To read, or not to read?
Reading is a worthwhile habit to pick up; it enriches the mind, keeps us on our toes and generates a sense of empathy towards the people around us, says NG JU ENN
IT IS INDEED STRANGE how we humans avoid doing the very thing we know is beneficial to us. Reading is commonly known to fuel the imagination and increase knowledge, yet we find that most people do not do it regularly. “Many don’t read—even graduates. Students read only what they need to pass their exams,” Malaysian Booksellers Association (MBA) president Cheah Thye Wee told The Star newspaper.
Malaysians only read two books a year on average, according to statistics contained in a Malaysian National Library report back in 2003. It was a discouraging non-improvement from a study done nine years before that. More recent statistics held hope. Malaysians read an average of eight to 12 books a year, according to Deputy Information, Communication and Culture Minister Heng Seai Kie, as quoted in The Star in May 2010. However, the basis of this study has not been revealed, causing people to question the validity of it. Things simply do not add up—train passengers who are seen reading on the way to their destinations are a dime a dozen. And if you were to ask your fellow Malaysian friends if they read, chances are four in 10 of them would look quizzically at you and say, “What kind of a question is that? Of course I don’t! Once in a while, I might flick through a newspaper, but that’s about it.”
What is even more peculiar is that we often witness hoards of people pushing their way among the aisles at book fairs. Many purchase such a huge amount of books at once, that when stacked on the cashier counter, the volume at the top is positioned at the same level as their eyebrows. Six months later, try questioning them on the progress they have made reading those very books and you might laugh. Which brings us to the question: are we becoming a generation of hoarders rather than readers? Like it or not, we live in a culture of instant gratification. We are addicted to anything that gives us what we desire quickly, whether it is a microwave meal or a live streaming video of an EPL match. The same applies to the act of buying—we get what we want instantly, with the mere disposal of cash.
The truth is, reading requires discipline. Even more so when there are a million and one distractions constantly calling out to us, each with the promise of a more entertaining or fulfilling time. As much as modern technologies have helped us in accomplishing our tasks more efficiently, they have also inevitably impacted our attention spans in a bad way. Twitter and Facebook have conditioned us to process information in bits and pieces. Marina Mahathir, in her weekly Musings column in The Star, wrote that “Our attention span has shrunk to, oh say, 140 characters. It has become harder for us to focus on anything that takes longer than a few minutes.”
But it can be done. All that is needed is some practice. Try reading a page a day first. Increase to two pages the following week. Pretty soon, you might even go beyond reading the number of pages you have set for yourself, just because you find it impossible not to give in to your curiosity. What kind of tricks does the author have up his sleeve that might be unveiled in the next chapter? Will your favourite character survive until the end or be killed halfway into the story? The trick is to find a book that appeal to your interests. Do not give up if the first book you pick up makes your eyes glaze over by the second page. Keep searching.
Some lament that reading is too expensive. The complaints normally go along the lines of “public libraries are not well equipped,” “the average price of a book is RM50” and “reading is considered a luxury.” But there are many second-hand bookstores in the country, such as Pay Less Books. And with the opening of BookXcess, which sells overprinted books at cheaper prices, there is really no excuse not to read. The irony is that you would often see people who complain books are expensive are willing to fork out hefty sums on other things, such as food, clothing, cell phones and other gadgets. The double standard is rather bizarre, to say the least.
The importance of reading cannot be emphasised enough, especially as Malaysia is aiming to become a developed country. There is no better means to equip oneself for the competitive, turbulent environment both locally and internationally than to read. Watching news and documentaries on television or listening to the radio might give you some amount of information but usually, the written text offers a more detailed account of what is happening around the world. “We’re so inundated with unreliable information everywhere we go that we have to train ourselves to separate the wheat from the chaff, and the only way to do this is to read widely,” said Malaysian novelist Tan Twan Eng in an interview with Eric Forbes in The Malaysian Insider. Media literacy is a skill that can be acquired not only by reading omnivorously, but by learning to be critical of what we read.
Naturally, reading from various sources exposes us to different points of view, which give us a more complete picture of any situation or issue. Miss Malaysia and second runner-up Miss World 1998, Lina Teoh, also an avid reader, said in an interview with Forbes in Quill magazine, “Without it [reading], we know nothing about the world or life, and our lives would remain very sheltered.” Reading an article about sex slavery in India or an autobiography of someone who suffered from depression can help you understand the predicaments faced by people other than yourself. This in turn translates into a feeling of sensitivity and compassion towards society in general. Sometimes, you can even learn from the experiences of others before you experience it yourself, which can help you to relate to someone you might meet in the future who is going through a similar situation.
A report released by the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in 2007, as quoted in Reading Today, found that reading for pleasure correlates with strong academic performance. Furthermore, poor reading proficiency has a direct link towards lack of employment, low wages, and less opportunities for advancement. For that reason, parents everywhere need to make the effort by reading to their kids from a young age, as the habit is best instilled during their formative years. This need not be treated like a chore, as reading to your children can be quite an enjoyable bonding experience.
Another thing to consider is the value of reading fiction. The benefits of reading nonfiction are obvious, but fiction should not be relegated to being made-up (or imaginary) stories that have no place in the world. More frequent than not, a work of fiction is at least partially, if not, a large part, based on a writer’s own experiences and observations. Fiction plays with the “what ifs” of a situation. That is why there are sci-fi novels depicting the state of dystopia, which would be the consequence in the event of excessive human greed or power. The late American writer, Jessamyn West, put it this way, “Fiction reveals truths that reality obscures.”
All in all, reading is a worthwhile habit to pick up. It enriches the mind, keeps us on our toes and generates a sense of empathy towards the people around us. Those who do not read are in fact losing out a lot. It is ever more necessary in this age of instantaneous endeavours to switch off our electronics for a couple of hours in a day and pick up a book, magazine or newspaper. And as for handling naysayers who claim that people who read are those who live in their own worlds and do not know how to function in real life, take comfort in knowing that reading enables you to do the exact opposite.