I grew up in a country of extreme contrasts, where a minority of educated people tried to lead normal lives amidst the chaos created by functionally illiterate citizens. For decades, my native country has been at the bottom of every book consumption list. For a very long time, I haven’t realized the consequences of this fact on society as a whole.
As I read more, however, I became increasingly aware of the divisive differences between myself and many of my peers, which often led to problematic encounters.
My thirst to discuss and brainstorm important issues of the day have made me unpopular and passed down as arrogant. Truth be told, I was often annoyed with how little people cared. But that wasn’t an act of arrogance. It was frustration. Almost no one cared about climate change, nor bothered with politics, as if these could never have an impact on their peaceful lives. The intolerance to constructive criticism is a national disease. I tormented myself thinking why was everyone so impassive and indifferent? Was it because of the general poverty or was it simply a symptom of post-communism?
One day I stumbled upon an eye-opening quote by Haruki Murakami and I was so astounded by its simplicity and obviousness: “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”
Of course, that was it! How could I have been so blind? While I was busy thinking of complex answers, the truth had been in front of me the whole time.
Large important cities in the country harbored numerous bookstores and libraries, but it was the smaller towns, which were far more numerous, that were closing them down at a fast rate. They did, however, invest massively in the construction of buildings with a single book inside. Pointing this out, too, was considered arrogant. It took moving to a fully developed country to stop feeling bad about being different.
In today’s digitalized world, utter ignorance is merely a choice, and if you miss the last train home, it will most certainly move on without you.
It is what it has always done.
Reading, in general, has incredible effects on the population, both on a personal and societal level. Story understanding entails perceiving the meaning of words, parts of speech, grammar, and juggling them together to form something meaningful.
Reading for pleasure was found to enhance empathy and to ease the understanding of one’s self and others’ identities. It was also positively associated with a greater sense of community, making readers feel socially included (Billington, 2015). Particularly, fiction reading was found to be a strong predictor of empathy (Mar et al., 2006). The reading frequency also matters as it enhances the understanding of people’s ethnicity, culture, and political perspectives (Moyer, 2007).
Unfortunately, literary reading has been decreasing with the advent of the Internet.
Many bloggers are switching to a new way of writing in order to appease the eternally busy reader, transforming long, meaningful texts into short easy-to-read pieces that often lose their essence in the process.
In the US alone, the percentage of 18- to 24-year-olds reading literature has been declining for decades, from 60% in 1982 to 43% in 2002. The National Endowment for the Arts reported that literary readers are more than twice as likely as non-readers to take up voluntary or charity work. For example, in 2002, 43% of readers visited an art museum, while only 12% of non-readers did.
This reminds me – I once overheard an American woman visiting a medieval castle in Europe complain about the living conditions of those people from five hundred years ago. How could they live like this?! she wondered. Lady, seriously?
The non-readers also have a detrimental effect on health care as only 40% exercise frequently as compared to 72% of literary readers.
In the UK, statistics also point to a sharp decline in reading for pleasure. It was estimated that low literacy cost the UK £81 billion/year in lost earnings and increased welfare spending. In 2011, approximately 16% of adults in England were described as “functionally illiterate”. It means that 5.1 million adults have “literacy levels at or below those expected of an 11-year-old” (The Literacy Trust), which affects their employability prospects as employers now rank reading comprehension and writing as top deficiencies in new hires.
On an ending note, I want to give a big shout out to India, Thailand, and China for being the biggest reading nations in the world.
As for you, remember the wise words of J.K. Rowling: “If you don’t like to read, you haven’t found the right book.”
- Billington, J, (2015). Reading between the Lines: the Benefits of Reading for Pleasure, Quick Reads, University of Liverpool
- Mar, R. A., DeYoung, C. G., Higgins, D. M., & Peterson, J. B. (2006). Self‐Liking and Self‐Competence Separate Self‐Evaluation From Self‐ Deception: Associations With Personality, Ability, and Achievement. Journal of Personality, 74(4), 1047-1078.
- Moyer, J. E. (2007). Learning from leisure reading. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 46(4), 66-79.