Aliterates, wake up

If you belong to the tribe that can read but do not, and read just enough to get by, you are losing a lot. Read on to find out how reading is invaluable for life.

Published - March 26, 2012 06:27 pm IST

In the last week of February, I was writer-in-residence at Pondicherry Central University. During the residency, I had a conversation with Dr. Murali Sivaramakrishnan, the head of the English department, when he told me that the amount of discretionary reading the modern-day student was doing had declined alarmingly. I had heard that before from other educators. But I was taken aback to hear it from someone who runs a department of language and literature. Furthermore, Dr. Sivarmakrishnan was talking about reading in the context of his department's master's and Ph.D students.

You would think a person embarking on a postgraduate or terminal degree in English would want to make a career teaching the subject, in which case avid reading would form an integral part of his or her job description. Imagine a language or literature teacher who can't get excited about reading. How does such a person motivate students? Furthermore, as Jim Trelease, the author of The Read-Aloud Handbook , points out, people who have stopped reading can be dangerous because they “base their future decisions on what they used to know.” In the case of a teacher that can be tantamount to passing on obsolete information to the coming generation. That is scary.

The next day, I asked a room full of M.A. English students about the reading they were doing outside the curriculum. At least a third did not do any, which makes them functional aliterates. Aliterates are people that can read but do not. They read just enough to get by. If a language and literature department can have so many of them, then what about students in other disciplines?

What do you lose by becoming an aliterate? Quite a lot, actually. According to Maryanne Wolf, Director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University in the United States, while reading “we are forced to construct, to produce narrative, to imagine. Reading gives you a unique pause button for comprehension and insight. By and large, with oral language — when you watch a film or listen to a tape — you don't press pause.” Hence, the mind receives a far more vigorous workout whilst reading than consuming any other form of media. It is not surprising that avid readers tend to possess better memories and minds more equipped to resist the exigencies of ageing than those who do not read. Their capacity for learning also tends to be far more advanced. In addition, since reading requires more concentration than other media, an avid reader's mind tends to be more focused which allows him or her to make good decisions.

Furthermore, reading is inextricably linked to writing. It is impossible to write well without reading voraciously. Here I am not talking about literature or writing for the media where the ability to write well is a given. Most white-collar jobs require good communication skills, both spoken and written. Corporate executives of every stripe have to write reports, memos, and proposals. The same is true of bureaucrats. Scientists have to present their research in writing. Even political parties have to come up with election manifestoes. So unless there is a new invention that wipes out the need for the written word in all these forms of communication, the only way to do them well is to read well. Reading develops the vocabulary and expands the imagination. It also educates with regard to grammar and sentence structure, and allows the writer to make his or her writing more readable by embellishing it with examples, parables, and metaphors. It comes as no surprise that according to a study commissioned in 2007 by the National Endowment for the Arts, a U.S. government body, nearly two-thirds of the employers ranked reading comprehension high among their list of desirable qualities for high school graduates.

My experience in Pondicherry took me back to the Eighties where I was well on the way to becoming an aliterate. The VCR craze was sweeping middle-class India, and I was as hooked as any other kid. The moment I came home from school, I would park myself in front of the TV to watch a movie on the VCR. One day my mother decided she'd had enough. Watching videos was restricted to weekends and the quota was no more than one movie a week. I fretted for a few days, and then went back to my books.

Today I thank her for that intervention.

The reading habit is ingrained early. It has to be instilled into children by parents at home and teachers in schools. These days, where children are more independent and have many more forms of media clamouring for their attention, it may be more difficult to enforce than in the Eighties. But, as all evidence shows, it is well worth the effort.

The author is an award-winning novelist and short story writer.

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