THE way I remember it, till 15 years ago, books were a staple of life. You could see that in students slumped against school pillars with the latest Harry Potter book in one hand and their lopsided lunch in the other. At home, older family members pored over novels or magazines in the evening, or read out Ghalib or Iqbal’s verses aloud after dinner.

Yet now, a study by America’s Pew Research Centre highlights that reading is at an all-time low since 1978. Even schoolchildren, who are taught basic reading in first grade, cannot manage to read properly till fourth grade. Sadly, the impact of a lack of reading — an adverse effect on brain cells, a shortage in empathy, low self-esteem, and a lack of emotional intelligence — are largely ignored by parents and guardians alike.

As an ‘O’ Level English teacher, I emphasise that reading doesn’t necessarily involve books. Students should be encouraged to at least read the newspaper, or a daily op-ed, and considering their busy routines, even that is enough. Good, consistent reading exposes you to current and past affairs, enhances cultural awareness and enables better self-expression.

My students, who continue to piggyback on their coursework regardless, are unable to express themselves, both in writing and in articulation. Some even lack self-confidence. It’s understandable, considering how they’re devoid of exposure to different ideas and ambitions, and to the vastness of vocabulary. They don’t understand that reading teaches you how to walk, to run, to fly.

Students are more interested in Facebook than ‘Hamlet’.

Unfortunately, the lack of reading, caused by changing thinking patterns, and a rise in smartphones and social media, have hit both adults and children hard. In today’s competitive environment, parents encourage — rather, demand — their children to achieve high marks in their tests and exams. The focus is on the child’s grade, not on the knowledge acquired. Hence, extra reading, which would divert the child from their school course, is deemed unnecessary and unrewarding.

My students’ eyes pop out when I hand out reading lists, which range from George Orwell to Leo Tolstoy, to V.S. Naipaul to Jhumpa Lahiri. “But how will this help me up my grade?” they ask. “Just read and see,” I reply. And as the months pass, you can see it in their work, even their personalities. Books naturally help with grades. But the focus should be on better reading for exposure, not better grades in itself.

As for parents who have (miraculously) managed to stay afloat despite the change in thinking patterns, social media remains their biggest enemy. In September, The Atlantic published an article titled ‘Have smartphones destroyed a generation?’ It explained how the rise of social media has negatively affected reading, and instead of practising mindfulness in solitary reading, or understanding the cultural, historical and ethical teachings that books provide us, we now treat them as chores, only necessary to pass tests and exams.

At times, I’ve caught my students using their phones in class, more interested in their Facebook likes than Shakespeare’s Hamlet. With new games like Fortnite and Grand Theft Auto, parents now probably have a tougher time balancing their child’s routine.

Alarmingly, this dependence on social media has caused a delayed onset of adulthood in children. The Atlantic article explains how today’s 18-year-olds act more like 15-year-olds used to earlier. The reason is their lack of exposure to events around them — which naturally comes from reading — coupled with more time spent alone, and on social media.

Teen depression and suicide are at an all-time high. And it makes perfect sense. Our children have forsaken grounding habits, like meeting people in person, proper exercise and good old reading. Our changing culture focuses instead on shallow lifestyles, glamorous selfies and popularity instead of self-actualisation. We need books to save us, to instil in us the required exposure and confidence to stay true to ourselves.

It is imperative that parents and teachers make reading a priority instead of a chore. Parents should set an example by reading themselves. A monthly book or daily newspaper reading can be easily managed. Children learn more from imitation than from reprimands and punishments. Younger children must be read to at an early stage to foster reading habits in adulthood. Set social media and gaming limits for your older ones, starting with an hour, daily. Teachers, being in a monitored, solely educational environment, can easily share their reading experiences, create book clubs and conduct book reviews during class. Current event pieces can be read out in class to increase awareness.

These steps will take time and effort, but their effects will be profound. We must read well to evolve; otherwise we will stagnate as a community, and eventually as a country. A delayed onset of good reading is better than no reading at all.

The writer is a freelance contributor.

Published in Dawn, November 4th, 2018

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