Monday, September 02, 2013

September is the Literacy Month: Reversing the declining reading habit

If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all. 
- Oscar Wilde

Three people sit in a doctor’s waiting room. One stares at the television that rests on an end table, the second fiddles with a hand-held smart-phone; the head of the third is wrapped in earphones.

A couple of children, waiting for bedtime, lie on the floor of a brightly painted room, busily manipulating the controls of a video game.

Two hundred Sri Lankans sit in an airplane awaiting take-off from Colombo. Some have earphones listening to music, some doze, most stare up at a small movie screen.

What is missing from these pictures, and increasingly from our lives, is the activity through which most of us learned much of what we know of the wider world.

What’s missing is the force that, according to a growing consensus of historians, established our patterns of thought and, in an important sense, made our great civilisation.

Ironically, but not coincidentally, reading has begun fading from our culture at the very moment that its importance to that culture is finally being established.

Its decline, many theorists believe, is shocking. Some have taken to predict that the downturn in reading could result in the country’s cultural and political decline.

The simple fact is that few of us, and few of our friends and few of our children, have the time to read as much as we would like. We’re too busy working or working out or playing or watching TV or manipulating our iPad, smart-phone or desktop. Our homes barely make room for reading.

Those old islands of quiet - libraries, studies and dens - long ago were invaded by flat screens and video games. Now they are called “family rooms” or, more accurately, “television rooms.” And our architects seem to have given up providing us with bookshelves; instead they busy themselves designing “entertainment centres.”

There are number causes for this decline. Lack of proper education, lack of reading culture in schools and universities, expensiveness and unavailability of good books, scarcity of libraries and our developing preference for modern communication appliances are few of these causes.

The education system of our country encourages rote learning rather than critical thinking which makes our education a great hurdle in the way to promote reading habit.

One of the greatest benefits of reading, particularly to the young, is that reading helps them to develop their creativity and imagination.

It has also been found by educationists that children who are avid readers generally have higher IQs and do better in school than those who are not.

During the past five decades, various campaigns were launched to improve the situation, but there is still a need for a more perceptive understanding of the reasons for the lack of the reading habit in Sri Lanka.

Against this backdrop, each one of us must make a commitment to make reading a significant part of their lives, as opposed to doing so only when studying is required. But to arrest the decline, it would take much more.

It would need the collective effort of society including that of parents, teachers, and community leaders as well as the re-orienting of children and students which, in today’s context of rapid growth of electronic technology, certainly will be a herculean task. Nevertheless, “the longest journey begins with the first step.”

If reading is a habit you’d like to get into, there are a number of ways to achieve it.

* First, realise that reading is highly enjoyable.

* Set times. You should have a few set times during every day when you’ll read for at least 10-20 minutes. These are times that you will read no matter what - triggers that happen each day.

* Always carry a book. Wherever you go, take a book with you. 
* Make a list. Keep a list of all the great books you want to read.

You can keep this in your journal, in a pocket notebook, on your personal home page, on your personal wiki, wherever. Be sure to add to it whenever you hear about a good book, online or in person. Keep a running list, and cross out the ones you read.

* Find a quiet place. Find a place in your home where you can sit in a comfortable chair and curl up with a good book without interruptions.

No TV; no computer! If you don’t have a place like this, create one.

* Reduce television/Internet. If you really want to read more, try cutting back on TV or Internet consumption. This could create hours of book reading time.

* Read to your children. Creating the reading habit in your children is the best way to ensure they’ll be readers when they grow up.

* Keep a log. Similar to the reading list, this log should have not only the title and author of the books you read, but the dates you start and finish them if possible. Even better, put a note next to each with your thoughts about the book.

* Go to used bookshops. The writer’s favourite place to go is a small roadside book store where he drops off all his old books and gets a big discount on used books he finds. Make your trip to a used book store a regular thing.

* Have a library day. Even cheaper than a used book shop is a library, of course. Make it a weekly trip.

* Read fun and compelling books. Find books that really grip you and keep you going. Even if they aren’t literary masterpieces, they make you want to read - and that’s the goal here.

After you have cultivated the reading habit, you can move on to more difficult stuff, but for now, go for the fun, gripping stuff. Stephen King, John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Robert Ludlum, Nora Roberts, Sue Grafton, Dan Brown … all those popular authors are popular for a reason - they tell great stories. Other stuff you might like: Vonnegut, William Gibson, Douglas Adams, Nick Hornby, Trevanian, Ann Patchett, Terry Pratchett, Terry McMillan, F. Scott Fitzgerald. All excellent storytellers.

* Make it pleasurable. Make your reading time your favourite time of day. Have some good tea or coffee while you read, or another kind of treat. Read during sunrise or sunset, or at the beach.

* Blog it. One of the best ways to form a habit is to put it on your blog. If you don’t have one, create one. It’s free. Have your family go there and give you book suggestions and comment on the ones you’re reading. It keeps you accountable for your goals.

In brief: Set a high goal. Tell yourself that you want to read 50 books by end September 2014 (or some other number like that). Then set about trying to accomplish it. Just be sure you’re still enjoying the reading though - don’t make it a rushed chore. A year later as from today, you would be happy you made this resolution.

Sunday Observer - By Lionel Wijesiri