not seem to answer satisfactorily is why. Is it because children see bookshelves at home they are more likely to be bookish, more inclined to pick one up, rather than reach for the TV remote control? Does it do something to their self-image, as people who grow up comfortable around the written word?

It all still sounds a little implausible. Books are good for children, obviously, but it takes parents to create a culture of the home where books are not simply wallpaper, but actually opened and read.

However, there remains much to be said about how we choose to fill the material space of our homes, and what tangible elements we value as part of the environment of our daily lives. The materiality of the home environment can’t easily be divorced from the culture of the home itself.

Reproduced from BeHome, a blog of the Home Renaissance Foundation

This study seems to be a provisional version of the one in question: 

Joanna Roughton is raising the voice for Home Renaissance Foundation as its Media Relations Manager. Jo was formerly senior editor at Reuters in Hong Kong and Singapore, and Head of Foreign News at Sky...