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The extent of the tragedy of illiteracy can only be appreciated by those who can read. Reading is one of the most pleasurable pastimes. It is also an essential tool in one’s ability to function efficiently in the world.
I have two gardeners who are illiterate. This drawback is sometimes catastrophic, when they forget instructions and make up the work as they go. The number of machines they have managed to destroy is unlimited. But they are really very smart. Not only do they retain a large amount of information without the luxury of looking it up, but they are also very curious to know more and are quite adventurous in trying to find out. They have taken apart many a machine and after many many attempts, have managed to put some of them back together.
Reading, for those who know how to, becomes second nature. We no longer marvel at our ability to read street signs, follow a map, or the operating instructions of a new gadget. It is now automatic. We only feel its difficulty when we attempt reading a foreign language. If the alphabet is the same, then we try to make sense of the words put together. But if it is a different alphabet, then we are closer to the feeling of frustration felt by someone illiterate.
A few years ago the wife of ex President Mubarak adopted the idea of “Reading for All” in an attempt to spread the culture of reading, to help in reducing illiteracy and to instil in the young the love for the written word. A truly worthy cause. There were many libraries built as well as moving libraries sent out to many a remote village. This effort resulted in some young people discovering the addiction of reading. The project also attempted reducing the price of books and familiarising the public with the concept of a lending library. But with an illiteracy rate of 40% of the population, that was not a huge help.
Although the written word on paper has been the oldest form still being used, yet the electronic books that have swept in have made accessibility much easier. There are still those die-hards who insist that the feel of a paper book in hand is totally different. The smell of the ink on paper, the turning of the page, all have an addictive allure, like a smoker’s fascination with the curling smoke of a cigarette.
No matter what form your reading material takes, the very act of reading is one of the real pleasures in life. No matter what the subject of the material you are reading, as long as you are interested, it transports you to another world. There is the excitement of starting a new book, of discovering a new world, of losing yourself in another dimension, meeting new characters, experiencing new situations, identifying with the characters you are reading about and living vicariously through their lives.
Through reading you gain knowledge of so many things, knowledge of other people, their feelings, their thoughts. Knowledge is not limited to books that you study in your formal education, books are a whole other world that open up to you through someone else’s eyes, feelings, perceptions.
To my way of thinking, the worst thing to happen to a reading person is to be deprived of that activity, which is the very source of one’s mental challenge and emotional satisfaction. If this activity is impaired, one is deprived of the excitement of adventure, the terror of threatening situations, the heartbreak of loss, the beauty of love, happiness and nature. All the emotions that keep one alive and all the challenges that keep one thinking.
When reading a good book, the content takes on a life of its own, one gets swept up in the adventure, in the tumultuous emotions, the fascinating people who, under the skilful strokes of the writer, become flesh and bone in one’s mind, turn into friends you love or enemies you hate. Sometimes the world of fiction is so engrossing as to eclipse the actual world and when one has to put the book down when the end is reached, it is done with a sigh of regret at saying goodbye to that world.
31 July 2015

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