Read, Read, Read!

The fact that you are reading this right now makes you ridiculously lucky and blessed for two reasons.

One, you are literate. Your ability to read automatically places you at an advantage over at least 19% of the entire planet because that 19% is not literate according to these statistics, which were compiled from Human Development Report data. I am comfortable in assuming that the worldwide illiteracy number is actually higher than 19% because many people might have been counted as “literate” only because they were able to read and write a few sentences. Having the ability to read/write a few simple sentences does not necessarily equate with having the skills to read a book or write a personal diary. Notwithstanding the accuracy of these illiteracy statistics, the fact remains that if you are reading this right now you are lucky enough to be blessed with an education, which has placed you in a privileged position in our world by teaching you to be literate.

Yale University; Connecticut, USA (Photo by Lauren Manning)

The second reason that your ability to read this right now makes you ridiculously lucky is the simple notion that your brain is even capable of translating arbitrary symbols into meanings. You would never have been able to become literate if your brain was not capable of associating different variations of twenty six random and silly looking symbols (the Latin alphabet) with different meanings. It’s been said that the opposable thumb is what separates (wo)man from animal. I’m not a biologist so I can’t speak for that statement, but I can tell you that another aspect that separates us from animals, and a far more obvious and significant one, is our use of arbitrary (or random) symbols to communicate meanings through language. One of the most essential forms of this language is the written form, which can be created and interpreted by those of us lucky enough to have learned how to do so.

Kenneth Burke (Philosophers always look so cool!)

In Language and Symbolic Action, American literary theorist and philosopher Kenneth Burke (1966) says that we are “symbol-using, symbol-making, and symbol-misusing animals” and that the one thing separating humans from wild animals is the fact that we have language (p. 60). Other animals certainly have methods of communicating, but those methods don’t come close to the complexity of our language.

Burke uses an example in the same text of a time when he witnessed a parent wren (a type of bird) tricking the baby wren into finally leaving its nest. According to Burke, this was a “particularly stubborn or backward fellow who still remained [in the nest] for a couple of days after the others had flown” (p. 57). To convince the baby to leave, one of the parents brought it food but held it at a distance, until the baby finally stretched out far enough to fall out of the nest. Burke jokes that if birds were capable of language use through arbitrary symbols like humans are, that parent wren would have shared this new knowledge with all other wrens by writing a dissertation on “The Use of the Principle of Leverage as an Improved Method for Unnesting Birds or Debirding a Nest” (p.57). Unfortunately for the birds, they don’t have the power of language like we do so they cannot share knowledge from one generation to the next through written text.

хеј шта има? Ако ви ово разумијете онда знате Српску Цирилицу!

Unless you are versed in the Cyrillic alphabet and also with the Serbian language, you have no idea what the random collection of bolded symbols above means. To you, they are a random collection of arbitrary symbols and nothing more.

Hey whats up? If you understand this, then you know the Serbian Cyrillic alphabet!

You do, however, know what the above collection of arbitrary symbols means. The first bolded sentence and the second bolded sentence have the same exact meaning, but look completely different. This simple exercise hopefully serves as an exemplar of how written language is really nothing more than our understanding of arbitrary symbols, an understanding which is based on our education that has taught us to associate certain meanings with those symbols.

To somebody in the world who does not know the English language, all of these words and sentences look to them like the above Cyrillic sentence looked to you. To somebody in the world who is not literate in any language, every single piece of written material is inherently undecipherable and looks like a cluttered mess of abstract symbols. Although they too are humans like we are and they have the capability of associating meanings with arbitrary symbols, they have not been blessed enough to get the education to learn how to do so.

I hope the above information serves to encourage you into realizing just how awesome this amazing skill of literacy is and helps you to see that we should never, ever take it for granted. A big part of not taking this skill for granted is to use it by reading.

Read, Read, Read! 

University of Toronto; Toronto, Canada (Photograph by Fadi J)

Obviously I am preaching to the choir here (I’m making an educated assumption that people who take the time to read random blog entries online are also the type who take the time to read other things), but it never hurts to remind ourselves just how important and beneficial reading can be to our lives.

