Will A Nation That Stops Reading Eventually Stop Thinking?


Gone are the days when one visits library for references and guide. In fact library culture is gradually dying in the current scenario, not only in a particular city, state or country, but also in one’s mind. The declining reading habit in the current generation is not only a matter of concern just because we are not inculcating the habit in ourselves but too because we are not going to make the next generation inherit this habit. The need of the time demands one to take the pledge to save this declining culture and promoting reading habits not only in kids but grown ups as well. Decay of library institution is the most regrettable phenomenon of the modern age. Dawn of corporate civilization, advent of modern technology, diversified means of information and luxuriated life style have restricted the use of libraries. No doubt, libraries have been playing a central role in the intellectual advancement and human development for many centuries. However, their monopoly over the cosmos of knowledge is crippling day by day. Digital technology, that has precipitated a variety of alternative sources of information, is frequently referred as the major factor, which has challenged the authority of libraries. The underlying idea is to examine the issue in all the necessary dimensions in order to be able to suggest a viable course for the future to consolidate and accelerate the usage of libraries. For the better understanding of the declining usage of libraries, it will be pertinent to have a glimpse over the utility of libraries.

First, libraries provide necessary and articulated information about various disciplines of life. From the very invention of alphabets to the advent of information technology, libraries remained the custodian of knowledge. People ranging from monarchs to saints, from scholars to amateurs have been relying upon libraries to quench their thirst of knowledge. In early days, kings patronized libraries and had their personal libraries as it was considered a symbol of prestige and distinction. The scientists and scholars also maintained their personal libraries. Tradition of library usage to this extreme level speaks volumes for the magnificence and grandeur of that era. This was, of course, the beginning of intellectual revolution that was the most spectacular triumph of human history in this universe. Second, research and education are the activities that direct the course of history even today. Without reservation, libraries were the research laboratories and educational institutions in early times. Separation between them took place much later. Research and education accelerated the rise of science and eventually led to the emergence of scientific civilization, which reshaped the world into the global village. Although, civilization institutions were eroded by the evolution of time, yet libraries kept themselves alive. However, they lost their vigor and vitality in the later half of the twentieth century. Third, recreation is the part of human instinct. The perceptions and opinions about entertainment may differ but the realization of the need of refreshment is omnipresent. Evidently, the libraries are the main source of entertainment for all type of people in one way or the other way. A variety of resources are available for entertainment in libraries ranging from fiction to newspapers, from magazines to books, relating to every aspect of life. Reading rooms and separate cabins also enhance the usage of libraries by attracting the readers towards halcyon and pacific environment. Moreover, issue and return facility makes it possible for readers to borrow books for a particular period. On the whole libraries are the main source of entertainment, however, now, the other competitors have challenged their authority.

Digital technology has undermined the importance and usage of libraries in developing countries. Invention of digital resources has led to the depletion of print resources. Time saving, economic cost, portability, durability, quality and variety are the factors that earn superiority for digital resources over libraries. In a short span of time one can get what one needs. Cost always remains a decisive factor in one’s preferences while choosing the information resources. Libraries, generally, do not buy expensive material so readers turn towards alternatives. Copying a digital resource is a matter of seconds. However, it takes hours to copy a single soft copy of a book. Furthermore, hardcopy is superior to soft copy with respect to quality. Other important determinants are portability and sharing that demands no elaboration. The most critical upshot of technological development is communication revolution. Sharing information is no more a very long process. Information can travel thousands of kilometers in seconds. A variety of extensive information is available, pertaining to every walk of life, on World Wide Web. Consulting a number of resources for required information is no longer needed. Just typing of key words of required information on Internet brings one to the universe of information. Now sky is the limit. To add, lack of research has further affected the library usage. Generally, people use short cut ways to avoid research activity. Resultantly, libraries remain in want of uses. The number of researchers with respect to increasing population is not appreciateable and presents an unhealthy trend. Education system is the basic impetus behind this pessimistic and gloomy development. To some extent, librarians and teachers are to blame for the declining usage of libraries. Librarians deal with all the activities, processes and services of libraries. Teachers are concerned with the training and teaching of students. It is the responsibility of librarians to maintain a library in its essence. In many cities, readers do not know about libraries and badly lack in orientation with libraries. Furthermore, lack of skill and knowledge make the librarians passive. They remain imprisoned in their offices and do not pay any heed to the maintenance and proper functioning of libraries. Interestingly, a majority of libraries have no professional librarians in Pakistan. In the absence of professional librarians, a genuine functioning of libraries is not possible and one should not expect it in such circumstances. Moreover, libraries lack in information technology, which is necessary to cope with the alternative information resources. In this regard, the government policies are liable, but, in many cases, where the facility of information technology is available, there occurs competence lack to deal with technology and using it in libraries in a way to make libraries to be able to face the challenges of volatile scenario. The role of teachers to inculcate the habits of library usage among students is not much efficient and productive. Although, there is a trend among elite institutions to fix library hours for students in which they are compelled to participate in the activity through attendance and fine. However the situation is otherwise in government institutions. The education system and the delivery of education are crucial in this regard. In government institutions, the teachers do not think of it as their responsibility to develop the habit of library usage among students. To cut the story short, teachers and librarians contribute, in general to the declining usage of libraries. Obviously by removing structural weaknesses, that ails library usage, we can arrest the decline of library usage and encourage social, moral, intellectual and scientific development. In this way a comprehensive and pragmatic approach is necessary besides government patronage and suitable policy. More important is the professional engagement and dedication of librarians and teachers. In the end, technological transformation of libraries will surely do a lot.

