Wednesday,24 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1389, (12 - 18 April 2018)
Wednesday,24 April, 2019
Issue 1389, (12 - 18 April 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Are you reading anymore?

As a matter of fact, we are reading more than ever, to the delight of publishers and booksellers.

Nielsen Book Scan asserts that in 2016 print books have risen by 3.3 per cent, the third straight year of growth. 

UNESCO estimates total world book publication reached 2.2 million in 2017, with Egypt ranking 38th amongst 124 countries. China and the US are the world’s greatest producers, responsible for half the books published per year, followed by the UK, France and Germany.

The question is, what are we reading?

It is hard to conceive a form of art that has contributed more to the development of our modern civilisation than this branch of letters, long treasured and fostered as part of our cultural heritage. It is not the literary genius that makes the bulk of our reading today.

Most books published are educational, business, self-help and how-to books. Books are often purchased to be consulted, not to be read. “Rapid reading”, observes UCLA professor Russell Jacoby, author of The Last Intellectual, mostly scientific and technical books, religious books, crafts, hobbies, colouring books, comics, and a few graphic novels: “read while commuting, watching a game on TV or playing Nintendo”. 

The aesthetic pleasure afforded by the sense of intellectual happiness which comes from reading literature is absent. Homer and Virgil, Dante and Shakespeare, Milton and Keats have been replaced by esoteric information.

Excluding reading for school, work, reading for pleasure is on a steady decline. Novels, short stories, plays, poetry fell to a three decade low. Drops in literary reading rates have happened across the board among all ages, races and educational level.

Is it any surprise? More products and platforms compete for our attention today than there were 30 years ago. Remember when we would finish books by flashlight under the covers? No more. No need. Video games have exploded in popularity; movies no longer require a trip to the cinema, since you can watch it at home; but most of all the Internet is the infinite human distraction.

What took us hundreds of thousands of years to perfect, took the Internet a few years to demolish.

We still read of course, short informative articles online, tweets, YouTube and most definitely Facebook. They have become our primary source of reading.

Even newspapers are thrown away after we read a few headlines. Years ago, newspapers were read from front to back, word for word. The young in particular have little time for them. Even magazines have suffered as our concentration span has diminished. TV and its brethren are appealing, but add nothing to our intellectual stature.

How can we get acquainted once again with great literary work?

Daniel Kevles, professor of Humanities at Caltech (California Institute of Technology) believes we are experiencing yet another “communication revolution”, as we did with the development of language, about 200,000 years ago, the development of reading and writing 5,000 years ago, and the printing press about 500 years ago. By the 19th century, what took us so long to perfect, began to lose steam. Marconi’s discovery was followed by radio, movies, recordings, the telephone, computer, photo-copies and fax-machines. Together they crowned a king called television, the largest threat to reading, not to mention thinking. Thinking does not play well on TV.

No doubt the rise of digital technology has hastened the decline of reading. The harm it does goes unnoticed. It ruins our attention spans and social skills, destroys our memories, displaces hobbies, downgrades the way we interact with each other. In short, it demolishes the way we see the world.

We have become slaves to our smart-phones, tabs, rectangular screens and we hardly realise they threaten everything that is precious to us. Texting is the ultimate blow. Why would we even consider reading for pleasure? We already do in our new digital world, far less noble than the golden age of reading. 

Does it matter? Reading less Tolstoy and more Facebook could well be the reason why we have more violent gangs, terrorists and murderers. Reading gives us direct access to another person’s mind, the author’s or the imaginary character in a way that few arts can do.

Books provide deep thought, not simply information. Reading reduces stress, improves sleep, increases vocabulary, fosters empathy, stimulates concentration, sharpens memory and engages our brains. Those are scientifically documented facts.

The aesthetic pleasure afforded by reading is a prelude to a far richer life.

In A Brief History of Time the late Stephen Hawkings writes: “That reading is in decline maybe an oversimplification.”

Libraries are closing down or transforming themselves to “centres of learning technology”, with how-to videos, business cassettes, video-tapes, video games, etc. 

It is a noxious mist that has poisoned our culture, diminishing our taste and our moral worth. Lack of taste is a defeat of elegance, knowledge and understanding.

We admire the worthless and extol the mundane. It is enough to make one blush.

The question still remains: Is reading likely to survive the electronic age? Radio survived television. Reading will continue to play a role in our society, but most likely a shrinking one. 

It is now up to the parents to foster the love of reading in their children, get them to leave the digital world and re-enter the wonderland of reading.

Reading is linked to the ability to think. 

The less we read, the less we think.

A nation that stops reading will eventually stop thinking.

“I cannot live without a book.”

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)

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