Essays / Guest Writers

GUEST WRITER | THE POWER OF READING | CHRISTIAN O. EMMANUEL

“Bring the clock that I left with Carpus at Troas when you come – and the books, especially the parchment.”
St Paul the Apostle

At the close of the last millennium, precisely in the year 1999, some people began to take a reflective look on the changes that were introduced into the world during the one-thousand-year period from AD 1000-2000. This reflection boiled down to the question: which person had generated the greatest impact on the way we live today? To answer this question, the Arts and Entertainment Television network conducted a survey of more than 360 journalists, scholars, and political leaders asking them to vote for the person they believed had done the most to shape the world during the millennium just ended. The A and T editorial board reviewed the results and compiled a final list. The person chosen as having had the most profound impact on the shape of the world as it exists today was Johann Gutenberg (Donald E. Howard, 2005).

Gutenberg was a child of 14th century Europe. Germany, like other parts of the globe, was not generally a reading society. Reading was regarded as the pastime of the lazy and the mediocre. Literature was in the hands of a few; the educated, the wealthy and, of course, the church. Until the arrival of Gutenberg, literature was cast upon an inferior substance; glorified scrolls or parchment sheets. They could hardly be made available to reach beyond a few audiences. There was no means to produce abundant copies. There was no printing press. But there were wine presses. Wine was in abundance. And so were drunks.

Then Gutenberg came along. He came with an idea. From the structure of the wine presses’ wooden machine which was in vogue in Europe, he invented the printing press. It was the power of idea at work, to see in the structure of a wooden wine press, a metal printing press! And it made all the difference.

Thus, between 1449 and 1450, the world woke up from the nightmare of hand coping books by a wooden printing machine, to the dawn of typographical printing machine made of steel and oil based ink; an invention which put thousands of copies of variety of social, religious and political literatures on the hands of the masses. Francis Bacon wrote about the emergence of the printing press in terms of a phenomenon that has “changed the whole face and state of things throughout the world.” The first printed bible came to birth. Shakespeare, Bunyan and Dryden who up till today grace our shelves, emerged from obscurity and took the centre stage of literature. Howard reports that as a result, “The public wrested the control of literature from the closed circle of the educated, the wealthy, and the privileged, and moved it to a wider audience. A large reading public sprang up.

Yes, a large reading public sprang up! And truth be told, nothing remained the same ever after. The face of the world was transformed. The religious revolution across Christendom, the political revolutions in Europe and America, the scientific revolutions and the variety of reformation agendas were sparked off and accelerated as a result of easy access to books among the people. It became easier to reach out to as many as possible. The people came to read for themselves and make their own analysis of issues raised in books. The age of the enlightenment eventually dawned. Howard said: “I believe that teaching and training our citizens to be good readers is probably the best guarantee of a free and secure future for all of us.”

The truth of this is obvious to us all. Our future in this country can never be secured if the masses who are the true owners of power are ignorant of it. Unless we birth a formidable culture of enlightening our people about their rights and about how to procure and secure their rights, we would continue to grope in the dark. For example, the Freedom of Information Act is not a privilege; it is a right. But this is not a political article.

Going back to history, a few centuries later, precisely in 1639, the first press was set up in America. By 1724, a young man of Boston origin would travel to London, all the way from America in pursuit of more knowledge in the use of the printer so as to keep pace with the rapidly growing printing trade around the world. His name is Benjamin Franklin. In him I find a good example of the power of reading books in a man’s life.

He trained as a printer-apprentice and rose through personal effort to establish a national newspaper, The Philadelphia Gazette, at an early age 23. He eventually founded a prestigious university, and became renowned for so many scientific inventions. How did he transform himself from a printer to The Printer? What was behind the excellent landmarks in the life of this man? How did he manage to rise from the weakness of a failing mathematician to become an academic giant? We must look no further beyond his long standing romance with books – the power of readership – for the answer. He was a bookworm from the outset. About this, he later confessed, “from a child I was fond of reading and all the little money that came into my hands was ever laid out in books”

He bought books with his money as a child! He read John Bunyan and sold them in other to buy Burton’s Historical Collections of Chapman books, about 50 in number. Then he read Plutarch and more, and more and then more, cutting across all spheres of endeavours. I tried to count the number of books he read and lost track half way. Howard says of him later, that “what he gleaned from reading became models from which he could shape his own destiny, for he truly became a self-taught man” In deed, Benjamin Franklin was a self-taught man, considering that he had only two years formal education behind him. He said of himself that the time he spent reading those works resulted in time “spent to great advantage.” And this has lifted him above mediocrity in life.

The value of reading is enormous. Books open us up for our destinies. They have a force behind them which prepare us for the fulfilment of our purposes. They expose the secrets in each of our endeavours, career and future. Benjamin Disraeli may have been taking this line of thought when he said, “The secret of success in life is for a man to be ready for his time when it comes.” Think of that.

People like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Fredrick Douglas, Susan B. Anthony, Booker T. Washington, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Junior, Nelson Mandela, Benjamin Solomon Carson, where men prepared for their opportunities when it came, and prepared for it basically through books. For, as Howard’s research shows, in his book The Role of Reading in Nine Lives, they were basically men and women whose companionship of the books prepared them to take a page in the history books of their generation.

I also find Dr Benjamin Solomon Carson’s story irresistible to this discourse. Here was a Negro, sired of a Negro mother; a second son of a single parent; a son of a divorced mother, who was raised in a slum! One cannot tell Ben Carson’s story without a mention of the mother. Sonya – a mother of two – had married at the aged of thirteen and had divorced her husband soon after she found out that he was a bigamist.

