Books and Reading
Kaieteur News
April 28, 2007

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It is not news that as a people, we Guyanese are reading much less than in the “old days”. The evidence is all around us, or rather literally, it is not all around us.

Time was when there were dozens of bookstores in Georgetown, several in New Amsterdam and while in every village there may not have been one totally dedicated to books, most shops had some books – even if they were comics.

We used to read more newspapers: both in relative and absolute terms. In the sixties there were at least twice the number of different newspapers published daily – and they all had their loyal readership. Then there were the institutions that encouraged broader reading. There were formal ones like the libraries that were established in the Community Centres of every sugar estate.

The Community Centres did not just produce famous cricketers like Kanhai and Butcher et al, but many scholars who got hooked on reading and books, while not as famous are certainly more numerous.

Then there were the informal institutions such as the “barber tents” that sprung up every weekend at roadside junctions and markets throughout the countryside. A copy of every newspaper was de rigueur and not every reader was necessarily a customer.

What did it mean for us as a nation? We were certainly better informed at a minimum and the general level of “street corner” discussions were just as certainly wider ranging. Wide reading helped earn us sobriquet “most politically developed” in the region.

Our educational achievements made us the envy of the Caribbean; our scholars, doctors, lawyers and other professionals adorned its institutions. They gave us a positive stereotype and made us welcome everywhere.

The retort to the above may be that books and reading are in decline all over the world and yet other countries continue to flourish. While the part about books and reading may be true, it is not reflective of the total picture and as a result can give us a distorted view of the reality.

Firstly, in the developed world, where there has been a decline in reading of books, the development has not been accepted complacently. There has been a vigorous debate about the phenomenon and in each of those countries programs have been introduced both at their national and local levels to reverse the trend.

Secondly, books and reading were a methodology for the transmission of knowledge, which played a pivotal role in moving Europe out of their “dark ages” and into a position of dominance based on the effective deployment of that knowledge.

Today, the developed countries are exploring newer and more efficient ways of transmitting knowledge to supplement books. Thus while books may be in decline in those societies, reading may actually be increasing due to the ubiquity of the internet and the vast amount of written information in its archives.

Today, each individual with a modem has at his or her disposal, a library incomparably vaster than the fabled one at Alexander of yore. There is even a movement to actually introduce a number of courses in several colleges that require no books – just information to be downloaded from hyperspace.

What does all of this mean for us as a nation today? In a globalised world that is developing exponentially based on the increased speed of the transmission of data, it would seem obvious that our citizens must become au fait with the information flow if we are to not remain permanently mired in the backwaters. This means returning to the basics – which always began with “reading”.

We can do worse than follow the lead of the developed world and attempt to increase the reading component of our schools' curriculum. Our Ministry of Education has already initiated some moves in this direction and we urge them to intensify their efforts.

While we will not be in a position to have an internet-ready computer in every home to utilise the “world library”, the Government must follow through with the President's promise to have one available to every student.

It is said that knowledge is power and to remain without knowledge is to remain powerless. This will not do for us.