Are you prepared to take our reading challenge?

Deborah Williams contemplates the value of words on a page

The Sharjah International Book Fair. is an annual reminder of our interest in reading. Antonie Robertson / The National
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It’s the year of reading. Given that I’m a literature professor by training, I think celebrating reading all year long is a great idea. But at the same time, isn’t there something a little depressing about the need to have such a celebration?

These celebrations usually celebrate the uncelebrated. Has there ever been a year of Call of Duty? Or an international year of Facebook? Is there an international day of texting, or a year in which we celebrate Snapchat? Many countries have a secretary's day, for instance, but nowhere is there a CEO day.

We have to celebrate reading because, apparently, no one reads any more. The business pages regularly sound the death knell of print publishing, and in book stores in Abu Dhabi and elsewhere, books ring the periphery or cluster at the back, behind Lego, games and sparkly pens. Only Thrift Bookstore, tucked away on Hamdan Street, offers the joy of an overstuffed bookstore, cluttered with hidden treasures and obscure titles.

And yet we all seem to be reading all the time – but in ever shorter snippets, about the length of a traffic light. We idle at the red light, scrolling through status updates, texts and tweets, snapchats, headline news. Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to get through an intersection in Abu Dhabi: we’re all on our devices, reading.

But of course, that’s not the sort of reading that the year of reading wants to encourage. It’s decoding words, sure, but it’s not the fully immersive experience that happens when a book merges its world with yours. Whether you’re a reader of fiction or non-fiction, whether you like detective stories, romances or biographies, a good book transports you, sometimes to worlds not your own, and sometimes back into yourself, enabling you to see yourself more clearly.

This immersive experience, I’ve learnt, doesn’t just happen. It has to be learnt; we have to move beyond decoding or tracking the plot. We can’t expect to be transported by bullet points in a textbook. It’s like the difference between speeding down the runway and lifting into the sky; the muscles of imagination that lift us into the sky need to be trained, like anything else.

When I was little, I had a book called Look Out For Pirates!, which I demanded that my mother read to me every night. The escapades of those daring pirates whisked me out of my landlocked Midwestern childhood and into a thrilling world of adventure – or as thrilling as one-syllable words and short sentences can be. The first time I read the book to myself (essentially having memorised it), I became a pirate, swashbuckling and brave (it was a children’s book: these were nice pirates, not bad guys).

Do you remember learning to read? Laboriously sounding out the words, trying to fit them together in uneasy puzzles? Do you remember the day the words snapped into focus and the book’s pictures started to play on the screen of your mind? That’s the imaginative act we need to learn: how to let those images become our own, different from the crafted images from a movie studio or TV show. The more we read, the stronger that imaginative muscle becomes.

My students sometimes ask me why they should bother to read outside of class, and because books have been a part of my life from even before those pirates of my childhood, I never know how to answer that question. A few years ago, though, an Egyptian student gave me a great answer: he said that he’d been told by his father to read only textbooks in high school because fiction was a waste of time. Then before coming to university, he read The Reluctant Fundamentalist and, he said: “The whole world was in there. I learnt so much, even the parts I didn’t like.”

You may not have read (or liked) The Reluctant Fundamentalist, but the amazing thing about books is that they all hold other worlds inside. Take the challenge of this year of reading to explore those worlds – and yourself. Who knows: if we all keep reading, maybe we won’t need another year of celebration.

Deborah Lindsay Williams is professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi