In a world dominated by the internet, Hajra Rehman urges us not to forget the life-giving power of literature.
We are blessed to live in an era of highly advanced technology, in which we can know and achieve so much through the mere click of a finger. Yet if we are not careful, it will negatively impact one of our greatest educational practices: reading.
Whether fiction or nonfiction of any genre, books are one of the greatest sources of knowledge available to humans. We are fortunate that our brains can create and decipher codes like the alphabet. From those codes we can record human thoughts, events and stories, and, better still, share them with others.
Nonetheless, with the dominance of screens, holding a book in your two hands and turning the pages has become to some an old-fashioned practice, far more difficult than scrolling through Google or Instagram.
Yet speaking as someone who tries to read at least 50 books a year, I can assure you that the benefits of regular reading are immense. If we utilize and maximise our ability to read, it can open our eyes, compel us to look inwards, and make us reflect on and re-evaluate our own outlook and behaviour. Indeed, reading could almost be seen as a moral duty.
One of my favorite writers, the prominent civil-rights activist James Baldwin, described how reading helped to develop his sense of empathy: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.
It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”
I believe that this statement is more than just a quote – it is a way of life.
For instance, when one reads Tolstoy’s War and Peace the reader is transported to St. Petersburg in 1805 and finds resonance with Pierre Bezukhov’s perpetual dilemma and search for meaning through his exploration of different philosophies, religions and political systems.
When reading Meditations by Marcus Aurelius we are taken back to the Roman Empire of AD 171, realising that even the most powerful man in the world struggled with how to live his life with a sense of value and integrity.
By reading we share other experiences. We see through other eyes. We enter into the psychology of others. As the 20th century French philosopher Paul Ricoeur put it, every text is a world I could inhabit.
What’s more, reading can elicit positive emotions and values. It can turn a realist into an idealist.
In one of my favourite books, Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, the author talks of drawing strength from the very thought of his wife, despite being separated from her in Auschwitz:
I didn’t even know if she were still alive. I knew only one thing which I have learned well by now: love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved… whether my wife was alive…. at that moment it ceased to matter….nothing could touch the strength of my love, my thought, and the image of my beloved. Had I known then that my wife was dead, I think that I would still have given myself, undisturbed by that knowledge, to the contemplation of her image….
Passages like this can change lives. You are inspired by all those people who feel that love is unconditional – and, whether the person is before your eyes or far away, it becomes meaningless in the grand scheme of things. Together or not, the beautiful memories within your mind remain untouched by pain and persecution.
When Frankl states that ‘those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’’, he helps us understand that even if suffering can often be inevitable in life, and something we often have no control over, we can take that suffering and channel it towards a positive goal. A life that was unbearable begins to acquire meaning.
Books can change lives and even save lives, give purpose to the purposeless, and hope to the hopeless.
Moreover, I believe books are made to be read more than once. It is important to read and then re-read a book because as time passes the reader has changed and grown as a person. Consequently, reading the same book a second, third or fourth time throughout the course of your life can provide a new perspective on each occasion.
A story which you previously didn’t understand can start to make sense – not because the book has changed, but because you have.
If we converted all the time we spent scrolling through social media into reading time, it could have great mental health benefits. Indeed, a statistic states that cutting out three 10-minute social media checks a day means you could read as many as 30 more books a year.
Reading is part of our intellectual ‘breathing process’. If writing is exhaling, reading is inhaling. Just as I am exhaling my thoughts while writing this article, I am inhaling as I read my bedside book. Reading plays a key role in nourishing one’s mind and in helping us decide how to live.
Another of my favourite writers, Ray Bradbury, said: “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”
Indeed, in his famous novel Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury uses the metaphor of firemen tasked with burning books within a dystopian, futuristic setting. He describes how trading the experience of searching for meaning through literature for a lifestyle consumed by modern conveniences such as TVs can erode culture, critical thinking, emotional fulfillment, and happiness.
Bradbury wrote the novel in 1956 during the peak of McCarthyism in the USA and as a literary response to his fear of book burning in that period. Bradbury was also undoubtedly reflecting on the Nazi era, where thousands of books were burned on the grounds that they were detrimental to the Nazi cause.
Books are a threat to those in power; they can elicit dissent, prompt criticism, challenge the status quo, question why society is the way it is and why it cannot be better.
Arguably, we have a duty to pass on knowledge to others. Yet we can only do that by absorbing the wisdom provided by those who came before us. Reading becomes like rain and sunshine on the soil, enabling it to be fruitful.
Just as we need to exercise to maintain our physical bodies, we have to stimulate and sustain ourselves mentally by reading. It is the ultimate exercise of the mind, and we must not take it for granted – or we may lose something special and unique.
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