The story of reading can have a happy ending.
By Aysha Raja
Whenever I meet someone, I must, however hesitantly, ask: What do you do? And, what are you reading? The hesitance stems from anticipating negative answers, something I now expect half the time. On the occasions that I do elicit eager responses, I am floored by the verve and capacity of that person to be able to contribute to society. It is a shame there are so few of them.
Reading is the most effective form of self-improvement, yet attitudes toward reading have worsened over the decades. Many parents discourage their children from reading anything beyond schoolbooks, and fewer yet still gift books to their children. While the recent international success of Pakistani writers may have inspired a generation to want to write, I’ve seen these very same aspirants struggle to name their favorite authors. No wonder the publishing industry has met such an unrelenting end in Pakistan.
The significance of a dwindling readership is not to be underestimated. The majority of Pakistan is young, and they require meaningful jobs and opportunities. As we confront the challenge of securing them their future, it would serve us well to direct their attention toward this most laudable of pastimes—reading—to improve their prospects: well-informed individuals with an ability to express themselves and to think are an asset to any employer and are less likely to be exploited by organizations with dubious agendas. The well-read are better placed to care for themselves and their families, aware of their rights and liabilities.
The most compelling byproduct of reading is empathy, something currently in short supply the world over. To read of the trials and tribulations of multiple lives, real or imagined, evokes a compassionate response and engenders tolerance and understanding. Just that pause for thought and consideration for others could counter the ambivalence toward the violence and hatred that pervade our daily lives. This is no longer a decline that can be arrested through media campaigns and roundtable conferences. It’s an existential issue that requires decisive remedial action, a concerted effort to introduce stories and reading to the young.
Perhaps the best place to start is private-sector schools, which handle the nation’s educational needs more sharply. Children, irrespective of their proficiency, should be read to with a view toward developing in them an appreciation of stories. What if one were to introduce a deployment mechanism for stories, say, a standing army of storytellers who get college credit for this community service?
The Literacy Project, which I am working on, envisages a community-service component in the curriculums of higher-learning institutions that would require college and university students to venture out and read to schoolchildren. This will help children connect to the storytellers and to the tales, and compel them to pick up books. Once the habit takes hold there’s no limit to what a child may achieve.
In all probability many of the students enlisted to read may have lost the habit themselves, but the endeavor would draw them back to the joys of reading. What they won’t expect is how precious their stories will be to the young minds they share them with, and the bonds they will no doubt forge.
Community service is an exercise in humility and, ultimately, character-building. It is compulsory for many students outside Pakistan, in countries where disparity of wealth is not as stark and the government not as inept. That we have left so many to languish without so much as a thought to intervene is a travesty and it has contributed to fracturing our society. Of course, to take on the task of storytelling requires thought and consideration. The stories should be attuned to the vernacular of the children it targets and steer clear of the didactic.
This is also an opportunity for publishers to invest in a market that will mature into lifelong readers. The potential bounty for publishing and media is huge; they will not be left wanting for writers, editors, and readers, as they are now. Instilling the love of reading is a realizable goal that will benefit both individuals and the country. It just remains for us to acknowledge our duty, to empower our youth, and to foster opportunities for a generation who will confront great hardship if we do nothing.
Raja, a former lawyer, set up The Last Word bookstores in Pakistan, and cofounded The Life’s Too Short Literary Review. From Newsweek Pakistan’s March 1 & 8, 2013, issue.