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The regrettable and gradual death of reading culture

Opinion & Analysis
File pi: Book in a library

With major advancements in technology that have occurred over the past two decades, one would be mistaken to conclude that the global reading culture is on the rise. But that is not the case. Reading culture is gradually dying and is being replaced by a scrolling culture on various social media platforms and that has a huge bearing on the social, economic and political developments of a society.

It was not so long ago that it was so fashionable to be seen holding a book, heard reciting quotes from books or discussing ideas deduced from a book. People of that generation competed to read books. The debates and discussions were rich in depth and scope, and so was the level of intellect on the labour market. Books then, whether physical or electronic, were seen as a source of knowledge, a basis for developing arguments, skills and an enhancement of concentration and imagination.

Reading imposed some level of peer pressure as one had to read to acquire an intellectual character and awareness that resonated with a fast-moving knowledge society then. Reading, just like folklore, inspires imagination, fosters quick learning and expands human horizons. It triggers curiosity and encourages the acquisition of new skills and ideas to address challenges.

The rise of technology, mainly social media has consumed today’s generation and drifted it into a cursory reading culture of the text on social media as they remain preoccupied with the idea of “sharing” material online. We now live in a culture of scrolling, posting, liking and use of icons or emojis to express feelings and voices. The culture has allowed unsubstantiated opinions or those that are not backed by anything to flourish. So is the pervasive spread of harmful misinformation and disinformation.

As the famous quote goes, thinking is difficult and that is why most people resort to judging and passing uninformed opinions. Reading engages the brain and sharpens thinking which most people are not keen to indulge in and social media is a good space for that sort of laziness. But also unlike books, social media is heavily driven by commercial interests whose objective is to promote an addicted audience that is easy to deliver to advertisers.

If the reading of books or acquisition of knowledge is neglected and allowed to die, there will be a huge deficiency and major void in thinking and reasoning. Therefore the dying culture of reading poses a huge danger to our lives and society at large. Or the non-reading societies will become enslaved by or dependent on those who produce knowledge. Nations that do not read are likely to be locked in poverty or to remain consumers of other’s products. 

The dangers of not reading are not only limited to the social media streets but even critical decisions. Let’s look at this example. In March 2011,  three African Union members endorsed a resolution authorising no-fly zone over Libya before the same African Union turned around and condemned North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) for attacking Libya. If someone had read the no-fly resolution of 1973 (2011), they would have learned that a no-fly zone is declared by use of military force and in this case on Libya. The condemnation came too late as Libya was already being pummelled by Nato. Lives were lost, infrastructure destroyed and livelihoods disrupted.

At local level, there is now a growing tendency to cruise on common sense or hinging decisions on shallow and hollow opinions. In that context, the application of analytical and critical thinking diminishes, so do writing skills for both business communication and the production of books or knowledge materials. For every society to develop, it needs writers and readers for both fiction and non-fiction. It needs to strengthen its research and knowledge development, aspects of which hang on a nation’s ability to read and write not only to socialise on social media platforms.

Let’s take another local example. Since the death of Dr Alex Magaisa, the political space has been hollow and shallow and filled with stories of political violence and accusations of adultery. The reason he became an idol of relevance was simply that he read, interpreted and simplified legal and political matters for those unwilling to read. His expert opinion pieces helped many to make legal and political choices and decisions. That there is a relevance between reading and writing is not in doubt.

Imagine if we had more of the Magaisas in our midst. Or imagine if all social media “celebrities’’ were readers and read books for their audience. Or imagine if the social rants we see everyday were done in writing.

There are many ways of promoting a national reading culture — a situation where reading is championed, valued, respected and encouraged. There are even more reasons to promote a reading culture. Reading is a stepping stone out of poverty and a vital foundation for the development of individuals and nations.

The four Asian tigers, namely Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan underwent rapid industrialisation in the 1960s and 1990s, but they started by cultivating a culture of reading among their citizens which enabled a rapid rise of their economies. So it pays to ensure that the reading culture is purpose-driven and rewarding at all levels. Reading has to be placed at the heart of national development as well as the general well-being of a society. And for that reason promoting a reading culture must be a shared responsibility between the government and its people.

Tapiwa Gomo is head of communication at United Nations OCHA. He is a communication expert who has hands on practical issues in communication and he is a good team player, coach and technical advisor

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