Reading frees us from the conditions holding us back

28 September 2021 - 10:12
By Mpho Ngoepe
SA has made little headway in its reading crisis.
Image: 123RF/Yulia Grogoryeva SA has made little headway in its reading crisis.

The preamble of Chapter 9 of the National Development Plan (NDP) 2030, identifies us as a nation that loves reading, where each community has a library filled with the wealth of books and a librarian, and all our citizens read, write and converse.

While a book holds a house of gold, I think the assertion in the preamble of the NDP 2030 is all in a dream and we should wake up from that dream and start doing something. September 8, which is the international literacy day, has come and gone.

The euphoria about literacy also evaporated when that day set, like dew in the dawn of a summer sun. I am told that even during the looting most bookshops were left untouched, even though they were open.

Most people in SA, I am told, regard reading as an activity connected to school or formal education, hence many writers, especially in indigenous languages, write only for the department of basic education audience. And this curtails their creativity.

Reading is viewed as an activity that has to be endured during a short period at school and then abandoned when people complete the required stages of school. As a result of poor reading culture, few people write in indigenous languages and few publishers publish in African languages.

My biggest fear with this is that indigenous languages will become extinct. SA’s reading crisis is a topic of ongoing debate and several strategies for improvement have been proposed, such as promoting a culture of reading; encouraging parents to read to their children; making books accessible in schools and improving teacher education.

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Addressing the problem by increasing access to books and developing a reading culture is helpful but only to a limited extent. Hence, Ralph Waldo Emerson reckons that, “If we encounter a man or woman of rare intellect, we should ask him/her what books he/she reads. In old days, books were written by men of letters and read by the public. Nowadays, books are written by the public and read by nobody.”

To me this quotation from Emerson implies two things. First, that reading nourishes and stimulates cognitive thinking. Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body. Indeed, research has shown that becoming a skilled and adaptable reader enhances the chances of success at school and beyond.

The development of life-long reading interests and reading habits is a constant process,  which begins in the home, improves systematically in the school and is carried on in later life. Therefore, reading is not just for school, it is for life, hence put better in the Afrikaans saying, “Lees om te leer om te lewe – “Read to learn to live.”

In the second statement of the quote, Emerson complains that books are there but there is no one to read them, implying that people are lazy to read or there is no culture of reading.

This goes against at least three of the 5 Laws of Library Science proposed by Dr SR Ranganathan in 1931, that: Books are for use; Every reader his/her book; Every book its reader; Save the time of the reader; and the library is a growing organism.

The situation is compounded by the proliferation of digital media, which has become like a babysitter to many children including few digital immigrants. People, especially digital natives, are now spending more time on social media than reading.

Does this call for a new way of writing that can be published in social media? Perhaps, such writing should be short and to the point to fit publication in social media platform. Over the years, several role players have been working in the reading space, driving programmes and projects that are meant to turn SA into a reading nation, especially with regard to leisure reading.

SA has made little headway in its reading crisis. In 2016, the country was ranked last out of 50 countries in the Progress in International Reading Literacy study, which tested reading comprehension of learners in their fourth year of primary schooling.

The study found that 78% of South African pupils at this level could not read for meaning. In the spirit of the NDP 2030, we should participate fully in efforts to liberate ourselves from conditions that hinder the flowering of our talents. One such effort is reading. We should love reading, all our citizens read, write, converse and value ideas and thoughts.

This way our story will keep growing as if spring is always with us. Once we utter the dream of a rainbow, we will see and live it and not curve over the sky. Let us encourage our children to read and read and read.

  • Prof  Ngoepe is an archivist, author and academic