Just last week alone, I found myself dining in a swanky three-course French restaurant amidst toddlers emitting sage, digesting a sermon on cleansing the soul by a Syeikh living in the harsh deserts of Mauritania and tasting cement-filled walnuts bought right off the alleys of the People’s Republic of China.
It was seven days filled with an awakening of the senses, thoughts and emotions, taking me across three different continents in landscapes that paint a myriad of colors. From blue skies pierced by the sharp peak of the Eiffel, to the echoes of the brown-colored dry desert wind, and the buzz of hawkers, hagglers and would-be haranguers amidst a sea of gray. As I am writing this, I am precariously standing in a war-torn hospital in Afghanistan as bodies of eight guerilla soldiers are laid down on the floor below and fighter jets roared above.
As tempting as it is to make myself out to be like the 14th century world traveler Ibn Battuta, or perhaps the more modern globe-tottering renowned chef Anthony Bourdain, the secret to my intercontinental affairs lie not in hitching rides on traders’ vessels nor making the world my cooking pot, but simply, by allowing myself to immerse fully between the lines of the book I have in hand.
Which, at the moment, would be the scandalously inviting book titled “Every Man in This Village is a Liar”, by Megan Stack, a war journalist stationed in the ever-volatile Middle East.
Books have, for centuries, served as capsules for delivering information and knowledge. In browned, delectably musty pages lie an infinite amount of knowledge and wisdom penned by man over thousands of years from one generation to the next, spanning countless distances of our earth from one end to the other. It is thus not only unsurprising, but logical and rational that the first command given to man was “Iqra’!” – to read.
But yet this logic is all but lost on a young relative, who recently turned down my offer to buy him a book of his choice for his nineteenth birthday – “Save your money or get me something else.”
The shelves in his room are filled with lines of books – his sister’s – but not once did he even bother to browse through the titles. When he enters the room, his eyes glaze over the shelves as if they were flower motifs on aged wallpaper, and he settles himself in front of his laptop.
For the next few hours – besides the unavoidable toilet breaks and shouts of frustrations – his fingers would dance a tune on the keyboard as the screen erupted in a series of flashes and body parts. His eyes are wide and entranced, and just as I’ve found myself in another world through my books, he has trapped himself in a world of monsters and magic spells, where he is the main hero.
And I know my relative is not alone.
Visiting several homes over the past year, I noticed that bookshelves of homes with teenagers are crammed with anything but books (can they still be called bookshelves then?).
Besides the books on Islam (tattered and in Malay, hence most likely owned by the parents), one or two volumes of Harry Potter or Twilight (a compulsory reading for the young female, apparently) and the unavoidable school textbooks and ten-year series, the shelves are lined with DVDs, games, intricate ornaments from weekend weddings, frames and in one home, a collection of dust accumulated throughout the years.
In fact, studies conducted in America have also concluded that the youth are reading a lot less, and that close to half of college graduates stop reading upon graduation. The trend is the same in Malaysia, where although literacy rates are high, only 3% of those who read regularly consume books.
For someone who regards books as the most loyal friend, this is a sign of the End of Times. Anne Lamott explained my feelings quite clearly when she said,
For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die. Anne Lamott
Connecting the dots, there could thus be no other reason as to why the Generation Zs – the youths of today glued to their gadgets, internet and entertainment – who have the libraries of the world at their fingertips, are still clueless about the lives of the world around them nor that which transpires from within themselves.
They are able to quote specific models of weapons (acquired from the likes of games like Counter-Strike or Grand Theft Auto) but not the atrocious violations against humanity that happen due to political wars fueled by oil in the Middle East. They clamber for the latest gadgets and branded items (at the expanse of exasperated parents) but are nonchalant of the blood and slavery that went into their production. They play all day in the wide terrain of the Internet and boast of their ‘interconnectivity’, but remain sadly unaware of their closed minds, cut off from the realities of the world.
Perhaps I am painting with too wide a paintbrush, but my experiences with teenagers of today have concluded the above. Perhaps a dose of MTV will help serve my point?
I believe that the long-term solution to curing the heedlessness of the current generation lies in inculcating reading from young. The answer seems simplistic, but as John Green, an American writer said,
Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book. John Green
Books contain answers to the world, and nothing could be further from the truth.
But for now, as I continue dodging bullets with the children of Afghanistan and begin a new round of evening walks through the fallacies of the American education system with author John Talor Gatto, my hands quietly and defiantly place a wrapped paperback next to my sleeping young relative – my gift of life for the future generation.