By Uditha Devapriya –
Reading is an easy discipline. It requires discipline, yes, but the sort that’s tempered less by coercion than by interest, energy, and enthusiasm. In Sri Lanka, September is demarcated as the Literary Month. That’s Sahithye Masaya in Sinhala. Now in a world where mothers, fathers, and children are celebrated on certain days and nearly every animal, from dogs to cats to pigs, have entire years dedicated to them, this isn’t cause for wonderment. There are of course many ways of talking about a month. Many ways of talking about the habit of reading. This piece is not about September or reading, though. It’s about a bigger issue. The fact that we don’t read enough.
Three years ago, scanning through various editorials in the Sunday papers (because on Sundays back then, that’s what I liked to do), I was entranced by one which delved into an unlikely issue. Back then (September 2014) the Uva Elections had come and gone, Harin Fernando had upset those who had expected the United National Party to lose outright, and Maithripala Sirisena, if we are to believe those who’ve written on the “before” and “after” of the January 8 upheaval, was sketching out his defection (though we’d have to wait two months before he walked out). This editorial wasn’t bothered about the elections, however, in Uva or elsewhere. Titled “පොත්ද? නූඩ්ල්ස් ද?” (“Books? Or Noodles?”) it contended, rather convincingly I should think, that despite the massive crowds which throng at the Colombo International Book Fair (which will be held, this year, from September 15), most of them usually come, not to purchase or even peruse the books on display, but to have the time of their lives, take some pictures, and eat noodles. Interesting. Pertinent. True. And telling.
Sri Lanka prides on itself as a purveyor of free education. Statistics are quoted, being the dazzling figures that they are, in defence of what commentators feel to be an optimistic future, primarily with respect to our literacy rates. What is often forgotten is that the ability to write your name is less a qualification to be proud of than one which would have got a person to become an incongruous leader: the jack among the illiterates, the sighted among the blind. That’s what happens in Woolf’s Village in the Jungle: Babehami, the antagonist, becomes a headman because he’s the only man who was taught by a monk to write his own name. Not exactly an achievement, is it?
The Book Fair, and of course the organisers behind it, have done everything to ensure that it tries to achieve its objective: getting more people to read. To be fair, not everyone who visits it does so to have a good time. And to be fair, the Exhibition has grown in popularity over the years, despite those inevitable price hikes. But even with the rising numbers, the indifference to those hikes, and the various events organised at the Fair to inculcate a love for reading (last year, for instance, the Writers’ Organisation of Sri Lanka held several workshops, while Sampath Bank sponsored a “Katapath Pawura” to promote Sinhala poetry), the fact is that fewer people, particularly younger people, want to read. Why is this a problem?
Because of the fact that no nation, and no community, can keep up with modernity unless it gets its people to flip through a page and learn something. Not just learn, but comprehend, apply, and if possible, add to. Let’s not forget the meaning of literacy as per UNESCO: the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, and compute based on printed and written material. We are a nation of memorisers: we throw out what is taught to us, word to word. What makes this even more pathetic, then, is that even within its limited parameters we don’t take in enough. Modernity is coterminous with looking to the future by anchoring oneself in the past, by understanding that the past is neither praiseworthy nor blameworthy in its entirety. If we haven’t learnt to process a text, though, exactly how are we going to do that?
If we don’t become a nation of readers we don’t and can’t become a nation of novelists, poets, critics, and thinkers. It’s as easy as that. We grow to simply be content with what’s there, available for everyone, preferring ease of access to forward-looking intelligence. Three distinct points, or problems, emerge from this.
One, we end up becoming a repository, and not a disseminator, of information. Two, we become sterile, content in living for the moment, not processing what is heard and seen everywhere (especially with respect to popular culture, which is so rampant that its influence is widespread, inescapable), and blindly accepting of what is without thinking of what was and will be. Three, and most poignantly, we let go of the need to sustain a national literature, and thereby neglect what’s already and historically ours. Of these three the first two have been elaborated by others, while the third has not. I will sweep through the first two, and delve into the third later on.
The contemporary world is (apparently) divided into two cultures: high and low. This dichotomy, so convenient to some, is actually a farce. A corollary of this is the separation of that same culture into the popular and the serious. That too is a farce, evasive, careless. My contention is that culture is derived from what is seen and heard, and by that I include everything: Amaradeva and Khemadasa played on your radio at home; H. R. Jothipala and Sangeeth Wijesuriya played on the bus on your way home.
There’s really nothing different between these two categories, come to think of it; if at all, the former is closeted, the domain of those who go for refined tastes, while the latter is the preserve of you and me, middle-of-the-road public transport users.