What is missing from the pictures these days, and increasingly from our lives, is the activity through which most of us learned much of what we know of the wider world. What’s missing is the force that, according to a growing consensus of historians, established our patterns of thought and, in an important sense, made our civilization. What’s missing is the venerable, increasingly dated activity that one used to do. Ironically, but not coincidentally, reading has begun fading from our culture at the very moment that its importance to that culture is finally being established. Its decline, we believe, is as profound as, say, the fall of communism, and can be taken as to prophesying that the downturn in reading could result in the modern world’s cultural and political decline.

“A mode of thinking is being lost,” laments Neil Postman, whose book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” is a warning about the consequences of a falloff in reading.

We are losing a sort of psychic habit, logic, a sense of complexity, an ability to spot contradictions and even falsity. The fact is that few of us, and few of our friends and few of our children, have the time to read as much as we would like. We’re too busy working or working out or playing or — OK, let’s admit it — watching TV. * Our homes barely make room for reading. Flat screens and Nintendos invaded those old islands of quiet — libraries, studies and dens — long ago. Now they are called “family rooms” or, more accurately, “television rooms.” And our architects seem to have given up providing us with bookshelves; instead they busy themselves designing “entertainment centers.” Fiction and general-interest nonfiction works would seem to be designed to be read, but lately these books also serve other functions. Their authors often employ them as routes to movie contracts or to tenure or to the intellectual renown that apparently comes with having catalogued definitively, in two or three dense volumes, how George Bernard Shaw, say, spent each of his evenings. Their publishers increasingly see these books not as collections of sentences and paragraphs that might be clarified and sharpened but as product that must be publicized and marketed so the balance sheets of the large conglomerates they now work for might tilt in the right direction. And books increasingly have another function for those who purchase them. They have begun replacing the bottle of Scotch or the tie as gifts giving them about the same chance of being opened as those ties had of being worn. What has changed is the strength of the habit of reading a newspaper, It used to be one of those things that almost everybody did. No more is being done in todays date. And young people have been losing the newspaper habit even faster than their parents. “We are developing a generation that has no interest in reading except insofar as it is assigned in school. If education still stimulated the desire to read, all the statistics on reading would be shooting up. That they are not may say something about the quality of our educational system and about the interests of the students it now attracts. It certainly says something about reading and its future. If dramatically increased exposure to an educational system based on the printed word cannot get us to read, what will?

Books, in older days, had a unique power to transport. “There is no Frigate like a Book,” wrote 19th-Century poet Emily Dickinson, “To take us Lands away.” Now, of course, there are many easier ways of getting there. Our society is particularly ingenious at thinking up alternatives to the book. Indeed, we have thought up an entire communications revolution, and there have not been many of those in human history. The first such revolution was the development of language hundreds of thousands of years ago; the second, the development of reading and writing in the Middle East about 5,000 years ago; the third, the invention of the printing press 500 years ago. The fourth communications revolution – ours – began, perhaps, with the experiments of Samuel Morse, Guglielmo Marconi and Thomas Edison in the 19th Century, and it has been picking up steam ever since. Movies, recordings, Radio, telephones, computers, photocopiers and fax machines are all part of it. But, of course, the most powerful product of this revolution, so far, and the one that has posed the largest threat to reading, has been television. Reading certainly is well loved now that it is in decline. Yet it is no longer something that we ache to do. How many kids today surreptitiously finish books by flashlight under the covers? Instead, reading, like eating broccoli, has now become something that we feel we should do (always a bad sign). However, the introduction of writing undoubtedly did cause people to spend less time talking — because of the old not- enough-hours-in-the-day problem. And it probably did cause them to rely less on speech for communicating important information. So, whatever new forms print may assume in response to electronics, it is unlikely that print will regain its position as our major source of information or entertainment. Reading still plays and, for the foreseeable future, will continue to play, a crucial role in our society. Nevertheless, there is no getting around the fact that reading’s role has diminished and would likely continue to shrink.

Writer is a student, an aspiring painter & calligrapher

(Published in The Lucknow Observer, Volume 1 Issue 11, Dated 05 February 2015)

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