The Thinker: Benefits of Reading
Oei Eng Goan
One of the biggest successes Indonesia has achieved in nearly three decades has been its fight against illiteracy. It boosted the literacy rate from a mere 67.3 percent in 1980 to 93 percent in 2009, an accomplishment that earned the country a top honor from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization this year.
Teaching millions of people to read is part of the government’s drive to free them from the shackles of ignorance that have impeded their natural ability to solve problems. Enlightened with such a basic skill, people, especially those in rural areas, can develop into more successful human beings.
By getting information from reading, however little that information may be, people can learn more about the potential of their surroundings, which, when properly identified and prudently exploited, can benefit them financially. In this way, fighting illiteracy goes in tandem with eradicating poverty.
Reading has always been an important source of knowledge and inspiration for human beings, and a way to advance technology, elevate standards of living and boost artistic creativity.
But as the famous British historian George Macaulay Trevelyan once said: “Education … has produced a vast population able to read but unable to distinguish what is worth reading,” It is therefore important for the government to provide books that shed light on basic and practical things “newly literate” people need to know.
For example, books dealing with practical know-how and written in an easy-to-understand style using simple, grammatical sentences encourage people to read more. This is important for developing people’s reading habit and raising their awareness of the importance of reading.
To further develop this endearing habit, the Ministry of Education and Culture as well as the provincial administrations must provide as many mobile libraries as possible to reach more outlying areas where books are scarce. Meanwhile, the state-owned publishing house has to produce quality books that low-income people can afford.
It would be far better for the government to distribute free books to the poor so that they could improve their knowledge and become dignified citizens, rather than giving them cash in the direct aid program launched last year, which many suspected was a disguised political campaign.
To encourage the reading habit in people, especially when it concerns educated people, the country needs many more professional writers and editors who can covey difficult topics concisely and clearly to laypersons.
A remarkable example was shown by Robert B. Downs, a prolific writer and librarian, who clarified the works of great scientists, politicians and poets in a digestible and readable writing style. In his book “Books That Changed the World,” Downs recounted the gist of great books by some of the world’s finest minds to millions of English speakers worldwide. Downs’ book covered the works of such luminaries as Homer, Archimedes, Adam Smith, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud and Rachel Carson.
Good reading offer insight for differentiating between good and evil and enables people to explore the nature of tangible objects in their surroundings, as well as the intangible feelings of the human heart and mind.
But what is good reading? According to Thomas De Quincey, an 18th-century English essayist, good reading contains “the literature of knowledge” and “the literature of power,” which deals with fictional, poetic and dramatic works.
It is certain that people who read a great deal can communicate better than those who do not and will be welcomed by any community because good reading broadens their views, thereby making readers more tolerant toward cultural differences and more receptive to new ideas. Literacy, without a doubt, helps mold all these admirable human qualities.
Oei Eng Goan, a former literature lecturer at National University (UNAS) in Jakarta, is a freelance journalist.