But this is irrelevant: one can listen to Khemadasa on the bus and one can listen to Sangeeth Wijesuriya at home. What brings the highbrow and the lowbrow here together is the fact that culture is, at its inception, popular: it is heard, processed, and more often than not sensually felt. And when it is digested, it becomes an influence, shaping one’s ideas, tastes, and prejudices. What then tempers popular culture – the cinema, the theatre, music, even pornography – is our ability to process it, to explain what is heard, seen, and felt. To a considerable extent, reading aids this: criticism and judgments are essential in a country where a popular culture exists and is pervasive, and without reading, there can be no judgments, no criticisms, and no criterion of aesthetic and cultural value. In other words, no ascertainable value, period.
The reason why reading is so important is the reason why criticism is so important: it helps us rationalise our senses, what they feel. One can’t rationalise what is felt that easily, of course, and neither should one take this as an excuse to intellectualise emotions (which is what makes so much of contemporary criticism so sterile, so stopgap). Criticism is basically the transformation of felt matter into discerned matter: communicating a culture to its consumers, cogently and cohesively.
Without reading, without getting in what others have written elsewhere, we can’t produce a community of critics. This, and not what puritans and moralists consider as the death knell of our society, is what ails us: our inability to take in and explain. The puritan will argue that it is the profusion of what he considers as a lowbrow culture which has resulted in us not reading, not understanding. My contention is different: I believe that even that which is misconceived by the puritans as “lowbrow” (H. R. Jothipala’s songs, Sunil Soma Peiris’s movies, Sujeewa Prasanaarachchi’s novels) can be transformed into deserving art, if one reads into it enough. Without the sort of culture of discernment this necessitates, however, what can we hope for?
Needless to say, one can infer with all this that our growing inability and lack of interest in reading is a corollary of our growing inability at reading between the lines. Without a culture of reading there can’t be a culture of writing, to put it simply.
When I revisit that editorial I read three years ago, therefore, what comes to my mind is that all those noodle-eating folk, who wish to have the time of their lives at an exhibition that is supposed to confer something of value to those who pay the 20 rupee admission and patronise it, are missing the point. By a wide margin. So wide that from those sobering reflections I’ve sketched out above, a third comes out: our neglect of our own literature, our own culture. I leave that for a later article, but for now, here are my two cents: without resorting to and nourishing our literature, the written word, we will find it difficult to replenish every other art-form in this country, from drama to music to film. How and why so, I will explore eventually. And soon.
nimal fernando / September 8, 2017
“Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.” ~ Albert Einstein
Now, see what you have done! It’s a contest between you and good ol’ Al. Whom should we believe?
Let’s cut this esoteric intellectual shindig and take a simple earthly Lankan example.
Mahinda Rajapakse and G L Peiris.
I am not sure if Mahinda has even read the alphabet and everyone knows GL’s scholarly achievements. ………………. (should I also, here, mention the great reader Donald, eh?)
Just compare what the two have achieved in real life! …………….. Now, don’t tell me that one’s reading has made him a better man than the other!
It’s not reading that matters but like my good Italian buddy said “Life has not been devised by morality: it wants deception, it lives on deception — but wouldn’t you know it?” Give up excessive reading and spend more time on “but wouldn’t you know it?”
Geeze young man, I feel sorry for the “ivory tower” crap that they feed in those International Schools; it’s a very Lankan man’s idea of the “West” which does not actually exist in the “West.”
The greatest worth of an education, is to give you the courage to reject it, and venture out on your own.
Go and help a graffiti artist in the mother-country to paint on a wall “Wogs go home.” Or go to Yankeeland and sit and have beer with the KKK. There’s no quick fire education than that ……. no amount of reading will give you.
A Brown-man by any other name/cloak will still be just as Brown.
You still have hope young man …………. save yourself while you still can
Sinhala_Man / September 9, 2017
Dear Nimal Fernando, some very valid points.
However, it applies mainly to individuals (who obviously contribute to society . . . and finally to human civilisation). Yes, having quoted Einstein, you’ve given us three excellent examples: Rajapaksa, G.L.P. & Trump.
Myself, I’ve also been too much of a reader, and not a doer.
But come, come. You exaggerate when you say Rajapaksa & Trump don’t know the alphabet! What you say applies after one reaches some basic level. Our problem could become almost that a huge section of the people literally wouldn’t know the alphabet! This is a social problem that we may soon have to face.
“The greatest worth of an education, is to give you the courage to reject it, and venture out on your own.”
