The rewards of reading
Ian on Sunday
By Ian McDonald
May 19, 2002
Articles on stuff
Reading books appears increasingly to be a despised activity. Even intelligent (sic) people can be heard to say that, in the age of the internet and instantly accessible data, books have been superceded as a means of enlightenment just as television has consigned books to oblivion in the minds of most children. The sciences, it is said, no longer use books and neither do the professions since what everyone really needs is data, endless data, up to data night and data.
Have you ever heard such mindless nonsense? Data has always been a minor importance, except to minor minds. What matters is how the information is arranged, how it is understood and how it is put to use. In other words what matter is the thoughtfully written book in which the information is displayed. That will always remain so and therefore there will always be books. And if people shut their minds down and cease to read in favour of staring at pictures that hardly ever explain themselves, and if people abandon reading books to grope endlessly through the inter-rubbish, then, good, the result will be to make real readers, chief among the last left able to reason and invent, superior to all others and prime candidates to be the shakers and movers, the rulers and leaders of the world.
I myself associate a love of reading with a love of literature and believe that the neglect of reading, and therefore of good writing, is a sign of our times. This is an age when ruthless economic efficiency counts far above civilised behaviour and the quantity of material possessions ranks much higher than the quality of human aspirations. In such an age literature is viewed as superfluous, a mere diversion or luxury which a poor country, or a poor man, can ill afford, and reading considered an elitist occupation of the technologically deprived. But these are misconceptions of monumental proportions. In fact, neglect of reading leads to technological deprivation as much as it leads to cultural disability. People think because I love poetry my advocacy of the vital need to acquire the reading habit is based on some obsession of mine that people must learn to love good literature. That is not the real point of my advocacy.
My wife and I have two sons, one aged 19 and the other 13, so our home is pretty full quite often of youthful exuberance and enthusiasm. But try as I do to encourage an enthusiasm for reading among these young people, I find my words of wisdom falling on almost wholly deaf, or at least otherwise plugged in, ears. I have a good library, books are everywhere in the home, but they might as well be decorations, carved sculpture on shelves which it would be sin to chisel open. I feel frustrated because I know not only what entertainment and what assured enlightenment reading provides but also what practical needs are met by cultivating the habit of reading. This should be important to the young who surely must want, at the very least, to have successful careers, get good jobs, make money, and enjoy the cornucopia of material benefits which good jobs and money brings.
Examine the lives of successful people carefully and you will find that the great majority acquired the reading habit early. The young people nod their heads but have the look that makes it clear they do not believe this eccentric and old-fashioned view. I wish I could convince them that successful men and women were once boys and girls who read.
Reading creates a rapidly expanding number of retrievable patterns in the brain and these relate to each other in an infinitely increasing number of ways.
This gradually establishes a profound capacity to sort out complexity and recognise where meaning hides in mind-adventures and life-encounters of every kind. In this way the ability grows to think sensibly, comprehend in depth, analyse fruitfully and express conclusions tellingly.
This ability is a priceless resource throughout life whatever subject is studied, whatever career is sought, whatever ambition is pursued, whatever lowly or marvelous goal attempted. The well-read person is simply more likely to be successful - in engineering, journalism, chemistry, teaching, physics, the law, medicine, business, agriculture, banking, public service, name whatever career you favour.
To begin with that is important. But there is something else. What is infinitely more important is that the well-read person will understand what his or her success means, what life-value it has, how it can best be used in relation to the development of self and the assistance of others. I wish I could explain this important aspect of cultivating the reading habit to young people - how it raises the consciousness of what really matters in life to an altogether higher level than the non-reader ever experiences.
I make great claims for a love of reading. "There are those who see more colours in the rainbow than others see, who hear voices on the wind which others do not hear, who unravel mysteries which others cannot even seek." I read, therefore I think, therefore I am.
I will never rest from trying to convince the young especially of the transforming power of the reading habit.
Ignorance is the essential raw material for the generation and the perpetuation of prejudice and hatred. To some extent, large or small, ignorance lies within all of us, a blockage to an open mind and a generous heart. But reading can help us. As Kafka wrote, in a famous phrase, a book can be "the axe to break the frozen sea inside us."