Being literate, defined as ‘the ability to read and write’, is a grace brought about by education. Prophet Isaiah divided the world into ‘those who know how to read’ and ‘those who do not know how to read’ (Isaiah 29:11,12). This is the reason the ‘Millennium and Sustainable Development Goals’ call for ‘Universal Primary Education and inclusive and equitable education for all’.
The meaning of being literate has expanded to include other types of literacy like ‘computer literacy’. Johannes Gutenberg, the father of modern printing brought the greatest revolution to human civilisation. Some cultures have embraced reading and writing for centuries. Each year, hundreds and thousands of books are written and read in the Western world, a phenomenon rarely observed in other cultures. Availability of electronic books today has made carrying of books lighter and easier which is a further encouragement.
Factors affecting reading and writing
Many factors have invaded people’s reading and writing habit and worn it out. Top of the list is TV which has diverted people’s attention away from books. Today people prefer watching a TV program to reading a book. Cultural and family background is another factor that affects the way people relate to books. Political crisis in many countries also adversely affects reading and writing.
Why then is reading and writing important? There are many reasons.
The importance of writing
First, writing communicates to a wider audience. Ideas and thoughts printed in books and articles travel far and wide and benefit many people. Giving a lecture in a university hall, for instance, only reaches the student and academic community unless it is televised or put online.
Second, writing helps us leave a good legacy. I am reading President John F Kennedy’s book ‘Profiles in Courage’ written before I was born. Writing is one legacy that keeps people speaking after this life like Abel who ‘though he is dead, still speaks’ (Hebrews 11:4). The Psalmist talks of telling the ‘next generations’ (Psalm 78:3,4). The Lord told the Apostle John: ‘Write what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later’ (Revelation 1:19). God similarly told the prophet Jeremiah: ‘Take a scroll and write on it all the words I have spoken to you concerning Israel… from the time I began speaking to you till now.’ (Jeremiah 36:1,2). God wants all life experiences – past, present and future – written and left for future generations to benefit from!
Third, writing is important for record keeping and history’s sake. Written history and well-kept archives are important for researchers and history. Mordecai’s story for instance was discovered and became an important and integral part of the Bible all because it was written and kept (Esther 2:21-23).
Fourth, writing sharpens writing skills. Putting down something in writing where we know other people will be reading it makes us think twice about the content, language, grammar and information flow. This strengthens writing skills. ‘Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die.’ (Revelation 3:2)
The importance of reading
Reading, on the other hand, has many advantages but I want to emphasise three.
First, reading widens our knowledge and world. A friend of books has a broader world and general knowledge than one who is far from books. People often seem to accumulate knowledge only of their field of study but that is myopic as life is bigger than that. The first century Athenians were known to be hungry for new knowledge of any subject (Acts 17:21). If they lived today, they would be searching all websites for information! Reading deepens understanding and insight (Job 34:34,35).
Secondly, reading facilitates and bridges cultural dialogue. The first contact I had with the English people and their culture was through English literature like ‘Oliver Twist’ and ‘Great Expectations’. Literature, books and movies facilitate dialogue and bridge cultures. People who are exposed to other cultures are open-minded and get along with people from other racial and cultural backgrounds better than those who are not.
Third, reading enables learning from others’ style of writing. For those who aspire to be writers, reading others’ writings sharpens writing skills. When reading a book, one can see how the writer attracts his reader’s interest to read and like what he is trying to communicate. Napoleon Hill says, ‘The leading writer must add to their own stock of knowledge by appropriating the thoughts and ideas of others through personal contacts and by reading.’ (Master Key to Riches, p118).
The importance of libraries
A society with writers and people who love books is characterised by the presence of public libraries.
Are libraries important? If so, do governments plan and prioritise them? Napoleon Hill writes, ‘The Public libraries offer a great array of organised knowledge on every subject. The successful person makes it their business and responsibility to read books and acquire important knowledge which comes from the experiences of others who have gone before.’ (Ibid, p114).
Eleanor Roosevelt equally shed light on the importance of libraries: ’There are so many places that have no libraries and that have no way of getting books. What the libraries mean to the nation is obvious to all of us. I do not think that many people know how many states have large areas, particularly rural areas, where we cannot get books.’ Eleanor is concerned about the availability of books in rural areas let alone in capital cities!
Though not everyone is a writer, my humble opinion is that all should be able to enjoy reading as a general hobby. People should appreciate books as custodians of organised knowledge. Charles Lamb said: ‘I feel more like saying The Grace before a good book than before meat.’
Alex Bolek is ICMDA Regional Secretary for East Africa