In contemporary Western culture, the idea of reading of one’s own volition seems increasingly inconceivable, especially for millennials and other young people. Reading is frequently viewed as an antiquated, arduous, and even soporific chore that is to be undertaken only when absolutely necessary. Needless to say, the exponential increase of technology in our everyday lives is greatly to blame for this tragic state of affairs. The incessant flurry of the latest mobile phones, tablets and laptops, as well as the plethora of brand new series on Netflix, constantly demand our full attention. Equally, social media, (more appropriately labelled ‘antisocial media’ in the Sunday Times) – be it the ubiquitous Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, etc – acts as a tool to cruelly devour any remaining time we may have during our waking lives.
Against the backdrop of this worrying trend, it is imperative that we re-examine the importance of reading in our culture. Let me start by sharing my own story. For the first thirteen years of my life, the idea of reading in my spare time was anathema to me. I loathed allocating half an hour to sit and stare at what seemed to me to be the literary equivalent of a Jackson Pollock painting: a hotchpotch of words that only a small group of erudite literary types would appreciate. Despite the best efforts of my mother and auntie, I was utterly intransigent when it came to my view of reading, and yet, ironically, I had never really made the effort to read an entire chapter of any book. It would have been fair to have labelled me as narrow-minded, nonetheless, I was not entirely insular in my outlook, since I was thoroughly engrossed in films, and it was through this medium that I came to be the proud bibliophile that I am today.
Cherishing the gargantuan contribution which cinema had made to the world, I found it unfathomable that so many people continued to assert the veracity of that common phrase “the book is always better than the film.” It was because of this that, in the summer of 2013, I felt compelled to read The Dead of Winter by Chris Priestly, in order to test this hypothesis. To my incredulity, I found reading to be not only bearable, but to actually be an engaging, intellectually-stimulating and pleasurable activity which merited being held in such high esteem. The manner in which one could utilise language to meticulously describe each detail of an occurrence or experience fascinated me, and henceforth I embarked upon my journey of consuming book after book.
I now intend here to set out three simple, yet compelling factors as to why one should – no – why one must read.
Firstly, there is the simple truth that reading can be an immensely pleasurable, as well as therapeutic pastime to engage in. It is so thoroughly beneficial that psychologists have found that reading can reduce stress levels by 68 per cent and it works better and faster than other methods of calming frazzled nerves, such as listening to music, going for a walk or settling down with a cup of tea.
Secondly, there are the indubitable linguistic benefits of reading. By reading, one can readily augment one’s vocabulary. Amassing an extensive linguistic arsenal can only help one to reap countless benefits in the long term and one can then deploy this when necessary, be it in an interview or when speaking in public. Moreover, possessing top level linguistics skills (gleaned directly from reading) allows for many otherwise unavailable routes in life to open up, thus revealing things one may never even have dreamt of.
Thirdly – and perhaps most importantly – there is the wisdom, knowledge and understanding about life on earth and the human condition which comes from reading (great) books. For thousands of years, mankind has used writing to communicate the most profound feelings about his terrestrial lot. To this day, literature reigns supreme as the highest art form, a tool to express one’s thoughts and emotions, and a way of conveying a message in a timeless and universal manner. As you read, you are able to explore the very history of mankind and open yourself up to a world beyond the confines of the here and now.
Through reading, one can travel through time, across continents and oceans, from a CEO’s office on Wall Street, to a gutter in the Mumbai slums. As you imbibe the words in a book, you may step inside the shoes of individuals diametrically opposed to yourself in every manner. Reading helps us empathise with others outside our direct personal experience, enabling us to transcend colour, class, creed and degree of wealth. As a bulldozer may bring down a wall, so too may reading obliterate divisions in our world that impede us in the pursuit of reaching a time when we all regard each other as brothers and sisters and as citizens of the world.
When reading, one can feast upon the intellectual exploits of the greatest minds this planet has ever produced; all lay bare before us at the mere turn of a page. Reading is the perfect panacea for parochial thinking. In the diligent study of Cicero and Augustine, Aristotle and Fanon, Milton and Morrison, Epicurus and Confucius, to name but a few, one arms themselves against myopic reasoning. If we seek wisdom we may turn to the proverbs of king Solomon; if we seek to witness the potency of the “green-eyed monster” (envy), we may turn to Othello; if we seek to examine the figure of unrequited love, then Wuthering Heights is available. The educative aspect of reading is that it fills many lacunae in our knowledge and combats uninformed, insular, ignorant, shallow ways of thinking.
Given that we have on average 80 years of human existence on this earth (if we are fortunate), it is impossible for us to experience the fullness of what life may offer – the good, the bad and the ugly. Contrary to what many may presume, reading is actually the best way to save time by establishing the knowledge of the surrounding world.
Literature does not shy away from the bleak, harrowing realities of the real world, thus mentally preparing us for what lies ahead. Moreover, the ideas, philosophies and views that are not given air-time in increasingly commercialised, status-conscious, cynical societies are espoused and widely explored in the various literary canons for us to then ruminate on/ evaluate for ourselves.
Most of all, literature allows us to know who we truly are as human beings. There exists no more noble a labour than to moil at ascertaining the essence of mankind’s nature and to adhere to the wise words of Socrates, the father of Western philosophy, who said, “Know thyself” for “The unexamined life is not worth living.” When one opens a book, one inadvertently holds a mirror up to one’s heart and exposes a path into the recesses of one’s soul.
To conclude, reading helps us to lead fuller, richer and arguably better lives on earth. If it doesn’t always do the last bit, it should. Reading can (and should) make us more human, more empathetic, more compassionate and more replete with love for humanity. Reading should help us to live.