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We must begin reading, again

READING 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 fashion.

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 city.

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 universities.

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 country.

Well, simply stated, it does not. Practically none, or indeed a paltry few, of these universities offer anything by way of good literary education.

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 isn’t a case of ‘Johnny Can’t Read,’ but ‘Johnny Won’t Read.’

The likely culprits, in my opinion are television, movies and the Internet. I think what we’re seeing is an enormous cultural shift from print media to electronic media, and the unintended consequences of that shift.

“Whenever I hear about something like this, I think of it as a call to arms,” said a known Bookseller.

“As booksellers, we need to look into what kinds of partnerships we can get into to encourage literacy and the beauty of the literary experience. There’s a communal aspect to reading that has collapsed and we need to find ways to restore it,” 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 hope.

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