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Menings | Opinion > SeminaarKamer | Seminar Room > English > Mini-seminars

Big Book Chain Chat #19: Judging a book by its cover – The decline of a reading culture and the danger of little knowledge


Jameson Maluleke - 2010-11-10

Way back in the seventies it took a parent or a guardian in a rural setting six months to a year to buy a prescribed book which cost a mere R2,50. Textbooks were scarce. Sometimes our shopkeeper ran out of stock or the publisher took months to deliver.

I still cannot figure out how we pupils managed to become bookworms. It must surely be due to divine intervention that we became avid readers. When one of us managed to obtain a novel, we devoured it until it was in tatters. On becoming students at high school, we read everything from local writers to Dickens and Shakespeare. Professionals and school leavers competed against one another in reading a complete collection of James Hadley Chase, Louis L’Amour or other famous writers.

This love for reading and search for knowledge was to stand me in good stead during my stint in the print media world. I was conversant with our country’s geography and history, and I had a gift of tongues. I excelled in every beat from language, culture, religion and literature to politics. I felt like a walking encyclopaedia or a modern Socrates simply because of constant reading.

Things are drastically different nowadays. Reading culture as a medium to intellectual maturity is considered by the young generation as old-fashioned; for this reason it is gradually replaced by other media such as computers, televisions, radios and cell phones. The modern man thinks himself too smart to spend hours on end in isolation imprisoned by a mere book. He would rather browse through several websites on the internet, watch television or study the workings of the latest model Nokia cell phone. However, it is sad that instead of our modern chaps becoming  brilliant in the midst of the unfolding technology their mind continues to be obscured by clouds of stupidity. Our children’s ignorance, irresponsibility and negligence have been eloquently stated by Kariuki in the following extract: “As a consequence of poor reading few youths can sustain any logical thread in social conversation and will resort to catch words and tired clichés when they communicate at all. Indeed outside of the local hip hop musicians and their gossip, the nostalgia of their school and college days, most youths are silent in social debate … Mostly they come across as terrible bores as they display their ignorance of current affairs … It is strange that some youths can read a newspaper and put it down without comment.”

Kariuki is a Kenyan writer who writes about lazy and ignorant children in Kenya, but this imbecilic behaviour is also common amongst our confused children in this country. Unless a person is a student of literature or a guru, such a person is unlikely to cite reading as his/her intellectual or leisure pursuit. Many of our young men and women in particular are ever busy, jittery and impatient, claiming that time is running out for them.

Critics blame parents or guardians of students for lack of a reading culture in the country; some complain that access to books is not easy and is expensive; others attribute this to the effects of the old Bantu education system. Others again say it is a world trend; we can do nothing about it. The end of the world is near.

Far be it from me to assess the veracity or the inaccuracy of these comments and opinions. Logic forbids me to be a referee and a player at the same time. I would, therefore, leave the task of analysis to the general readership.  

All I would submit is that laziness and ignorance on the part of us South Africans play an important role in denying us the opportunity to develop razor sharp, analytical and judicious minds. South Africa has been a democracy for more than a decade now. Yet millions of our people still confuse freedom with irresponsibility, ignorance and laziness.

This trend has also been encouraged by the government, which continues to adopt a fatherly role towards the people. The government has given itself the task to shelter the homeless, feed the hungry and hand out money to unmarried girls rather than create jobs. So people are forced to live on handouts and to be looked after like babies. As a result the multitudes are convinced that everything is for free.

I once asked a young friend who is aspiring to be an American (though he has never been to the USA) if he ever reads a book or a newspaper.

“I don’t read anything worthy to be perused unless it is in the internet,” he grunted in what he called “a New York drawl”.

It is easy to mistake my friend for an ultra-modern, technologically advanced reader. What is not clear in his speech is that he is a lazy rascal. People like him love everything American. Hmm … America: that land of hamburger joints, the fastest cars, the latest fashions. They associate the USA with automatic machines where a person is required only to press a button to get whatever he wants without much ado.

Our children’s obsession with easy life is rammed home to us by yet another Kenyan writer, Mbae, who made the following observation: “Who among parents of teenagers has not heard the now-all too familiar claim ‘being bored’? Our youth are bored by everything around them. The food we eat in our houses often ‘bores’ them. They are ‘bored’ by the friends we keep. We ‘bore’ them when we insist on doing certain things in a certain way. In short, everything that is not in their style or taste is ‘boring’ and that includes reading books.”

