By Shashi Tharoor/The Week
November 19: Whenever one stands up to decry the evident decline in reading, the defence comes back: “Oh, the younger generation are reading all the time—it is just that they’re reading on their mobile phones and not in books.” But that’s precisely the problem: many in the younger generation seem to believe that books are only for schoolrooms and homework, and that when you’re not studying them in order to pass examinations, they have no appeal or value in their lives. It is true that they are reading: text messages, WhatsApp forwards and the like, and in that sense, the reading they do digitally may cover as many words and as much text as my generation read in our analogue era. But even if the young are, in that sense, reading more than ever, they are also reading rapidly, carelessly and superficially—and that’s dangerous.
The alarm bells have been sounded in a new scholarly article in a journal called First Monday, titled ‘Why higher-level reading is important’, which laments the global decline in serious reading and of readers interested in and capable of complex interpretative interactions with texts. The short attention span required and perpetuated by the digital era has led, the scholar-authors say, to a significant decline of critical and conscious reading, immersive and slow reading, literary reading, non-strategic or non-goal-oriented reading and long-form reading. Even audio books, the authors point out, are not the equivalent of reading but a poor substitute for it.
The scholars identify many psychological processes involved in reading, including motivation and frustration, pleasure and leisure, emotional responses, therapeutic and meditative effects, imagination and mental imagery, creativity and inspiration. In my own asthmatic childhood, reading was my escape, my education and my entertainment. I read essentially for pleasure but grew in the process, widened my mental horizons and enhanced my vocabulary. That sense, of reading being an enjoyable activity which you can still benefit from, is sadly missing among many of today’s young.
Ironically, the higher-level reading skills that are now out of fashion are all the more essential to negotiate the complexities of the 21st century information society. We live in an era of fake news, conspiracy theories, distortions and disinformation, simplifications and outright lies, assiduously spread by our rulers to compromise society’s capacity for informed democratic decision-making. We need all the more to be able to critically interrogate what’s around us, and that comes with experience in engaging with the content and language of texts we read. Those who read very little are the ones vulnerable to manipulation by false and motivated WhatsApp forwards.
The scholar-authors conclude that reading skills and practices are “the foundation for full participation in the economic, political, communal and cultural life of contemporary society”, including “social, cultural and political engagement” as much as “personal liberation, emancipation and empowerment”. A healthy democratic society that requires “the informed consensus of a multi-stakeholder and multi-cultural society” also needs resilient readers, they argue.
They call for “concerted policies” to ensure that future reading education will promote reading habits and “practices to match the pivotal role of reading”. They want policymakers to invest in further reading research. Poetically and rather dramatically, they quote the line: “War is what happens when language fails.”
This scholarly “white paper” has prompted something called the Ljubljana Reading Manifesto, signed by a variety of writers, publishers and readers (including myself). The manifesto is a global appeal to promote reading—something I’ve been doing anyway, by responding to the perennial request to teach audiences a “new word” by replying with an old word: “read!”
It really does matter. I end the same way the manifesto does, with Margaret Atwood’s much-quoted warning, “If there are no young readers and writers, there will shortly be no older ones. Literacy will be dead, and democracy will be dead as well.” If you want to save democracy, encourage the next generation to read!
An author, politician, and former diplomat, Shashi Tharoor is a Lok Sabha MP. Former Minister of State for Human Resource Development in the Government of India, Tharoor has also served as the United Nations Under-Secretary General for Communications and Public Information.