Saturday 19 June 2010

What was the last book you read?

What was the last book you read? The last newspaper? Where do you read? In a comfy chair at home, on the train to work, lying on a beach on holiday, in bed? We read anywhere and everywhere - because in our society we can. We are surrounded by reading material: books, magazines, newspapers, leaflets and letters have been joined in recent years by text messages, e-mails, on-line blogs and e-zines. Reading material of our choosing is affordable; we can buy books and magazines and we are blessed with libraries that lend us books free of charge. On September 8th we celebrate International Literacy Day. But this is not so much about literacy as illiteracy.

UNESCO estimates that some 750 million of the world’s adults lack basic literacy skills. This translates to 1 in 5 adults as illiterate, two thirds of whom are women. 5 million children currently receive no schooling. Some studies suggest the figures are even higher at 1 in 4 illiterate. It is these people who need literacy support and to that end four prizes will be awarded on September 8th by UNESCO for innovative literacy projects in Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, India and the Philippines.

‘Literacy is the best remedy’ is UNESCO’s message. Literacy is at the heart of modern education. Education is the key to empowerment, personal and social development. Education is the key to personal and social health. In many countries the mortality rate of children under five of mothers who have received even basic secondary education is half that of mothers without. A doctor working with Aboriginal women in Australia claimed that every year of education given to a mother added four extra years of life expectancy for her children. Similar claims have been made in African countries. Literally, literacy for life! The UNESCO prize winning literacy projects all aim at improving health and providing a tool for empowerment and social development.

Social change also depends on literacy. A study in 18 African countries found education to be the most important factor determining levels of support for democracy and rejection of non-democratic alternatives. Investing in literacy is more important than bank handouts and charity project funding, beneficial as these may be.

The actual figures vary slightly depending upon source of information but all agree that the countries with the lowest literacy rates are mostly in sub-Saharan Africa with Burkina Faso and Mali generally the lowest at 23-24%. Somalia and Afghanistan are also amongst the lowest. In all of these countries the women have lower literacy levels than men, with Somalia’s women achieving the lowest literacy at only 14%. Being unable to read reduces an individual’s chances of employment and development in an increasingly literate world. Countries with more than 95% literacy earn a minimum of 20 times more per capita than those with less than 50% literacy.

Literacy and education relies not only on being able to read but having access to reading material. Many countries are struggling to provide reading material in local languages. In Mali for example, children may speak any of 50 languages, 13 of which are considered ‘national languages’. Formal education relies mostly on written material in French, so Malian children must first learn French in order to achieve literacy.

This Tuareg school in Mali is a hut woven from palms propped up by wooden stakes. The blackboard was donated by tourists like myself. Only the older children have books - the younger ones write on slates with chalk. We gave them several new ones when we visited, for which they thanked us by singing a song. The younger children have no desks and sit on the floor. We observed a French lesson in progress with children of all ages taking part. The class was made up of equal numbers of boys and girls.

However we in the developed world should not be complacent. Studies claim that 100 million adults in developed countries remain functionally illiterate. Many such countries no longer keep statistics on their literacy rates so in world ratings it is generally estimated at 99%. Depending on the source of information Cuba, Estonia and Poland claim the highest literacy at 99.8%.

Cuba may boast the highest literacy rate but its citizens are restricted in what they may read. Under Fidel Castro’s regime Cubans could not read any foreign books, magazines or newspapers (or watch or listen to foreign TV and radio) unless it was material approved by the government. Copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were burned. Since Raul Castro succeeded his brother in February 2008 there has been a relaxation in censorship, and mobile phones and the Internet are now available to Cubans - although the latter is still limited. As so few Cubans were able to travel outside their country they relied on literature to inform themselves about the world.

“Reading is a form of travel,” says cultural critique Yoani Sanchez. “Given the limitations that we Cubans face travelling outside our country, discovering another reality through the pages of a book is a good inducement. Thanks to literature we manage to travel to a bunch of places without the immigration officer being able to say a word.” Cubans still crave books, and some operate small lending libraries with books donated by tourists.

Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953, depicts a hedonistic society where individualism and critical thought along with reading is banned, and books are routinely burned. As a result book lovers, desperate to keep their literary legacy, learn and memorize their favourite books and pass literature on through on oral tradition to like minded citizens.

Book burning as a form of censorship is nothing new - it has been evident for over 2,000 years. Emperor Qin Shi Huang of China ordered philosophy books to be burned in 231 BC. Since then this ritual has been repeated many times in many countries. In recent history the infamous Nazi book burnings of the 1930s claimed over 18,000 titles culminating in 20,000 books being destroyed in Berlin by Nazi youth groups on May 10th 1933. Books by Jewish authors and other ‘degenerates’ were consumed by the flames, along with works by Karl Marx, and H.G. Wells.

In the year that Fahrenheit 451 was published, America’s Senator McCarthy ordered pro-communism books to be removed from libraries and burned, and critics interpreted Bradbury’s book as a direct comment on this but Bradbury claimed his novel was not actually about censorship, as it might appear, but was about how television viewing destroyed interest in literature, leading to a perception that intelligence was merely a knowledge of facts, without the ability to understand and process information. His book was itself banned in 1998 by a school in Mississippi on the suggestion of a parent!

During China’s Cultural revolution between 1966 and 1976 Mao Zedong’s Red Guards destroyed thousands of books and other artefacts including paintings. During this time education was virtually brought to a halt leading to rising illiteracy for an entire generation. Reading material was allowed - providing it was Mao’s Quotations, better known in the West as The Little Red Book. It is estimated that this is the most printed book with between 5 and 6.5 billion copies produced. Education and literacy did not regain ground in China until 1979 and the following decade.

More recently here in Britain, 1988 saw radical Islamists burning Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, and in some parts of America even one of the most popular of children’s books, the Harry Potter series, has not escaped the flames. Throughout the world books and other literature are still being banned on grounds of politics, religion and less frequently grounds of obscenity or sexual explicitness. Some Americans have instigated Banned Books Week from 26th September to 3rd October 2009 when they are holding events to inform people claiming that “Censorship cannot eliminate evil. It can only kill freedom.”

When Azar Nafisi, who now lives and works in America, was removed from her teaching post at the University of Tehran during Iran’s Islamic Revolution, she was assigned to another university, but eventually chose to resign and set up her own underground reading group for selected women students. In her own home she and her students studied forbidden Western texts at considerable risk to themselves. Reading Lolita in Tehran illustrates their desperate need to do what we in Britain can do without a thought: read what we wish.

Lolita is one of numerous books that we can find in our bookshops or on our library shelves that has been banned at one time or another. You may be aware of the following dozen: 1984, Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies, Brave New World, Madame Bovary, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Heart of Darkness, The Great Gatsby, Of Mice and Men, Ulysses, Things Fall Apart, To Kill a Mockingbird….the list goes on. However you may be surprised to learn that Alice in Wonderland has been banned too. The province of Hunan in China banned it in 1931 for its portrayal of anthropomorphised animals.

So celebrate International Literacy Day. Take your books to your favourite reading place: read by the fireside, read on the train, the plane, read in bed. Read your children bedtime stories and expand their world. Read the poems on the Underground. Enjoy flipping through a magazine at the hairdresser or the dentist. And the next time someone asks you what book you are reading, or what your favourite book is, spare a thought for those who cannot tell you because they have never had the opportunity to find out.

Lindsay Bamfield
This article was first published in The Greenacre Times no 12 Autumn 2009

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