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Let’s Make Reading a Keystone of Our Society

A few days ago I delivered a lecture at Jeddah’s Dar Al-Hekma College for its Library Week. I was pleasantly surprised by the students’ level of social consciousness. During the question-and-answer session, one student asked me why she couldn’t get good books here and why there were no libraries. She was also appalled at the general public’s lack of interest in reading. She said that instead of building malls, those with money should build and staff small libraries. I could not agree more with her.

There are of course many reasons why we as people don’t have the reading habit. For years there was no “reading or book culture.” And this is doubly tragic since the first word given to our Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) was “iqra” or READ. One of God’s commands, however, seems to have been misunderstood by censors throughout the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

Books were banned in those days merely on the basis of titles. There are always those who fear that books will pollute the minds of readers. When we allow that fear to take hold in our society, we also lose the benefit of all the many good words along with the bad. Even more tragic is that such behavior demonstrates that we have lost the faith and confidence in our own people to use their own moral and spiritual compass. Most of us are able to recognize what is bad and what is good in books without any official or societal interference.

As an example, I read Karl Marx’s “Das Kapital” at the age of 17, and here I am, devoid of a single trace of communist sympathy. I read Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species,” and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” (which is still banned) and many others that educated me, made me think and gave me a wider view of life.

I also read Russian literary works, which were banned in those days because censors didn’t even bother to find out that Leo Tolstoy and many of the great Russian writers penned their works long before the Bolshevik Revolution. They made an easy but unreasonable assumption that anything Russian was communist. The Russians have now abandoned communism, and even Communist China has adopted a form of capitalism in the interest of its people’s well being. Communist ideas came and went. Even Marx’s ideas and the horrible, totalitarian mistakes they spawned have some value for economists and students of history — both of whom need to create contexts to understand the present state of the world. I am thankful that the failed system of communism seems to be retreating around the globe, but I would urge my readers to become familiar with such classics as “War and Peace” and other works now available in Arabic.

Parents also have to shoulder considerable responsibility for the lack of reading habit in our society. They didn’t nurture the reading habit in their children. Rather than learning the lessons of history and appreciating the power of words to challenge young minds and shape them, in large part they opted instead to instill in them a desire for all things material, from toys as children to the latest model cars as adults.

For too long, our schools have been more interested in rote memorization rather than classes that inspire critical thinking — the ability to deal with abstract ideas and to use logic and reason to fashion creative solutions to everyday problems. Sadly, that is the same ability, or lack of it, that will determine what kind of future we have in our great country. Rote memorization and ill-trained and ill-equipped teachers result in ill-trained and ill-equipped young people who have no chance of success in a truly competitive world, where intelligence and imagination earn the wealth, and less desirable traits do not.

All these factors have contributed to the absence of reading in our nation. In addition, there are very seldom book reviews in our newspapers. “How can you review a book when it is not even in the market?” asked one exasperated local newspaper editor. He’s right; however, in today’s world of shrinking distances and evaporating isolation, travel, the Internet and satellite television all bring ideas to us. Those who believe that that tide can be stopped will be exactly as successful as if they were attempting to stop the powerful tides of the sea; we adapt or our society and our culture will be washed away like sand castles on a beach.

The “Da Vinci Code,” an international bestseller in English, was the subject of such debate that many here — even those whose knowledge of English language is minimal — bought it when abroad.

It took a report from the Associated Press on Raja Al-Sanea’s “Banat Al-Riyadh,” for me to learn about that book by one of our own Saudis. Some people got it over the Internet. I understand it is there in the market along with Dr. Ghazi Al-Gosaibi’s book and one of Turki Al-Hamad’s, a book that, three years ago, was taken from my daughter at the airport along with a copy of Readers Digest. I hope such things would not happen today.

As for the Dar Al-Hekma student’s question, my response was to suggest that mall owners might create reading rooms where books, journals and magazines would be available. Publishers and bookstores should also invest in these libraries.

They do a good job of advertising the arrivals of new books, but perhaps they could do more, such as setting up a monthly book club or something similar. The media should help. Readers of our Review pages can learn about new releases, and I would invite our competitors to provide the same service to our readers.

One of our greatest potentials is in the craving of our young people for knowledge, facts and figures. They now explore the Internet, and their aptitude for foreign languages is increasing. They want to see — and they need to see — what’s going on around the world. They want to be part of the great human race and its global quest for excellence. By providing them with knowledge and books — the tools which will enable them to take advantage of that knowledge — we can give them a real chance to be the leaders of tomorrow.

Qur’an says READ and by doing so, we meet other people, other ideas, other ways and other cultures. As for the issue of trust, I feel more confident in trusting our young people to make the right decisions about all that the world has to offer than I do about trusting our censors. If past experience is anything to go by, most of the time our censors make the wrong decisions and plunge our society into a future of ignorance and poverty.

Which legacy should we leave our children?


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