We must begin reading, again
HABIT: If there was anything Sri Lankan society has been known for
in 1950s and 60s, it has been the habit of reading books. Down the line
from 80s book reading as a pastime has progressively gone out of
I remember in my younger days how women, whose academic education may
not have extended beyond secondary school or even less, displayed a zeal
for reading that is hardly to be come across today.
Another powerful sign of how reading has been on the decline in this
country comes from a visit you make to any ordinary household in the
In earlier times, it used to be that the drawing room of any home you
stepped into displayed a fairly good number of books.
The choice of authors may not particularly have been to your liking,
but the fact that the books were there reflected at least one member of
the family taking interest in works of an intellectual kind.
These days the pattern is simply absent. Or if there are households
where you find a semblance of reading material, it is more than likely
that the table or the shelf, if there is any shelf, will display
magazines you are not terribly fond of.
Most of them are largely about movie stars or plain social gossip.
The general impression that our people usually are not inclined to
reading serious stuff is something that becomes evident in the
circumstances we are speaking of.
But if we are complaining about this general state of apathy towards
reading among common people, what can we say about individuals or groups
from whom we expect a truly concentrated form of reading?
It is in our teaching profession that you notice the decline of
reading. Something has come over the profession, something that has made
most teachers, especially the young, rather complacent.
They hardly make use of the library facilities where you will find
all those copies of good magazines and good books. The problem is they
remain unread or untouched for the most part.
In the old days, despite the fact that teaching was not a perfect
money-making affair, there were teachers driven by an urge to do well in
their jobs and to that end they went to every length to find and absorb
information about the world around them.
That is not quite what you get today. A positive kind of horror
creeps in when you realise that too many young teachers seem perfectly
happy just seeing their students get through the examinations without
caring to impart into them the massive changes and improvements outside
their school and country. If teachers do not set the example themselves,
what do they expect their followers to do?
Mercifully, it is still the higher academic arena - universities,
where reading still remains a habit with teachers. Even then there is
the feeling, based upon observation, that not many teachers are these
days receptive to the idea of reading as a whole.
As for a true understanding of why reading, in the sense of a
comprehension of literature and history and the social sciences, has
been showing a downward trend comes from the peculiar phenomenon of
There are quite a number of universities in Sri Lanka. You might
think it all bodes well for the future of the reading habit in the
Well, simply stated, it does not. Practically none, or indeed a
paltry few, of these universities offer anything by way of good literary
A very debilitating factor related to the decline in reading is
related to the kind of subjects that are offered at these institutions.
We have a lot of functionally literate people who are no longer
engaged readers. This isnât a case of âJohnny Canât Read,â but âJohnny
The likely culprits, in my opinion are television, movies and the
Internet. I think what weâre seeing is an enormous cultural shift from
print media to electronic media, and the unintended consequences of that
âWhenever I hear about something like this, I think of it as a call
to arms,â said a known Bookseller.
âAs booksellers, we need to look into what kinds of partnerships we
can get into to encourage literacy and the beauty of the literary
experience. Thereâs a communal aspect to reading that has collapsed and
we need to find ways to restore it,â he further said.
But let not depression take too strong a hold of us. The fact that
there are many new bookshops being opened up annually throughout the
country is evidence of what we still think we can do, which is to revive
the habit of reading among people who have grown to adulthood and who
are growing into adulthood around us. There is, therefore, reason for