Yesterday I finished Engaging Crystallization in Qualitative Research by professor Laura Ellingson. The book introduces a new type of qualitative research methodology and goes into specific details to defend this new method and provide guidelines for using it. Discussing the main idea behind the book is beyond the scope of this blog entry, but Ellingson does have a section in which she gives practical tips to qualitative researchers on how to improve their writing. One of these tips is to read often and read a lot. She makes the point that it does not matter what you read because anything you read will make you a better writer. She states

I do not think it matters in the least what you read so long as you do so (p. 158).

I agree with Ellingson that no reading is bad reading and that even the “trashy novels” are beneficial for us.

I also enjoy reading trashy novels and mysteries while working out on treadmills and stair-stepping machines, and I believe that these too enhance my writing because they draw me into the worlds that they create and make me reluctant to stop reading (Ellingson, 2009, pp. 157-158).

Reading is not just limited to books (although I highly recommend that you make a habit of reading those). The point is that you read, not necessarily what you read.  You can spend your time reading newspapers, magazines, and everything available these days on the Internet (such as blogs!) if those interest you more than books.

Just read, read, read.

Reading stimulates your imagination like no television show ever will, helps you to see the world from different perspectives, sharpens your critical thinking skills, polishes your grammar and writing skills, improves your vocabulary, teaches you about the world and about humanity, and entertains you.

But, I ________________!!!!!

Excuses abound when it comes to why people don’t read. Many of my readers are students and might use the excuse that they read enough in class already and they simply don’t have the time or luxury to read outside of class because of other obligations. Another excuse might be that we are in the twenty-first century and it’s pointless to read things that are not on the Internet. Those excuses are all unnaceptable.

Sometimes class readings are simply not fun because many textbook authors seem, for some silly reason, to have bought into the “this must be as boring and uninteresting as possible” model. If textbooks are the only reading we do, we might never learn to appreciate the potential benefits of reading materials outside of class such as fictional novels and nonfictional (but much more interesting than textbooks) material. Thus using the excuse that you don’t read because you have read enough in class makes no sense because the types of reading you do in class when compared to outside of class would most likely be completely different. If you are not a student, the same could be said for materials you read for work.

TU Felft Library; South Holland, Netherlands (Photo by Namijano)

When it comes to the “I just don’t have time” excuse, I am not telling you to read a four hundred page novel in two weeks. Remember, this is not class or work. You read at your own pace. If it takes you four months to finish a book, it takes you four months. If takes you a year, it takes you a year! Lack of time is simply not an excuse: if you are lucky enough to be literate then you should find the time to read, even if it is just for fifteen minutes everyday! I promise you that if you start reading a book you really like, you will magically find much more time to devote to it because you will become reluctant to stop reading, as Ellingson (2009) says above.

Finally, I’m not encouraging you to read a traditional book or newspaper! While there is a certain novelty to holding a book and reading it (texture and touch are more important for perception that many people think), these days you can read from pretty much any source (think Amazon Kindle, Apple iPad, etc.). In the future more and more of our literature will be digitized, so reading information off of computers and tablets will become as common as reading information off of paper is today. So go ahead and read that novel on a tablet, if that’s your prerogative.

Just read, read, read!

I do not live underneath a rock and am not trying to promote some sort of an elitist notion of reading as superior than other media. I realize that we have many other ways to entertain and inform ourselves today (I love my Netlix!), but I also realize that one of the most under-appreciated and taken for granted ways to do so is through old school reading. As a student of communication, I must defend and vouch for one of the most obvious types of communication (reading and writing) because it is taken for granted far too often.

We have been given the gift of literacy and the ability to be literate (when compared to all other living beings on this earth) and we should never take this for granted. The next time you walk past a library (even if it is not as cool looking as some of the photos in this post) walk in, grab a book (or walk in with your tablet device and sit down amongst all the books) and read, read, read.