I learned to read at a very early age, probably because there was nothing else to do. Television had not been invented yet, and most radio was geared to the tastes of the middle-aged. Reading was the perfect occupation for a young bookworm-in-training. Because of our excellent public library it was also entirely free.
So I read my little stories, most of them about animals, and when I arrived at school at the age of five I had to start all over again with my ABCs. This was an early introduction to the absurdity of one-size-fits-all formal education. Nothing that has happened since – including being a teacher – has changed my mind.
Reading has been one of the central pleasures of my life. It is an addiction, pure and simple. I feel restless and anxious without a book or a newspaper to hand. In fact I usually have several going at once – a novel, a non-fiction book, and at least two additional novels on audio, one in the car and one on a portable player that I take on my walks.
Reading has such soothing effect, setting thoughts and feelings and events in logical, grammatical order. It is the most reliable defense against chaos. Reading takes us out of ourselves (to use the old-fashioned, almost obsolete phrase), away from the endless solipsistic obsession with ego and self. It can also be uncomfortable for that reason, provoking thoughts and insights that we would never be forced confront in the ingratiating mass media. But such discomfort, I’m sure, is good for us.
The illiterate masses of the world are missing something important here. The steadying effect of reading is absent from their lives, which makes teaching literacy one of the most urgent tasks of the twenty-first century.
Having acquired the skill of reading and enjoyed it all my life I feel both complacent and sad that it appears to be dying out in favor of images, instant messages, and semi-literate twittering. Reading and writing in the twenty-first century seem such exquisitely old-fashioned and pointless activities that they almost qualify as a form of mental disability. This is the age of the sound, the picture, and the sentence fragment. In any public place where people have time on their hands you see very few reading books or newspapers. They are staring at a small screen, or into space. As an ex-college professor and a friend of many still active I can testify that far too many students arrive in college with childish reading skills. The printed word is a challenge for them, and they find it hard to read a textbook or an article. .
The great paradox of reading is this: the printed word has the potential to destroy civilization as well as to create it. So-called “Holy Books” have poisoned more minds than all the tyrants in history. Reading them can lead to a mental paralysis that blocks all rational thought. Consider the process of Koranic or Torah studies, where the repeated words act as a kind of hypnotic. Biblical fundamentalists brainwash their followers with the same technique. Even highly literate cultures can be dragged into barbarism by some written dogma or revelation of ancient madness, as happened with the Nazis in the 1940s and the Soviet Communists in 1917. It is the language itself and not just the printed page that has such power.
So a human world in which language is fragmented and simplified to a level just above primitive grunts, and in which books disappeared long ago, might appear as a kind of paradise to those who find our literate culture confusing and threatening. Hollywood seems to agree, turning out a new post-literate apocalypse move about once a week to entertain the teenagers of America. History may be on their side, but I will hold on to my books until the firemen from Fahrenheit 451 come to burn them.
Copyright: David Bouchier