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Recording & Transcript: Why Reading Matters

Recording & Transcript: Why Reading Matters

From Sout Ilaahi: In his work as a bookseller and with his background as an editor, Ibrahim, founder of Wardah Books, has experienced many aspects of the book industry. In the course of all this, he has developed a mission and purpose in the promotion of reading.


Transcript of the opening remarks

Let us start with definitions. What is reading? Reading is the decoding of written characters in order to gain meaning. This is the first level of reading. One of my favourite writers Julian Barnes said that "Reading is a majority skill but a minority art". Everyone can read, but few people read well, and fewer still read actively or deeply.

For me I am more focussed on deep reading because it is the kind of reading that allows us to access knowledge, beauty and truth. I am not referring to the type of reading that we do on social media or on screens. This is basically scanning. We go though a text as fast as possible because we want to get to the comments section. This is reading for dopamine addicts. It is the kind of reading that is emotional and does not take a lot of intellectual effort. We form judgements quickly and then we move on to other things. This is not the kind of reading I am talking about. What I am talking about is deep reading.

Deep reading does not come naturally to anyone. You have to work at it. So now we go to the other part of the question. Why it matters? Here I quote Julian Barnes again. He said reading is a communion between absent author and entranced, present reader. Now this is important. It means that the reader who is present can be granted an audience with the greatest minds of our civilisation.

You can sit down with anyone from Aristotle to Ibn Sina, from Ibn Arabi to al-Ghazzali. The connection is immediate and tangible. This is the gift of active reading by the present reader. Professor Khaled About El Fadl went into this quite literally in his book The Conference of the Books: The Search for Beauty in Islam. Notice that Khaled About El Fadl linked this communion with books with the search for beauty. And in our tradition, beauty at a metaphysical level is indistinguishable from Truth. But I am getting ahead of myself. We're still on definitions.

"Reading is a communion between absent author and entranced, present reader." – Julian Barnes

The unspoken term that we need to define is read what? What are the reading materials? Since I am a bookseller, I will scope the discussion around books. So what is a book? If you come to Wardah after closing time, you will see on the door shade the following definition. Books are portable containers consisting of printed and bound pages that preserves, announces, expounds, and transmits knowledge to a literate readership across time and space. This is the definition by Andrew Haslam in his 2006 book simply called Book Design.

So the book as a technology has really never been bettered because of its simplicity and its utility and ubiquity. The Italian novelist Umberto Eco said that the book is like a spoon. Indispensable because simplicity and ubiquity are its power.

So with those three definitions out of the way, let us revisit the title of tonight's theme: Why Reading Matters. Now the short answer is this: reading matters because without it civilisation will collapse. When people do not read deeply, they are not habituating themselves to nourishing the mind and the intellect. They are not habituating themselves to beauty and truth. Let us leave for the moment the spiritual aspects of beauty and truth because these are outside the scope of our discussion. Anyway, as I was saying, people who do not read are not habituating themselves to knowledge, beauty and truth. And when this happens at the population level, civilisation collapses. Now this is a bold statement, so let me illustrate with what happens when a typical reader reads a book.

First, he is selects a book to read on a subject of his choice. So the will is at play here. And the will intends to access knowledge. Very well. Then the reader sits down and opens up the book and immediately, the voice of another person takes centre stage in your mind. You are attentive. You are receptive. You are alive to the possibilities of knowledge. The absent author and the present reader coming into communion just like Julian Barnes says. You learn to be present.

Reading matters because without it civilisation will collapse.

Now the voice of this author goes on and with it, fragments of ideas form in your mind. And you arrange these ideas into logical sequence, in the case of fiction you arrange these ideas into narrative sequence, in the case of poetry, you arrange or more often juxtapose ideas to create new levels of meaning. You learn that you can manipulate abstract ideas in your mind to create new ideas. You can change your mind. You can negotiate. You can argue your case, and crucially you can argue the case on behalf of someone else. You become an advocate for ideas and if you read fiction, you learn a dynamic compassionate empathy for the other.

Then, among all this, the reader considers his own life and experiences and compares what he has read with what the author is speaking about. There is analysis, there is synthesis. You learn to build from what you know. You learn to utilise knowledge and incorporate this knowledge into your own body of knowledge. This is learning.

And that's not all. Because the reader is sitting still. Listening to a voice of another whom he may agree or disagree, but he carries on and sees what the other is saying. He is listening to the other for hours and hours sometimes days over hundreds of pages. He learn attentiveness and stillness, and this is just one step away from meditation or deep reflection. And we know from our tradition that a moment's reflection and meditation is greater than 70 years of worship.

Do you wish to be present, do you wish to be an advocate for ideas, do you wish to have dynamic compassionate empathy for the other, do you wish to have a life full of learning, do you wish to have the tools to reflect and meditate?

What do you think if every individual in society is able to do this, to actualise all this. How great your civilisation, your family, you schools, you nation, your society will be.

But if no one does this, no knows how to be present, how to advocate ideas, how to have compassion, how to have lifelong learning, how to meditate. How long do you think civilisation will last before it collapses?

This is why reading matters.

When you see someone reading a book, lost in thought in a book, and you are rushing from one point to another or you are arguing with someone online. Perhaps now you will have an awareness that the one changing society for the good is the one reading a book. This is why reading matters.

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