Let me continue on the theme of reading, the love of reading, the absolute value of reading in a child’s life. A child who develops a love of reading wins a prize that will last and last until the end of life. Learning to read confers the magic of an extraordinary new power. Alberto Manguel, in his fascinating book A History of Reading, remembers the exact moment when he first knew he could read. He was four, riding in a car, and he spelled out a billboard slogan for himself. “It was like acquiring an entirely new sense,” he tells us. “Since I could turn bare lines into living reality, I was all-powerful.”
At the most practical level, a love of reading gives a child an advantage in getting a good start in education and subsequently doing well in examinations throughout school and university. Learning to read well, and then making the reading of books a treasured habit, gives the child a strong base on which can be built high standards in all subjects. I guarantee that the top students of CSEC, the scholarship winners at Advanced Level, with hardly a single exception, developed a love of reading early on in their lives. Parents, as well as children, would do well to remember that simple fundamental fact. Reading strengthens comprehension. It teaches how to compose thoughts and express ideas. It forms in the mind habits of organising information in an intelligible and interesting way.
All these are abilities which benefit the scientist, the accountant, the chemist, the engineer, the doctor, the mathematician, the businessman, the agronomist, the computer technician, and the lawyer as much as they benefit the student of literature, the artist or the historian. Learning to read well, making it a lifetime habit, gives the workman of the mind a tool for all tasks. In any country, nothing is more important than getting all the children in all the schools and in all the homes to learn to read as a matter of daily routine, like eating, like sleeping, like running out to play.
However, reading as the supreme educational tool is only a part of its wonder. Love of reading is a gift that never ends while life lasts. Love reading and you will never know boredom while you can get your hand on a book. Love reading and you extend your horizons to all the outposts of the world. Love reading and you will enjoy encounters with the most extraordinary range of people, get a glimpse of their thinking minds and their beating hearts. Reading marvelously anticipates and enriches individual experience. Most things first happen to readers through books. “Only when years later I touched for the first time my beloved’s body,” writes Manguel, “did I realise that literature could sometimes fall short of the actual event.”
All good books are a collaboration between the imaginations of writer and reader. The writer finds a way of taking images which have inspired wonder in him and shares that wonder with the reader. In Manguel’s book, the images he describes linger in the reader’s mind. A young boy licks the letters of the Hebrew alphabet from a slate that has been covered with honey and so assimilates the words of God into his very being. The ancient Mesopotomanians puzzle over bird footprints in wet clay and think they must be messages from Gods because the footprints look like cuneiform writing. Four hundred camels transport the library of the Grand Vizier of Persia in exactly catalogued alphabetical order.
A History of Reading tells the story of transformations: from scroll to codex in the fourth century, from oral to silent reading in the tenth century, from inscribed to printed books in the fifteenth century, from verbal to visual imagery in the twentieth century. But what new and deadly transformations may now confront the lover of reading, the lover of books? Computer and information technology in all its multiplying guises may not yet have affected the production and sale of books. But surely it is likely that reading as I have known and loved it since I was a boy of seven – the well-thumbed, dog-eared pages with notes scrawled in the margins, the savouring of a beautifully bound, new and much-anticipated book, the heft of it in the hand, the turning back and forth to recall and read again passages that have struck one into delight or tears or curiosity – that kind of reading may be under threat it seems. That glory may be ending. It makes me sad.
I can only hope, as my sons assure me is the case, that the new ways of computer-generated reading are convenient, make for easy access for the multitudes of the world and have their own glories. Perhaps, after all, I should really test what they tell me.