Roger’s blog … The Importance of Reading
Books. Reading. Study. Libraries. Bookstores. Literacy. The Written Word. Telling Stories. Fiction. Non-fiction. Journalism.
What are you reading for?
Not, ‘What are you reading?’ but ‘What are you reading for?’
That punchline comes from an old joke about a man in a diner. The waitress sees him with a book, and instead of asking, ‘What ya readin’?’, she asks ‘What ya readin’ for?’
I’ll tell you what we are reading for.
Because telling stories is as old as speech, and no less important.
Because telling stories is a tradition, a heritage, a legacy…it is the past making its way toward the future in an effort to show us those things we have failed to learn by our own experience.
Because telling stories is a hope that magic can be restored to an age that has almost forgotten.
Because it matters. Because it matters a great deal. That’s why.
People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading.
We’ve all heard that quote from Logan Pearsall Smith.
From the simple truth that Agatha Christie has given more pleasure in bed than any other woman, to the fact that novelists have predetermined entire shifts in social awareness, we cannot escape from the simple truth that literature plays an inescapably vital part in everything that we do, and everything we are.
Upton Sinclair’s novel ‘The Jungle’, when read by Theodore Roosevelt, provoked a government-ordered enquiry into the way Americans were being fed. Sinclair used the proceeds of the book to build a socialist meeting house, and went on to write another one hundred books about industrial corruption.
Edith Maude Eaton’s ‘Mrs. Spring Fragrance’ highlighted issues regarding anti-Chinese racism in America that caused the Chinese Exclusion Act to be repealed in 1943.
Conrad’s ‘The Secret Agent’ was the first acknowledged publication about the truths of terrorism.
Fiction is powerful, provocative, contentious, impactful, unforgettable, and even when read for pleasure alone, there are few books that do not – even in some small way – change the perspective of the reader.
Within any society, we are bound by rules and regulations. A society exists, due – in some part – to the existence of rules and regulations, but those rules and regulations can be viewed as lines within which to remain, or lines to cross. More often than not, any accomplishment of value flew in the face of considered opinion to the better. Without those rare individuals who defied mediocrity and good behavior, we would have no electricity or air flight, there would be no Michelangelo’s or Thomas Edisons. We would not possess the technology to address some of the problems that exist in this world. I believe wholeheartedly that we – as a race of people – possess the wherewithal, the intelligence, the financial and technical resources to cure all of Man’s ills complete. If the minds of men were turned to constructive activities, as opposed to devising more ways in which they can kill one another faster, then we would cure cancer, world hunger, AIDS, ignorance and illiteracy, racism and prejudice.
If we can put a man on the moon, I do not believe that we cannot cure tuberculosis. If we can send a missile a thousand miles and kill a political rival, I do not believe we cannot resolve the ongoing conflict between two countries.
We have the necessary tools and resources to create a better future for ourselves, and all future generations.
And yet the simple truth is that we are foregoing and inhibiting any real possibility of creating a better, saner, safer culture in the future, and we are doing that by devaluing the importance of reading.
Reading is literacy. Reading is knowledge. Reading raises intelligence, improves vocabulary, dramatically increases confidence, competence and the certainty with which we deal with others.
Those who read can relate to others and empathize with them; they understand other cultures and religions; they can see other peoples’ viewpoints; they possess less preconceptions, less misconceptions, and have sufficient understanding and appreciation of social and cultures issues, and can thereby take the necessary steps to improve society and culture for the better.
A person who reads can converse better, can listen better, can more ably apply his or her mind to the resolution of problems that threaten the happiness and well-being of the family unit, and thus the society as a whole.
If you want a sane, happy, healthy society, then understand that tomorrow’s society is today’s children. Invest everything you can in improving educational standards.
It sorrows me no end to see the closure of libraries due to lack of funding. It sorrows me more to see that very few people are fighting it, and those that are fighting it are of my generation and older. My grandmother – a WRAF WWII veteran who worked alongside Churchill – used to say, ‘If you can read, you can live a thousand lifetimes.’ The younger generations are not now being given the gift of reading, and – unfortunately – the responsibility lies at our own feet. As I have said, and will keep on saying, literacy promotes communication; literacy engenders self-confidence, tolerance, patience, a work-ethic, a pride in one’s own production and value in society. There is a proven and direct link between illiteracy and crime. There is a proven and direct link between literacy and honest productivity.
So, what do we do?
We do not close the libraries. We support them wholeheartedly and without reservation. We do not destroy the independent bookstores by negating fixed prices for books. We teach our kids to read again. We instill in them a love of reading. We teach them how to read. We raise a new generation of real readers, and with that we recover our ability to communicate, one with another, our desire for understanding, our desire for success. This decline in literacy, I honestly believe, is the root cause of many of our existing social ills, our tendency towards a benefit-driven socialist society, and our lack of tolerance – racially, socially and politically.
Is it any coincidence that the collapse of a society is directly paralleled by the rise in sex and violence as forms of ‘entertainment’, that in itself preceded by a noticeable decline in literacy and appreciation of the arts?
We are losing our heritage in mainland Europe as the most well-educated and literate people on earth. We are still publishing vast numbers of books, over one hundred thousand new titles a year in the UK alone, and yet we are recycling a vast percentage, and that percentage grows ever greater with each passing year.
Literacy is a gift, a legacy passed down from generation to generation. In our desperate urgency to ‘raise educational standards’ we have completely forgotten why we are educating people. We are educating them to work, to produce, to become contributing and honest members of a society and a culture.
Why is it not possible to return to basics, to start teaching children to read again? It is not a difficult thing to do. It was accomplished with us.
Reading is where it all begins. Without the ability to really read, to understand what we are reading, to use dictionaries to increase our vocabularies, then we are lost as readers, and – more importantly – as a culture.
We have ‘dumbed-down’ our standards, our schools, our colleges and universities, simply because we have failed to observe that everything begins with basics. Really establish the fundamentals of reading and literacy, and those will be the foundations upon which any and all further and more advanced studies will be stably built.
We test too much. We examine too much. We tie our educators’ hands with bureaucracy and administration. We do not let teachers teach, and teaching is perhaps one of the noblest professions that a society possesses. Raise literate, productive children, and they will become literate, productive adults, in communication with one another, able, productive, desirous of accomplishment, confident and certain, and there we find the backbone of any society and culture.
When we talk of reading and literacy, we are talking of something that is vital beyond mere words.
What we can do is capable of changing a family, a neighborhood, a town, a city, a society, a culture…and ultimately a planet.
In truth, my viewpoint about the vital necessity of reading is best expressed by the four words found above the doorway at the Library of Thebes: Medicine For The Soul.
And so – as a citizen, as a member of a society, as a human being – the future of your society and culture is in your hands and upon your shoulders.
The future is children, and illiterate and incompetent children will never become literate and competent adults.
The responsibility lies with us, and we need to act fast.