Global literacy and the threat to reading

I remember hearing a story about a Dublin bus driver. He was talking about the risks to his personal security he faces on a day to day basis in the course of his job. He was happy, he said, to see someone carrying a book, because he knew anyone carrying a book would cause him no trouble.

Unspoken was that it did not matter what the person was reading, what mattered was just that they were reading.

Literacy is perhaps the greatest skill a human being can learn, or be taught. It is the foundational skill that makes it possible to learn almost any other skill.

Okay, it’s possible to be illiterate and a great swimmer, or illiterate and a world-class ballet dancer.

Possible, but unlikely.

Literacy breeds a multitude of infinitesimal skills, all of which add up to a sense of confidence, and confidence itself energises us to add more skills in a perfect virtuous circle that started with the ability to read.

But reading is under threat.

The onset of digital technology is pervasive and all-consuming. Digital technology has created 24/7/365 communications, eroded workday boundaries, presented us with a million compelling diversions at every moment of every day. Kevin Barry, the Irish writer, has spoken of having a stack of books on his bedside locker and lying down and reading his iPhone.

There are studies that suggest while the attention span of goldfish has remained solid at seven seconds, the attention span of humans has reduced from nine seconds to six.

It’s ironic, I think, that at a time when global literacy rates are the highest they’ve ever been, the skill to focus the mind and actually read something worthwhile is possibly as rare as it’s ever been.

We read headlines but not detail. We jump to polarised conclusions (where everything is black or white) instead of appreciating nuance (where there are 500 shades of grey).

There is nuance in reading too. Not all books are created equal. There are plenty of supposedly worthy books, that win awards in the end of year ceremonies, that give their authors a platform from which to pontificate, that are insufferable.

But the beauty about the skill of reading is that it hones the skill of intuition too, and intuiton added to confidence leaves us better placed to make any judgment call — including whether this supposedly worthwhile book is worthy of your invaluable attention.

Armed with intuition and confidence, we can decide to hone the skills we need to live the life we want to live. And there’s no better place to start than deciding to focus the mind on the act of reading intentionally, even for five minutes a day.

(At a minimum, it will show bus drivers that we won’t cause any harm. But it will be a lot more than the minimum.)

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