By Anas Alam Faizli
To destroy an entire community and its idealism, the Nazis back in April 1933 conducted a Biblioclasm, or book burning, to “cleanse” Germany against “the Un-German Spirit’. Similarly, in 213 BC, and again when the communist movement found its grounds in what is now the People’s Republic of China, all Confucian books and writings were burnt. It is no surprise why books were burnt instead of housing infrastructure, mills, orchard fields and food sources.
Literary purging was arguably one of the primary steps in silencing aspects of culture, ideology, and knowledge, given its ability to encourage deep thought in politics, philosophy and socio-economic changes which may be in opposition to the prevalent regime. Books can be so powerful that even Napoleon Bonaparte once said; “I fear four hostile editors than a thousand bayonets.”
Alongside the obliteration of the Baitul Hikmah (The Great Library of Baghdad) by the Mongols, these grave incidents are very strong manifestations of the magnanimous role of books in the proliferation of knowledge and human civilization. The Quran itself, was first revealed with the Chapter of Al-Alaq (Chapter 96) which contained the command for humankind to “Read in the name of your Lord who created” (96:1) and “(The lord) who taught (to write the knowledge) with the pen” (96:3). This places the act of writing, via the book, on much esteemed grounds, within a people and humankind. It is obvious that the act of reading, alongside the assistance of a teacher, is the foundation of many great scholars and thinkers of both, the ancient and the modern world, the western and the eastern civilizations.
Reading and history recording
Literacy is one of the most remarkable inventions in history; and the ability to record history is one of its many consequences. It is simply disheartening that not many details have been recorded by our ancestors with regards to the era of Parameswara and preceding Sultans about 600 years ago, the exact warfare strategy used by Tun Perak, the economic governance of Malacca, and the validity of Hikayat Hang Tuah, amongst others. In contrast, China has documented its existence in detail as far back as 4000 years ago.
Reading culture versus hedonism
The National Literacy Surveys carried out in 1996 and 2005 by the National Library both concluded that Malaysians on average read only 2 books per year, as opposed to the Japanese and French, who each read 10 books a year. Leading the pack were the Americans and the Canadians, who each read an average of 17 books a year.
It is great malaise that Malaysians are less affluent readers. Intertwined with hedonism, audio-visual and digital-based entertainment, youth and adults alike no longer find pleasure in reading as a pastime or source of entertainment. One apparent result is that arguments and discourse amongst the adult Malaysian population now are infested with speech based on unsubstantiated opinions, plagiarized from coffee chats and Facebook statuses of similar quality, and worryingly lacking of deep study of contexts and historical records of the subject at hand.
Reading improves the quality of life
Fundamentally, we must firstly understand and accept that a necessary condition for societal advancement and ultimately the improvement of an individual or household’s economic condition is education. Education level correlates with wealth, and at the core of education is reading.
Empirical studies have proven that the quality of life correlates with the number of books read. The top percentile is represented with people who read an average of one book a week or fifty books a year. The bottom percentile is however represented by people who read less; some still do read but only read tabloid magazines or purely the news. Reading brings significant benefits through virtual experience, knowledge attainment, brain exercise, and emotional development.
Reading is the door to experiencing things that one has no access to otherwise. Reading teaches us about the world around us, as we may or may have not seen it. Through reading, one learns about people, places and events outside their own experience. One is exposed to ways of life, ideas and beliefs about the world, which may be different from one that he or she is surrounded with.
Reading is also the fastest way to attain knowledge, facts and linguistic mastery. This learning will also builds a store of background knowledge which helps train us to read, converse and process other information better. It also builds character, sharpens our thinking and widens our awareness in social, economic, political, historical and other issues.
Reading exercises our brains too. Reading is a much more complex task for the human brain than watching TV is, for example. Reading strengthens brain connections and actually builds new connections. These results in improvement in concentration for both children and adults alike, as both, not just children, may be victims of short attention spans. As we read more and more, we get better at it.
There are also psychological and cognitive advantages to reading. Though too easily stereotyped exclusively as an avenue for IQ development, reading can also be an avenue for EQ development. When we read, our brains translate the descriptions we read of people, places and things into visual. When we’re engaged in a story, we’re also imagining how the characters are feeling. We use our own experiences to imagine how we would feel in the same situation which would also help develop empathy.
I recognize the challenges inherent in establishing a reading Malaysian society. Escalating cost of living especially within a developing nation, Malaysians are pressed to dedicate their time in the pursuit of economic and material wealth. As a result, “there is no time for a book”.
Increasingly exorbitant prices of mainstream prints and published books have landed its weight on the problem. Imported titles on paperback can cost hundreds of Ringgit. For the 80% of Malaysian households (total family income) earning less than RM5,000 on average monthly, such prices are prohibitively expensive. Local communities may find it helpful to establish local community book clubs amongst members of the neighborhood. This way, the burden of high costs of quality reading materials can be shared, as well as promote consistency in reading. As Walter Cronkite said, “Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation.”
There is also a worrying trend where there is the lack of the love of knowledge. Many parts of Malaysian communities have drowned in the waves of hedonism and individualism, almost “secularizing” between reading for the purpose of passing exams, and reading for the sheer thirst and quest for knowledge. True that knowledge these days is only a click away. However, reading establishes an argument and expansive elaboration followed by a proposal or conclusion by an author who is equipped with a background of the subject matter. This makes reading a superior option to the fragmented bits and pieces of knowledge gained from the internet and other audio-visual media.
Getting Malaysians to Read
There are some ways to inculcate the reading habit among Malaysians; this is by a mind-set change and by starting early from young. Parents have a big role to play in inculcating the reading culture among children so they can grow up into readers and knowledgeable, informed individuals that can easily engage in any intellectual discussion. A generation improvement will ensure further generations that will continue to read more and more.
Do scout for opportunities to acquire books and reading materials at bargains. The Popular Book Fair and Big Bad Wolf sales are excellent opportunities to stock up your family’s reading needs for the year. Used book stores, and specialty book-lending services too will proliferate, once we start creating demand for them. E-books and pdf format files available online are also plausible options to consider.
Let’s set some time everyday for reading; at least 10 minutes. Do this whenever you have free time before you decide to restart Angrybird on your iPhone or Android. Always carry a book everywhere you go so you can read whenever you have time. Make a list of reading items or themes that you would like to discover or revisit.
Charles Jung argued that a society’s culture and mind-set is coded and inherited through the DNA. We can and we will change that. Dato’ Fadilah Kamsah insists in his book “40 habits…” that habits can be changed. It has been promised in the Quran that “Verily Allah does not change the condition of a people until they change their own condition.” (13:11).
History of First World nations have time and time again, shown us how powerful the power of reading and knowledge is in founding civilizations and uplifting societies’ quality of life. As a developing nation, Malaysia is approaching the last but toughest hurdle in achieving wealth and prosperity; that is a knowledge-based society, driven by intellectuals and thinkers.
This aim requires both an individual and a collective effort for all Malaysians. Reading can and will change the fate of our nation. Let’s inculcate reading culture among Malaysians, promote a love for knowledge, uplift our socio-economic status and strive for a better Malaysia. Let’s improve our generation and the next.
“No matter how busy you may think you are, you must find time for reading or surrender yourself to self-chosen ignorance.” — Confucius
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