To get to that stage, you first need lots of sophistication. Is that your own quote, I wonder? However that may be, you’re quite right!
B.Honeydew / September 8, 2017
Great article. I can hazard a guess that we have fewer readers in Sri Lanka because one, our curriculum forces our children to study and not to read; second, the cost of books is exorbitant (as a function of income). There is no denying that our people are very imaginative; the tinder we need is access to affordable literature and encouragement to simply sit down and enjoy a good read.
Sinhala_Man / September 9, 2017
Your first observation is spot on, only THINK should be substituted for “read”. They read only to pass tests. I think that in most other countries, at least those in charge of Education are conscious of the problem. Here, nobody bothers.
The Cost of Books: I’m glad to hear from Mario, below, that there’s more reading in India. However, most bookshops in the country, even in Colombo, now stock Indian Editions. Even those seem expensive because our currency is worth so little. The explanation for many of these things is that we’ve got this pseudo-socialism that makes us say that the State should do everything.
So people will complain whatever the cost. Given half a chance they will pirate, copy etc.
In the case of so many activities, when we try to get the State to do things, efficiency disappears – and so waste, . . . . and finally poverty.
As for the supposed brilliance of our people: I wouldn’t seriously say that we are of low intelligence. But certain factors relating to our history, size, and social organisation have led to a downward spiral after Independence.
The problems are much more complex than you are willing to grant.
Jimsofty / September 8, 2017
Sri lankan university students need some discipline. Because of that they need to pay fees. govt should have scholarships for poor students who have done well in the exams or got admission. If they get caught in politicas and show poor performance their scholarships schould be cancelled. At present, Some students are politically active and they sabotage the education of every student in that faculty. that should be stopped—–Even fo rliterature month, those students who read should be rewarded in some way. there should be competitions.
Anpu / September 8, 2017
What about reading Buddha Sasana?
Estate Labourer / September 8, 2017
People, especially the younger generation, do not read any printed matter unless it is made compulsory for some reason (like having to study for exams). They only read what is on the display screen of mobile phones, tablets and computer monitors. Even then most of them use these devices only to look at pictures, play games, listen to music, and to watch videos and films. They may also chat in broken English.
Many of them do not have even a working knowledge of English. Many youngsters’ knowledge of this world language is just adequate for sending cryptic SMSs and posting on Facebook and Twitter. They cannot write any meaningful stuff at all. I had occasion to look at some C.V.s and Bio-Data of job applicants recently. One chap said something about his future ‘carrier’ plans and another fellow made a mistake in the heading itself, which read CURRICULUM VIATE!
The reason for this sad state of affairs is simple. They just don’t read enough!
P.S. Being literate in Latin, Greek, Pali, Sanskrit, Sinhalese, Tamil and Hindi but without a command of English literacy is not much use these days.
Sinhala_Man / September 8, 2017
Thanks for this timely article, Uditha Devapriya.
What you say is very true. We are surrounded with far too many bits of information, much of it absorbed subconsciously. As you say, if Jothipala gets absorbed in buses at least we get to know what current tastes (and thinking) are. However, a sizeable number of people never use public transport, but they, too, surround themselves with radio or cassette noises of their choice. There is very little critical evaluation of what comes in.
What is read now is increasingly in digital formats of various sorts. What is read is rarely subjected to critical thought. A complete book is rarely digested. Looking back at my own life, I realise how pertinent this is. I had read so much in my youth; serious stuff, and respecting the suggestions made (often in indirect ways) by my betters. I still read a good deal, but the world media has decided that I must know about “Hurricane Irma”, and I seem to care more about that than the fact that few people have changed their way of garbage disposal in my vicinity, maybe in my own house – and my own habits!
I rather fear that ever fewer children of even the “leisured classes” to whom we belonged, for all that we deny it, have stopped going through what T.S. Eliot has somewhere described as the “adolescent reading course”. This applies to Swabasha reading – obviously.
So long as conventional schools exist, little children will start with kinaesthetic learning, leading on to reading out of books, and producing some writing which will be examined by a concerned adult.
To be continued . . .
Sinhala_Man / September 8, 2017
Continuation . . .
However, people appear to have less leisure now! That, despite all the time and labour saving gadgetry developed for us – and polluting the world. We are getting self-absorbed, wasting increasing amounts of time interacting with gadgets, which have ever shrinking lifetimes. Pollution again! That is the way homo-sapiens will be wiped off this planet. From what creatures will the next living forms evolve, or will that be the end of life on this planet?
