“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” (Ray Bradbury)
After running a publication for nearly nine years, I cannot agree more. Most Pakistanis have erratic spending patterns, I notice. For many, buying a mere magazine comes as blatant wastage of money. But when it comes to eating out or shopping for clothes, it appears no budgets exist.
If we cannot read a magazine, how can we appreciate the beauty and depths of books along with the spell-binding impact they create? Consequently, those who read nothing or only to achieve academic milestones can almost immediately be identified. And I don’t just mean they have less than eloquent speech or a poor vocabulary bank. They generally have restricted thoughts and trivial conversations; they do very little to enrich their own or others’ lives. Their poor observation, lack of patience and prejudiced actions indicate obvious under-usage of their minds and abilities bestowed to them by Allah (swt).
“Read! In the Name of your Lord Who has created (all that exists).” (Al-Alaq, 96:1) Why did our Creator instruct the Holy Prophet (sa) to begin his journey of prophethood with the sublime task of reading, reflecting and acting upon the Quran? Why didn’t Allah (swt) command him to watch, listen, experience or learn by another means? For a nation, whose first revelation was to read in the name of the Lord, how well are we faring today?
Reading is not just an intellectual activity. It serves as a power supply for insight and happiness. Revealed knowledge connects us to our Creator and self. Acquired knowledge further facilitates this process and humbles us to serve the creation. Try asking a surgeon how he recognizes the wondrous miracles of Allah (swt), when he opens up the human body and finds the intricate workings of the organs therein. The books he reads on human anatomy spring to life and help him understand the verses of the Quran with higher meaning.
“Books, like friends, should be few and well-chosen.” (Joineriana) It is almost an appalling tragedy to see some extremely learned and gifted individuals unremorsefully treading the misguided path. One is better off an illiterate than reading rubbish or material that destructs his/her Fitrah.
As rude as it may sound, Georg Christoph Lichetenberg stated that “a book is a mirror: If an ass peers into it, you can’t expect an apostle to look out”. Developing love and appreciation for books is part of Tarbiyah and growing up. Those, who have not experienced this, will always consider reading as a chore or a duty meant to be put off. This is similar to the way the diets for over-weight people always begin tomorrow.
Reading and books are also deeply associated with today’s educational system. The education sector of a country determines its overall progress and participation in global events. Some of the countries with the highest number of literacy rates are: Vatican City (population: 826 people; literacy rate: 100%) and Andorra, the sixth smallest European country (population: 83,888; literacy rate: 100%). Finland is ranked as the third most educated country in the world with some of the best universities. Besides their rightly set priorities, size of the population being scarce is an advantage they commonly enjoy. For Pakistan, this may not be the case.
Describing education as the single, most important factor for alleviating poverty, the Pakistan Economic Survey 2009-2010 confirms that public expenditure in this sector has declined to a paltry 2 per cent of the gross domestic product. The survey puts the average literacy rate at 57 per cent – 69 per cent for males and 45 per cent for females.
Literacy is the acquisition of basic skills of reading, writing and numeracy. In other words, literacy is the meaningful acquisition, development and use of the written language. In Pakistan, the definition of literate is structured at the time of Population Census. In the 1998 Population Census, a literate person has been defined as “one who can read newspaper and write a simple letter in any language.”
NGOs and the private sector have a critical role to play in helping to achieve whatever success we have in the education sector. Though we have an uphill task at hand, with capable leadership and a sincere vision, our human resources can be developed to meet their potential. Great responsibility and accountability rests with those who are privileged enough to be called the upscale literates. Reading with understanding should be promoted at every level by every individual and not just by those who are directly involved in the business of education and journalism. Also, reading must be accompanied with an inbuilt filtering process that can separate chaff from the wheat. To attain this goal, our extremely brilliant predecessors learnt the Quran and Ahadeeth, before they took up any other discipline for exploration and specialization. It guided them to stay on track and side step the orbits that led them off the Shariah.
The House of Wisdom library was destroyed during the Mongol invasion in 1258, along with all the other libraries in Baghdad. It was said that the waters of the Tigris ran black for six months with ink from the enormous quantities of books flung into the river. But today, we refuse to own up our own heritage and pass it on to our next generations. And purposeful reading and writing is one such task. Joseph Brodsky said: “There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.”