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The Importance of Reading

By Selwyn R. Cudjoe
December 08, 2007

I want to support Raffique Shah's advice about giving a child a book for Christmas (Express, December 2) and add that each adult should read a book this Christmas holidays for the very simple reason that we, as a society, have lost the art of reading and continue to suffer from it. Shah has observed that many teachers–and I might add university students as well–only read the textbooks they have been assigned for exam purposes. Once they have passed their examinations then reading becomes a luxury they cannot afford. Reading ceases to be a pleasurable activity. It is something that possesses only a utilitarian value.

In making his recommendation, Shah hits upon a fact of central importance to the society. He intimated that there is a connection between illiteracy and the spiraling rate of crime. He may have added that the lack of reading coarsens the level of our civilization and dampens civic and social participation. He is also correct when he makes the connection between reading and the effect it has on our performance on other areas of the curriculum.

A recent study, "To Read or Not to Read," conducted by the National Endowment of the Arts in the United States comes up with some staggering conclusions. It says that Americans, especially younger Americans, read less. Because they read less, they have lower levels of academic achievements. Poor reading skills "correlate heavily with lack of employment, lower wages, and fewer opportunities for advancement. Deficient readers are less likely to become active in civic and cultural life."

Shah argues that reading not only informs and educates, it also stimulates the imagination. He ranks imagination as the sixth sense and he is correct. I will go further. Not only does it stimulate one's imagination, it also becomes a trigger for generating ideas. While innovation can come from playing around with gadgets it also helps if one can read, imagine and dream.

It is also true that the ability to read can be seen as the acquisition of a code that helps one to unravel a larger societal puzzle. The inability to read prevents one from unraveling that puzzle which leads to frustration and a lowering of self–worth. Such confusion and low self–esteem make one hits out at that which he cannot understand or know, often with devastating consequences.

Young people who read less are more likely to have children out of wedlock. In fact, a lack of reading and reflection does not allow one to make choices and plan for the future–the kind of delayed gratification of which sociologists sometimes speak. When one reads it opens up the mind and causes one to reflect. It also allows one to think about possibilities and the things one can do. It allows on to dream. When one ceases to dream one ceases to see the beauty and value of life.

The media must also play a substantive role as we seek to create a reading society. Dana Gioia, the chairman of NEA, complained that "we live in a society where the media does not recognize, celebrate or discuss reading, literature or authors." She might have been talking about Trinidad and Tobago. I cannot think of one radio or television program that celebrates and promotes reading. Perhaps, it might be nice if one of the conditions of receiving a radio license was the imperative that the station sets aside one hour a week to talk about books and its importance in the lives or our people. We used to do that for news. Anyone who received a radio licenses was supposed to put aside a certain time for the broadcasting of news.

One of the main tasks that Minister of Education should be the obligation to promote reading in our schools. Part of her task should be to encourage our teachers to educate the whole child for live rather than have them simple teach our students to read to pass exams. She should know that a society cannot move forward it cannot manipulate the three Rs and this does not even begin to speak about scientific education.

I know that it is a big task and a huge agenda. But as the NEA report suggests: This call is not an elegy for the bygone days of print culture but a call to action; an attempt to ask every member of our society to take the challenge seriously. Failure to do so could have serious negative consequences for our nation.

Give a child a book for Christmas should be our rallying cry this Christmas. Sherman Alexie, a Spokane Indian who grew up on an Indian reservation in the United States, seems to have put it best when he said: "I really think it's the age at which you find that book that you really identify with that really determines the rest of your reading life. The younger you are when you do that, the more likely you're going to be a serious reader. It is really about finding yourself in a book."

It mattes when your child begins to read.

Professor Cudjoe email address is

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