#Article (Archive)

The Literate Society

Apr 16, 2009, 5:46 AM

It is said that writers are the barometers to gauge the moods, rhythms, or dynamics of society. Using various forms, writers depict society as they see it. Through their depictions, the reader is offered insight into the failures and successes of society. And in most cases, writers also proffer antidotes to societal ills.

In an interview with Foroyaa, the Gambian writer Pa Ousman Jeng, fondly known as Papa Jeng, opined that there is a correlation between poor reading culture and society's literacy level. "The level of literacy is determined by the level of literacy in a given society. A literate society is likely to have a good culture of readers, while the exact opposite can be said of a society where illiteracy is predominant..If the literacy rate in The Gambia was high, the culture of reading among the population would have been extensive and strong," he said.

We agree with Mr Jeng. But then again we have to draw a distinction between reading books and book them. It is likely that Gambians read books but hardly buy them for keeps. The practice is that ten or more people could share one book and keep passing it around. The same applies to newspapers and magazines. Most people read newspapers and magazines, but few people buy them, and even fewer people preserve them. The fact that the majority of the people do not buy newspapers, magazines, or books does not mean that they do not read them.

It is a people's attitude towards books that really matters, in addition to their purchasing power. In a society where books are seen as things to be read to pass examinations only and then hidden away, very little can be said in favour of reading culture. Besides, where people are barely able to keep the wolf from the door, they are unlikely to spend their money on books.

By contrast, in a society where reading is considered as a way of life, reading culture is as a matter of course high because there is an in-built need and/or interest to read and read. The sort of reading culture encouraged by such a society is not merely meant to excel in examinations; it is the type that stimulates self improvement in every way. Among the Jews, for instance, reading voraciously is taken as the key to mega-success. That is why every Jewish home has either a good collection of book or a sizable library. No matter the range of degrees someone has acquired, the instant they stop reading to nurture their mind, something dies in them.

But there is a way out. We have to first of all change our perception of books as things to be used and then discarded. As food is to the body, so are books to both the mind and the soul. Then, we are all obliged to encourage our children and wards to read a book a week, besides their school work. In this respect, the schools have a big challenge. The libraries have to be well stocked with good books that should be loaned to students from time to time. Moreover, we have to learn to celebrate intellectual successes, with the same pomp and pageantry that we celebrate other accomplishments, such as sports and music. It is only when we see books as the true agents of transformation that we will be able to raise our reading culture for the overall good of society.

"Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another."

Chesterton, GK