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The Deeply Personal Politics of Reading


I grew up surrounded by literature. At home, the burgeoning bookshelf in the dining room was my version of Lucy’s wardrobe that led to Narnia. At the bottom lay the children’s books – C.S Lewis, Richard Scarry, Enid Blyton, and the likes. The left-hand side of the shelf contained the easy reads and simple illustrations; Burglar Bill, Big Bad Bruce and The Three Little Pigs. But the right-hand side was a passage into mystery. This is where The Chronicles of Narnia lay, the heavy book on gemstones, the even heavier one titled The Universe, and countless others on Greek mythology, magical forests and African folk tales.

At my grandmother’s house, books were practically inescapable. Books in the kitchen, books in the lounge, books in the bedrooms, books in the car, and – the biggest collection of all – books in the bathroom. Her little guest toilet housed a floor-to-ceiling library of everything from Ulysses to The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. You’d do your business gazing at the innumerable dusty covers staring right back at you.

Family holidays were nothing short of a reading retreat. While friends at school told of their exciting adventures at theme parks and shopping malls, I had little to report other than having travelled to America in 1421 with Admiral Zheng and taking a crash course in physics with Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. My family spent hours of South African summertime lazing under the trees, reading into the late afternoons, and resigning ourselves to board games like Scrabble at dusk. Of course, there was no Wifi or television. The heat of noontime was accompanied only by the occasional dog bark and the rustle of turning pages. I learned to love books, and words, and ideas. Now, whenever I pick up a book and choose to spend hours lost in its pages, I am overcome with the most comforting feeling that reminds me of home, family, and childhood.

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies ... The man who never reads lives only one.” – George Martin

It deeply saddens me that my generation has every reason to make excuses not to read. College students are swamped with work; our downtime consists of stolen moments squeezed into an overbearing schedule where consuming information for leisure can only entail social media or bingeing on Netflix. Our most intimate rendezvous with thoughts and ideas take place in what Jaron Lanier calls "The Great Behavior Modification Machine". It’s a seedy place full of trolls and harsh lights, yet we find ourselves going back again and again because we’re hooked to a drug called dopamine. Somewhere between our efforts to wind down and connect with each other, our minds became rent boys and rent girls to advertising and fast entertainment. Gone is the romance of hours spent in the company of great words. Satisfaction is brief and seldom leaves you a better person than you were before. We’re happy to embrace one-night-stands of back-to-back episodes, but ask us to commit to just 300 pages? Sorry, too much dedication. Who on earth has time for that?

We’re not just selling our minds, we’re selling our identities, too. The other day, a friend and I were lamenting the difficulty of finding time to read amidst our demanding academic schedules. We had just ended our political science class, and it dawned on me for the first time that reading, at its core, is both deeply personal and political. In an age where information is abundant, yet wisdom scant, taking ownership over what you feed your mind is a pretty radical act of defiance, if you ask me.

Rebecca Mqamelo reading in New Delhi, India

Consider that books like George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Steve Biko’s I Write What I Like, or J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye have all gone through periods of censorship and prohibition. Animal Farm is still banned in countries like Cuba and North Korea for its satire on the brutalities of communism, and in the UAE for its depiction of a talking pig that is deemed contrary to Muslim values. Today most of us have free access to just about every work ever published, yet we’d be remiss to think there isn’t a deliberate effort to turn our attentions elsewhere.

“Old George Orwell got it backward. Big Brother isn't watching. He's singing and dancing. He's pulling rabbits out of a hat. Big Brother’s busy holding your attention every moment you're awake. He's making sure you're always distracted. He's making sure you're fully absorbed. He's making sure your imagination withers. Until it's as useful as your appendix. He's making sure your attention is always filled. And this being fed, it's worse than being watched. With the world always filling you, no one has to worry about what's in your mind. With everyone's imagination atrophied, no one will ever be a threat to the world.” – Chuck Pahlaniuk

By not reading, our generation is literally impoverishing itself. We may have access to all the knowledge in the world, but if we haven’t developed the skill to make sense of that knowledge and apply it with wisdom, we’re susceptible to abusing it – and allowing it to abuse us.

I struggle to be content with even the wealth of information provided by academic courses. I’m exposed to innumerable thought-provoking works in evolutionary biology, data science, political science and developmental economics – but I am not so naive to think that four years of pre-assigned readings will leave me any wiser than all who are ushered through the exact same process. It’s difficult to accept, but if you aren’t exposing yourself to the canon of wisdom that is embedded in literature, you’re saying no to something that is unequivocally enhancing, deepening, and eternally valuable.

“But it’s healthy to say no sometimes, isn’t it?” you may ask. “Self-care first!” Sure, but don’t allow the occasional “no” to become your default, until you’ve completely rationalized and justified why you don’t engage with a critical part of self-development. Yes, reading is difficult. It requires time, patience, focus, and often a sacrifice of what is more exciting. But the value of reading cannot be overestimated.

“Perhaps, then, if we listen attentively, we shall hear, amid the uproar of empires and nations, a faint flutter of wings, the gentle stirring of life and hope. Some will say that this hope lies in a nation; others, a man. I believe rather that it is awakened, revived, nourished by millions of solitary individuals whose deeds and works every day negate frontiers and the crudest implications of history. As a result, there shines forth fleetingly the ever threatened truth that each and every man, on the foundations of his own sufferings and joys, builds for all. ” – Albert Camus, Create Dangerously

Do we not all seek that “faint flutter” of a deeper life and hope?

So read. Do not read because Warren Buffet once consumed up to 1000 pages a day, or because some financial self-help guru on a YouTube ad told you it’s what all successful people do. Read because the activity will tell you who you are. It will take you places where you discover who you are not, and will enrich your life immensely – far more than any series or viral post can hope to do. Most of all, it will revive that deeper part of you that lies sleeping, where true nourishment resides – the kind of nourishment that will keep you motivated, connected, and determined.

Reading is about reclaiming ownership of our minds. If we’re too “busy” to do even that, then I fear The Great Machine has done more damage than we care to admit. But I also don’t think it’s too late to turn things around. Silent revolutions may be started with a good book and a cup of tea.


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