Reading: the habit of the free

There was a time when lack of literacy and education among the people made them defenseless in the face of deceit and manipulation by those few who had access to advanced levels of intellectual polemic. Using information and sophisticated rhetoric as a weapon, select groups could, in some cases, direct larger, uneducated masses of other countries against their own elite and create revolutions which had no purpose other than weakening a country. And while today we may still see it happening in the form of “color revolutions” being orchestrated by “developed” countries in the “developing” ones, we, as residents of the “developed” world and as a generation with unprecedented access to information and thought exchange, have entered a new stage and become subject to the new type of mass manipulation.

Now, the choice of information, as well as the way we handle it, has become our challenge. We are being conditioned to have a superficial, fragmented and fruitless thought process. Continuously redirecting the stream of attractive symbols, slogans, quotes and images which relate to faith, love, truth, devotion and other timeless values, we resemble a crowd of illiterate merchants, whose interest is driven by how much people may pay for what they sell, and they don’t care whether their goods have any genuine value. “Stand up for justice” sounds good, and so we parrot it everywhere, and people can be driven to perform the most nonsensical tasks, or even do injustice, as long as the attractive slogan is there.

Indeed, sharing ideas does not amount to redirection or pressing of a button. Rather, it is a complex process of carefully receiving, understanding, reflecting, and producing fruit. A revolutionary in intellectual and cultural fields must produce, contribute and create a type of consciousness and understanding which leaves no place for mental enslavement, and he cannot do so if he himself lacks the skill and capacity beyond forwarding attractive images and phrases. This is among the reasons why we are being continuously asked and encouraged to train and refine our thinking and understanding, particularly by means of reading books.

One may argue that book reading is common and even to some extent a trend among youth. Yet once again we find ourselves within another circle of modern-time deception in the form of an ocean of a low-grade literature which represents neither scholarly, nor artistic value. Not any book is worth reading, and not every good book is made easily available to the general masses. Indeed, for someone who is not raised in the culture of reading and doesn’t have good familiarity with masterpieces of literature it may be necessary to seek guidance of more experienced readers. But once we learn to differentiate between the world of literature and the world of merchandise, we would be able to reap countless benefits. And while the virtue of reading scholarly literature is generally understood, the treasure of artistic literature and fiction is being grossly underestimated, and therefore may need a bit more discussion.

One of the most intriguing differences between book reading and enjoying the best works of cinematography is that the images, feelings and realities described in the book are not confined to the boundaries of the external world. They are communicated from the greater, inner world of the author into the inner world of the reader, while cinematography is not only limited by the boundaries of physical world but also the boundaries of understanding of the film director and everyone else involved, as well as limitations of what can actually be shown. Indeed, book reading a sublime experience and a unique form of interaction between humans which cannot be missed by anyone seeking personal refinement.

Another unique advantage of reading fiction is that it suggests complete models of situations and human characters as opposed to scattered characteristics and instances which are of little help in life. In other words, it promotes maturity and understanding. Consider a person who knows a lot of rules and is familiar with hundreds of narrations which tell what is good and what is bad. When he faces a situation which requires immediate reaction or choice there is a very small probability that he will be able to fetch a suitable fragment from the depth of his mind and apply it in practice, while also considering all the nuances and exceptions. This is why there is hardly any benefit in exposing our youth to hundreds of rules, narrations and ideas daily. However, if they, by means of art, can experience scenarios which involve application of these rules and allow to feel the outcomes of different behaviors and choices , they subconsciously will be able to make the right everyday choices. If they are exposed to complete, skillfully created fictional personalities with real human prototypes, they will have more self-awareness and be able to better understand those around them. This can, at times, be especially useful for students of Islamic knowledge, as it may help to guard them from a dry, fiqhi, bureaucratic approach to various questions and situations, and develop more empathy, understanding and ability to see details and nuances.

Many more points can be mentioned in regards to the value of reading, but the bottom line is that every book is a result of hard efforts and scrupulous work of the author and the outcome of his patience, devotion and determination. It may have involved sacrifices, sleepless nights, personal struggles and emotional exhaustion. It also holds the best of knowledge, understanding and wisdom accumulated by the writer. Considering all this, would any intelligent and self-respecting person have a reason to be so careless that he would fail to simply consume what took so much effort to prepare? Indeed, there is no excuse for us not to read books as long as we see any value in our humanity. And certainly we have a duty to cultivate the habit of reading in our children.

When it comes to introducing children to the world of literature, a few details can help make this journey more smooth and successful.

First of all, it is important to understand that good taste in literature does not develop by itself, and true appreciation of books cannot come through exposure to random writings. Therefore, if we want our children to be readers in the future, their introduction to reading should be a good one. It is a very bad idea, especially in the West, and even more so in North America, to simply go to a bookstore and buy whatever is available. Children’s literature needs to be handpicked by those who have familiarity and some level of expertise in it. Sometimes it may involve searching for books which are not easily available, and sometimes we may want to refer to advise and reading lists compiled by experienced enthusiasts, but by no means books should contribute to the meaningless, superficial stream of data which haunts our children wherever they go. To put it simply, quality is the key.

Second, books should “live” in the house: they should be bought, welcomed with joy and anticipation, read, interacted with and constantly be a part of child’s environment. If a child sees his books, holds them, looks at them even without understanding, goes through the pictures, the chances are high that when he is able to read he will do so. These chances are even higher if children regularly see their parents reading. This way their desire to explore will also be complemented by their desire to imitate adults.

It is also worth mentioning that raising readers and thinkers starts from the first days. Nowadays, unfortunately, from the cradle many of our children start being robbed of a chance to think, imagine, fantasize and develop their inner capacities thanks to a continuous attack of bright, screaming, moving vulgar, interactive toys, gadgets objects and songs which can haunt adults in their worst nightmares. They learn to live in the world of five senses, instant reactions and answers, while their mental capacities remain atrophied. They may be able to memorize the periodic table or names of a hundred countries by the age of two, yet they will still lack mental integrity, the ability to operate complex concepts and realities and generate complete images in their mind. This can eventually interfere with their ability to enjoy the process of reading and make it a real challenge. And therefore it makes sense to avoid such complications by being more mindful of what our children are exposed to from birth.

After all that has been mentioned above, I express hope for increased cultural involvement, vigilance and protective attitude of our communities when it comes to maintaining our intellectual freedom and independent stance.

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