Last Saturday marked the International Day of the Book.
The link between 23rd April and books was first created in Catalonia, Spain as far back as 1923 by booksellers. In fact, it was an idea from the Valencian writer Vicente Clavel Andrés to honour the author Miguel de Cervantes who died on 23rd April. It is remarkable how the United Nations chooses dates to mark particular events. We should remember that Miguel de Cervantes is the author of the famous classic “Don Quixote”. On this day, Don Quixote is read during a two-day “readathon”. It would be worthwhile remembering that Don Quixote written in 1605 and 1615 in 2 volumes is cited as authors’ choice for the “best literary work ever written”.
So the World Book Day is a celebration. Celebration of writers, illustrations, books and most importantly the celebration of reading.
It is true that several activities are organized by governmental institutions and parastatal bodies such as the National Library to mark the World Book Day.
But more efforts should be done in a country where reading is relegated to the backwaters. Given the disastrous results obtained in different languages in the educational system year by year, the need for sensitization of parents, the nation at large and children and students in general on the benefits of reading should be canvassed at a more significant, appealing and sensational level. It should be organized like an event by companies and sold like a product to appeal to a larger constituency using modern market strategies.
Just like all types of telethons, marathons, talkathons, ultramarathons, and walkathons are organized, readathons too should be an innovative way to focus the nation’s mind on reading. Children develop a love for reading from early childhood mostly. They should be exposed to books. Parents should keep books all over in the house so that children are attracted to them, touch them, feel them, open them, marvel at the illustrations in them which may lead them to unending imaginative flights and adventures. But in our times, parents are mostly concerned in keeping the house neat and tidy and books are stored away!
Reading is a habit. And like all good habits it needs to be cultivated assiduously. Reading aloud too is a very powerful exercise. All great orators have made reading aloud a great exercise and practice of their life.
Reading aloud develops strength and agility, says Dale Carnegie, the great master of the art of public speaking. Theodore Roosevelt practised nasal resonance for his first political campaign!
The words of prominent people always have the power to retain attention. And the choice of good words comes from reading.
In the ancient times, the Vedas – the most ancient Books of knowledge – were learnt orally and by repetition. The Vedantic Forest Academies of the ancient times encouraged students to question and learn, hence the term Upanishad sitting and learning at the feet of the Guru. The Vedas were memorized and passed on orally from generation to generation before they were published in book form. If we take the example of the Koran, thousands of Muslim students memorize the Koran – through the power of repetition.
Foe several decades in Mauritius, Akhanda Ramayana Paath are held by the Human Service Trust in which group readings and recitations of the seven sections of verses – dohas and chowpayis – of the Ram Charitmanas are done in 36 hours in the manner of a “ Ramayanathon”. The secret is concentration. That was the secret too of Roosevelt’s fantastic ability to memorize.
When we were at school we had stimulating exercises of learning synonyms and antonyms. “The study of synonyms is regarded as the most valuable of intellectual disciplines.”
Our choice of words, the way we speak are the marks of our education and culture. They reflect also the books we read. Children and youth should be reminded constantly of this.
Abraham Lincoln’s Gift of Words
Let us take the example of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States whose father was an illiterate carpenter and mother an ordinary person, yet who was most intimate with words. He had the gift for words, speaking them with beauty and accuracy. He had attended school less than twelve months in his entire life. But the fact is that he repeated from memory whole pages of the poetry of Robert Burns, George Gordon Byron and Robert Browning. He had one copy of Byron’s poems at his office and kept one at home. Even when he was at the White House and was going through the tragedy of the Civil War, he found time to read poetry. He repeated long passages from memory from Shakespeare’s King Lear, Richard III, Hamlet and Macbeth. These exercises should stand good anybody in today’s e-book learning era too.
In the past the speeches of our parliamentarians reflected the books they read and revealed in them a depth of knowledge as well as literary knowledge.
Many great people not only read but also highlight the lines most appealing to them. Dale Carnegie writes that “how little there is that is new… how much even the great speakers owe to their reading and their association with books!” He adds “He who would enrich and enlarge his stock of words must soak and tan his mind constantly in the vats of literature.”
How did Mark Twain the great American author and traveler gain great ease with words? The same Mark Twain who when he came to Mauritius said that God made Mauritius first and then paradise. Travelling from Missouri to Nevada by slow stage coach, he carried a Webster Unabridged Dictionary with him over the long mountainous and desert areas and memorized the words and their meanings. He made himself the master of words.
Read, Read and Read
William Ewart Gladstone, four times Prime Minister and four times Chancellor of the Exchequer of the United Kingdom, called his study a “Temple of Peace”. He kept 15,000 books in it. He read Bishop Butler, Dante, Aristotle and Homer. Alfred Lord Tennyson the great poet studied the Bible daily. Leo Tolstoy the great Russian writer, read and re-read the Gospels until he knew whole passages by heart.
As for John Ruskin, writer and leading art critic of the Victorian era, his mother compelled him to read and study the Bible. He had to memorize long chapters and read the entire Bible through aloud each year, “every syllable, hard names and all, from Genesis to the Apocalypse.” Dale Carnegie says that it is thanks to that discipline and hard study that Ruskin attributed his taste and style in literature.
The same methodology is attributed to Robert Louis Stevenson the great English language poet. He copied several passages that he liked whenever he read a book. He “aped” the style, and got thus some practice in rhythm, construction and coordination of parts. Thus he says he has “sedulously aped” Hazlitt, Lamb, Wordsworth, Defoe, Sir Thomas Browne down to Montaigne.
“That, like it or not, is the way to learn to write: it was the way Keats learned,” remarked R L Stevenson.
To become a successful lawyer Abraham Lincoln said, “It is only to get the books and to read and study them carefully. Work, work, work is the main thing.”
And we will add “read, read, read”. Tell yourself “Shakespeare, come here and talk to me tonight of Romeo and Juliet.” Put off the TV, toss your newspapers away and read. You may read from your computer, smartphone, laptop or tablet too. But do read. Your reward? You will become articulate, your reflections will improve. Was it not Goethe who said “Tell me what you read, and I will tell you what you are?”
Abraham Lincoln “would read a dictionary as long as he could” record his biographers Nicholay and Hay. In fact “all great writers and speakers of distinction have done the same”.
* Published in print edition on 29 April 2016