The word bored is all about being nauseated, but in the above lines has acquired a new meaning; it is a euphemism – a polite way by an idle child to say he/she is tired without having attempted to perform any given task.

In addition to Mbae’s observation, Kariuki has this to say about our obsession with ignorance and irresponsibility: “A snide remark about African people is that they rarely keep abreast with new publications and if you want to hide anything from them, put it in a book. In their bookcases, periodicals and good books are few but past burial programmes and eulogies of their departed colleagues are plentiful.”

Very recently, our grade 12 students embarked on a protest march, demanding to be given 25 percent up front before they write their final exams. The demand was made after schools around the country had wasted a month-long learning period during the FIFA 2010 World Soccer Cup, and three more weeks of no schooling during a teachers’ strike for salary increases. Free everything: free housing, free welfare grants for children borne by school children, free marks for students who were lazing around waiting for their teachers to spoon-feed them. South Africa will soon surpass the USA in their neck and neck pursuit for a Utopian dream.

It should have baffled educationists and other experts that despite thousands of modern libraries and media centres all over the country, some of them equipped with the latest computer models, people are just lazy to read. Those who are forced to visit these centres do so because they want to write their exams.  The rest of the population is too busy (shall I say too lazy) to waste its time in libraries and media centres.

Teachers? Yes teachers, I nearly forgot about them. These are strange fellows. They are quick to embark on strike once they suspect that they are not earning enough. One would expect them to embark on a prolonged, wildcat strike once a public outcry reaches their ear that learners cannot count, read or write. Instead, they hide themselves in their burrows until the uproar has subsided.

It would be unfair to blame electronic media such as the radio, television or even cell phones for stealing most of the potential readers’ time. Millions of people do listen to radios, they do watch television and do communicate with their relatives and friends through cell phones, yet they put aside time to read. It is a matter of discipline here. People should know when to stop watching television or using a computer. Watching television throughout the night, all-night “MXit” or “chat” is detrimental to a person’s mental development and also alludes to the undisciplined nature of a viewer or a cell phone operator as Healy cautions: "Too much television – particularly at ages critical for language development and manipulative play – can impinge negatively on young minds in several different ways including the following: ‘Higher levels of television viewing correlate with lowered academic performance, especially reading scores. This may be because television substitutes for reading practice, partially because the compellingly visual nature of the stimulus blocks development of left-hemisphere language circuitry. A young brain manipulated by jazzy visual effects cannot divide attention to listen carefully to language. Moreover, the “two-minute mind” easily becomes impatient with any material requiring depth of processing.’ Pundits agree that reading is by far one of the best methods of learning. As such, the importance of reading as an enriching component of a nation’s culture cannot be more emphasized. A person’s intellectual prowess is measured by the variety of books he reads. Such a person is sometimes referred to as a literati, well-versed or well-read. In similar vein, a nation’s literary knowledge is crucial to its social and economic development. A literary blindfolded nation has no chance to prosper. In addition, we live in a global village which expects a citizen of every country to be literate in order for him/her to participate fully in both national and international affairs.”

As I have pointed out before, laziness and lack of interest remain the main obstacles to reading culture. Organisations like Readerthon, Masifunde Sonke Campaign and Bookeish are indeed doing a sterling job in promoting reading culture. We should work side by side with these institutions by trying to pull our brothers and sisters from the murky pool of laziness and ignorance. We must re-educate our people that contrary to politicians’ tomfoolery, there is “nothing for mahala”. It is an instance of a sick mind to believe that a government can substitute one’s mother. Lest we forget: breastfeeding is for infants only. A person must live by his/her sweat. Teachers should also start pulling up their red socks and restore their profession to its former self. Parents and guardians should be workshopped to get a thorough training in allocating more hours for reading to their children rather than turning them into a screen junkies and zombies. Let us please make hay while the sun shines.

List of references

Healey, Jane. 1998. American Academy of Pediatrics News, May 1998 (www.aap.org/advocacy/chm98nws.htm).

Kariuki, Karanga. Poor Reading Culture In Our Youth Is Worrying
storymojaafrica.word press.com/archives.20092010/culture

Mbae, J.G. Kenya: A Reading Nation? Ezinearticles.com