I was shocked to learn that 46% of Australians struggle to read a newspaper or to follow a recipe. Although 99% of the population qualify as literate according to the strict definition of being able to read and write to a basic level by the age of 15, almost half the population struggles to read effectively. And so the love2read campaign got me thinking about the role reading has played in forming modern society. Of the various catalysts for change over the past five hundred years, from the Renaissance to the Scientific Revolution, from the Reformation to the Age of Enlightenment, reading has been central to them all.
It’s easy to dismiss reading fiction as a frivolous exercise, irrelevant to modern life, but that fails to appreciate the impact of pathos on the mind of the reader. Like dreams, reading fiction exercises the imagination, which is important for a healthy mind.
Reading seems passive, but it’s not. Reading actively engages the mind, stimulating and provoking thoughts and emotions. Whether it’s science fiction, fantasy, romance, an adventure or a tragedy, books provide us with a place of refuge, somewhere from which we can recharge and engage further with life.
The central premise in my latest book, Monsters, is that we should not take public literacy for granted because it is a relatively modern development in history, and one that could easily be lost.
At the time I started writing Monsters, I thought, “Perhaps I’m stretching things too far in this book, beyond the realms of credibility. We could never lose the scientific knowledge upon which our civilization is built, could we?”
Since then, I’ve been appauled to hear about the attack on Malala Yousufzai, a 14 year old Pakistani girl who was shot in a cowardly ambush by the Taliban. Her “crime?” Malala wanted other girls to have access to education.
It’s tempting to say, “Oh, how horrible, but that’s in the Third World.” And yet we are not immune from such idiocy in the West. Recently, US Congressman Paul Broun announced that evolution and the Big Bang Theory are “lies” from “the pit of hell.” Although this seems like a comment spoken out of ignorance, Congressman Broun is a doctor of medicine and serves on the state of Georgia’s House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.
In Italy, we have seen scientists convicted as criminals and sentenced to six years in jail for failing to predict an earthquake in L’Aquila. Claudio Eva described the ruling, quite appropriately, as “medieval.”
The appalling reality of the Taliban, political leaders like Paul Broun and the judicial process around the tragedy at L’Aquila make the concept of burning people at the stake suddenly seem not quite so unthinkable. Our hold on scientific and rational thinking is anything but assured. Monsters makes the case that we should consider reading as one of the pillars of modern society.
On a lighter note, a friend’s young daughter overheard I was about to release a new book around my birthday and made me a birthday card in the style of a book cover. I thought you’d enjoy seeing her art work.