Thursday, October 22, 2009

Promoting reading

Fall — with its dazzling foliage in a palette of red, orange, yellow and gold — inspires me to paint colorful pictures, write spirited poems, and curl up with noteworthy books as often as possible. Still further, I regularly travel around the nation during this season to promote the importance of reading good books among children, parents and educators.

As an ice breaker before starting a reading seminar in mid-September this year I asked the participants, all of whom were Japanese schoolteachers, "What's the title of the best book you've read during the past months?" I was subsequently confronted by a sea of blank faces. Finally, a woman broke the silence and asked if magazines counted. I was shocked into the realization that most of them read no books at all. Of those who did read, weekly magazines and comics were their top favorites.

"I get drowsy when I open a book full of printed words, so I just browse through magazines with beautiful images." said a science teacher, a weakness with which even some participants who teach Japanese could unfortunately and ironically identify. Yuko, a middle school Japanese teacher, confessed she had not read any novels in the last five years and would rather spend time watching television.

Last week, while talking about Japanese writers with a former high school English teacher who is presently an education board official, I mentioned that I was rereading "Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself," the 1994 Nobel Prize acceptance speech and other texts by the internationally acclaimed novelist Kenzaburo Oe.
— "I haven't read a book in ages," he mumbled.
— "Very sad, isn't it?" I sighed.
— "No," he replied, shaking his head emphatically. "I hate reading, especially passages with subtle shades of meaning that are difficult to grasp. Playing pachinko is much more exciting."

I often hear from Japanese teachers that getting students to read meaningful books is increasingly difficult, but how can this be easy in a culture where "dull" activities such as watching television, reading manga, and playing video games or pachinko are the national pastime? Many Japanese adults (including parents and teachers) don't value literature, and it's no wonder Japanese children don't care much about reading good books.

It has long been conventional wisdom that well-read adults transmit their love for reading valuable books to children. Cultivating this love requires all of us to get on board -- parents, teachers, education board officials. We must definitely make daily reading a priority for ourselves and our children because our purely "information-based" society cannot afford a generation of poor readers anymore. Reading good books is so important. Apart from giving us the great opportunity to find out about the world, it also provides us with some food for thought. It increases our hunger for knowledge and our thirst to learn more.

Mark Twain (1835 - 1910) once observed: " The man who doesn't read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them." This quote must remind us of how fundamental it is to produce citizens who not only can read, but do read books which cultivate the mind.

By Joel Assogba Shukan ST: October 23, 2009 (Published in Japan Times ST)

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