Racism, poverty and the absence of a father-figure put the family at a tremendous disadvantage to face squarely the challenges of life. Sonya herself had emerged from an obscure background of poverty as one of twenty-four children, clutching only a third-grade education. For this reason, keeping the home of three – herself and her two sons- was made barely possible only because she kept two to three jobs as a maid.

In spite of these prevailing circumstances, Sonya kept a positive attitude towards life. She never engaged in the game of passing the buck. She did not blame anyone for her present station in life. Made of such a courageous character, she did not yield to the mentality of victim-hood. She made sure that none of her sons was submerged in the degrading waters of low self-esteem. She single-handedly raised them up from the conformist streets of Detroit to take their place in destiny as victors: Ben, to become a renowned neurosurgeon and Curtis, his brother to become a successful engineer in Indiana.

Both sons, especially Ben, were academically poor students during their early education. It was even said that at one time, the mother rebuked Ben for his poor performance, warning that “if you keep making grades like this, you will spend the rest of your life sweeping floors in a factory. And that is not what God wants for you.”

To remedy the situation, she decided to personally make the two sons sit up. She did what many parents don’t do these days. Sonya bought the books—not the exam cheats. She cut down on the time they spent watching TV. “You may choose two TV shows to watch each week. We will spend the rest of the time reading” She declared. But as usual, change always meets with resistance. The boys threw the usual childish tantrums. But the mother stood firm and elevated the matter to a non-negotiable level. “You are also to write two book reports every week about the books you read” She said, “then you can read your report aloud to me”.

Thus began a journey to a voracious reading appetite in the life of the boys. Ben himself confessed that it was not easy initially. But in the long run, “I found it very beneficial” he said, “I learned that through the use of books, I had the whole world at my feet and could travel anywhere, meet anyone, and do virtually anything. I developed a voracious appetite for reading, and it was soon afterwards that I discovered my intellectual potentials” You see, you can travel through books and have access to world-views beyond your physical reach.

Thus, rising above his pairs and winning a scholarship to Yale University, he soon found his way to Michigan University in Ann Arbor. From there the stage was set for his enrolment at the prestigious John Hopkins University Medical School, having been accepted to embark on the neurosurgery program. He became the envy of the white teachers who could not imagine that a Negro could excel where the white boys failed. And so, by the age of thirty-three, Ben had become the youngest chief of Pediatric Neurosurgery in the entire United States; and had proceeded, eventually, to become its director. He became a leader in his chosen profession.

But Ben’s fame did not come simply at these levels of excellence but at the strides he made in undertaking a major medical procedure on a Siamese twin joined at the head; he also undertook the treatment of children with severe seizure disorders by performing hemispherectomies, which involved removing half of the brain. Ben was a man prepared for his opportunity.

Dr Ben Solomon Carson’s story shows the truth in the words of W. Fusselman who once said, “Today a reader, tomorrow a leader.” Invariably, if we don’t have readers today, we will not have leaders tomorrow. We may have rulers, yes; but certainly not leaders. It does not take much for rulers to emerge. Rulers may even surface by virtue of a thing like natural inheritance. In this sense, rulers are born; and with native intelligence they can succeed in wielding the traditional sceptre of power around the village, armed with some proverbs, wise sayings and common sense.

In most modern Africa, up to recent times rulers have continued to “secure” power by the aid of the ballot-that-never-really-counted. Some have acquired power by wielding the AK 47 of coup d’état. So it is not hard to see why the seat-tight syndrome has continued to plague democratic process around Africa. It seems to be the result of lingering hang-over from the African traditional mind-set about dynasty. Rulers may make their people fall in line, but only leaders can lead their people to their destiny.

Once more let us not be carried away. This article is not about rulers. It is not even about leaders per se. It is about readers first of all. It is about reading. It is about the power of reading. Our generation is experiencing decline, even demise of the reading culture. Dave Barry decried the alarming situation thus: “Newspaper readership is declining like crazy. In fact, there’s a good chance that nobody is reading my column”.

Many don’t read at all. Many who used to read have stopped. T.S. Osbond says that “when you stop reading, you start dying.” It seems to me that many stop reading as soon as they stop schooling. Many never cultivated the habit of reading even while in school. For this reason, there are many graduates who have never bought a book of N200—barely above a dollar—since graduation. Many others have not read a 45 page book to the end in years.

Daniel, in the Bible, is a shining example of one who read a lot of books and came to deeper understanding of his purpose through reading. “I, Daniel” he said, “understood by the books…” In other words, by reading—not just by waiting for some divine revelation, he came to grow in awareness.

And it seems very obvious to me that St Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, who had the grace of “revelation knowledge”, never stopped reading. Even in bonds, he seems to spend his time browsing the scrolls. As he went about making disciples, I imagine that he went with a variety of books and indulged in studious pastimes at less busy moments. It looks like this avowed reader must have forgotten some of his books and the parchments (notes) at Troas at one time, hence the request for Timothy to bring them along for him. Indolence was a stranger to him. No wonder the angelic erudition that attended his rendition of the divine mysteries. His depth was unsurpassed, his scope voluminous. Paul wrote more than Matthew, Mark, Luke and even John all together. Indeed, those who stop reading start dying, even in their minds.

English: Printing machine of Johanes Gutenbrg

English: Printing machine of Johanes Gutenbrg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 I am on Twitter: @kryzxten

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