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A Little Reading (like a little knowledge) is Dangerous

31 March 2013 07:21 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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Is it possible that I permanently live in the past? Why is it that I don’t hear any one say ‘reading maketh a man?’
This saying was popular in my school days. It was quoted often. I understand that nowadays few people read, the reason being that they don’t have time (rather, reading is no longer a priority. Time management is about priorities). Perhaps it’s a good thing, too, because I have come to be quite circumspect about the above saying over the past few years. Rather than making people, reading seems to have the exact opposite effect on many.

Rather, one should say ‘a little reading (like a little knowledge) is dangerous.’ When you say ‘reading maketh a full man,’ a very wide range of reading, and in depth, is assumed. If we take an example from contemporary Lankan society, Dr. Carlo Fonseka comes to mind. Since I have never met him, this is entirely an assumption on my part – that he has read widely and in depth. Given the profundity of his discourses, how could it be otherwise? Let me take an example from a much lower level. My bicycle mechanic’s repair shop is a wonderful place to feel ‘the pulse’ of the country. People are unusually outspoken while getting their bicycles repaired and tubes patched up. Recently, as I was getting my bicycle repaired, a sprightly young man came in and asked for the newspaper.

My mechanic did not have one. The young man rushed out, saying he was going to buy one. That reaction surprised me, because newspapers rank lower than cigarettes, alcohol and other pleasures of life in many people’s lists of daily needs. My mechanic told me that this young man, a vegetable seller by trade, was an avid reader who frequented book sales.



Feeling highly pleased (it’s indeed a pleasure to discover an erudite vegetable seller) I eagerly awaited his return to discuss books. But, the moment he returned with his newspaper, he pointed out to a headline, and said: “We should get rid of this Halal label. Why do we need that on what we eat?”
It left me thunderstruck. It isn’t just that my own views on this matter are different. When it comes to books and reading, I have mental associations of a broad culture, broad-mindedness, intelligent views of life, the arts, science, history, politics, race, religion. This doesn’t mean everyone agreeing with everyone else on everything. Rather, it assumes, on the part of those who read, sane attitudes on life and learning.

To pick on the Halal issue, at this point of time in a multi-racial society which is struggling to discover the sum of its diverse parts, doesn’t sound like a sane attitude to me. It isn’t something I expect from someone who reads. But it may be my own mistake to equate ‘well-read’ with being broad-minded.
Trying to define what ‘well-read’ means treading on slippery ground. What really matters is how what we read is processed in the brain and colours the way we look at the world. If our reading can’t help us deal with our prejudices, is there any point in reading? This is where wide reading comes in. If someone reads only thrillers, it’s hard to understand how that can broaden his or her world view, even though we can expect the mind to be crammed with detail and information (good thriller writers, such as John Le Carre, or Stieg Larsson, supply a lot of it).

" If someone reads only thrillers, it’s hard to understand how that can broaden his or her world view, even though we can expect the mind to be crammed with detail and information (good thriller writers, such as John Le Carre, or Stieg Larsson, supply a lot of it) "

Getting back our book-loving vegetable seller, his next question completely floored me. If we have halal chicken, he asked, what about halal chocolate? Do we need to buy chocolate with halal certificates? Unable to find an answer, I began to feel old and useless, completely out of synch with the modern world – at any rate, the modern Sri Lanka that he so confidently, brazenly, and brashly inhabits. By comparison, I’m just an old fogey with piles of useless books stacked inside my house. Of what use is a lifetime of learning if I can’t answer a point-blank question about chocolates?

Mumbling something about all races needing to live in harmony, I urged the mechanic to get on with the repair, as the youthful book-lover was now eyeing me with some suspicion. He may have been wondering if my middle name was Ismail.
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