My dystopic mood is getting less applicable to what surrounds us. Those reading this are probably from families that are not in danger of raising children who are illiterate because of idiot boxes – and hold on . . . the Internet. Many of us read articles from the British “Guardian” newspaper. What they keep telling us is true. They are almost the only source of news that is FREE and not dependent on advertising for what they project. Sir Tim Berners-Lee may have decided to forego the fortune he could have made, but others are now exploiting us.
Increasing numbers of children will not have basic literacy because they have been denied normal human growth during their early years. I have come across a half dozen children by now who can’t use language at all, because there just was nobody for them to talk TO. They hear sounds, see images on screens, and if an adult does anything, it is to make them feel that they should focus on such ways of getting to know. That is until the horrified parents find that their kids just can’t communicate.
Such kids, when grown up, will outvote us when it comes to making decisions about how the world is to govern itself – even if governments as we know them, disappear.
I don’t know what the solution to this social problem is; but for those of us who are aware, sitting down WITH a child and a book is going to be a sensible thing to do.
Mario / September 8, 2017
Thanks Uditha. I feel one of the main reasons for the virtual absence of the reading habit in Sri Lanka is the high price of books. India, for instance, subsidises the publishing of books, which make them quite affordable, though somewhat ugly to behold. Due to the large population, they are able to negotiate with publishers to print “Indian Editions’. Every railway station in India has a book shop, making books easily accessible. Many Indians, who I have worked with in Sri Lanka, are appalled by the high price of books. I know of a few shops in Wellawatte which offer Indian editions, while most book shops in Colombo offer high-priced western editions. Thanks
K.Pillai / September 8, 2017
Uditha Devapriya reminds us “In Sri Lanka, September is demarcated as the Literary Month. That’s Sahithye Masaya in Sinhala.”
Then he says something in Sunday papers about “පොත්ද? නූඩ්ල්ස් ද?” (“Books? Or Noodles?”
Then how Sampath Bank sponsored a “Katapath Pawura” to promote Sinhala poetry)
Then Amaradeva, Jothipala etc and so on and so on.
In all his writings in unnecessarily pedantic English, Uditha deliberately avoids mentioning that a sizable population speak, write and think in another language.
Uditha must resolve to read and familiarise himself with the “other” language.
Sinhala_Man / September 9, 2017
I think I’m putting this between your two very perceptive comments. Can we have more, please?
It is great that we have a guy as young as Uditha writing in this polished way, when so many are careless. But you’re right. It becomes “unnecessarily” pedantic English! And then he urges us to familiarise ourselves with Swabasha writing and music.
Before we saw each others comments, Estate Labourer had said this:
“Being literate in Latin, Greek, Pali, Sanskrit, Sinhalese, Tamil and Hindi but without a command of English literacy is not much use these days.”
Very true. I’ve already told Uditha that there is a limit to how much I can try to understand even my own Sinhalese culture. I admit the importance of a positive attitude towards those who are closest to me, but how far can I go with Jothipala? As for Khemadasa, there you go again! That is impossibly esoteric. Please let me enjoy my Beethoven and Schubert, merely dipping into these experiments in combining East with West when I feel that I must keep up with the intellectuals.
Interesting also that Illangaratne has been remembered. I’ve not read him, but what is said is true, I think. A genuinely grass-roots politician whose reputation the elite succeeded in blackening.
K.Pillai / September 8, 2017
Humans have this insatiable thirst to accumulate “knowledge”, sae it. Saved knowledge was then used or in recent times misused.
At one stage the only way to save knowledge was through oral traditions. Then came ola manuscripts which did not quite dominate the oral traditions.
Then came printing. The oral traditionalist felt that spelt doom and gloom. The oral tradition is all but gone taking some aspects with it.
Now we are in the midst of the electronic revolution. This has brought about the malaise of the decline in reading habits. But the children are as knowledgeable – if not more.
Porn is readily available. It will be presumptuous to comment on this aspect.
But Uditha, the reading index will have no effect on porn watching
Non PhD / September 9, 2017
I agree with you on the importance of promoting reading.
Since you concerned about learning human values through reading , I ‘ve some questions for you.
To begin with, Do you think Rajapakse Bros , Sons & Co and their loyal group of SLFP MPs have read any of the books written by Uda Rate Diamond Late TB Illangaratne a man from humble background ?
Have you read any of those story books ?
Do you think many of the current religious clergies have read TBI’s books?
Do you think all the MPs in the parliament has read at least one or 2 of those books ?
How about the school children through out the SriLanka ?
Finally why did you leave out TBL’s humane stories ?