The joy of books and the rewards of a lifetime of reading

My life would have been nothing without the gift from my late beloved parents

Choice is very important for any reader. The National / Getty
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For me, growing up in the ancient university city of Cambridge in the 1950s, was a world away from the life today’s children lead. Books were important to my family, both in terms of the value of the information they imparted and the vital link to education, but also for the enjoyment from reading stories.

I’m often asked if books are irrelevant now, with everything available on the internet, minute-by-minute news updates and a glut of instant titbits.

I will try my best to share my thoughts and beliefs in why books are as important, if not even more so than they were in my childhood.

Let me start with a quotation from Marcus Tullius Cicero (born 106 BCE): “Read at every wait; read at all hours; read within leisure; read in times of labour; read as one goes in; read as one goes out. The task of the educated mind is simply put, read to lead.”

The key words for me are "read to lead". Reading widely and regularly allows us to form opinions, to develop critical thinking skills, to gain knowledge on every conceivable subject, to formulate arguments to back up our points of view, to understand that often there is no one way, no one right answer, and to develop empathy. Aren’t these attributes essential traits that a leader needs?

Take the example of the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling; 500 million copies already sold and still counting. I witnessed this phenomenon, of so many children suddenly reading for pleasure, excited about the stories, the next book, the characters. It became cool to read! Those young readers will vividly remember reading the first volume, and how the plot, the characters populated their imaginations, allowed their minds to expand, ideas to flourish, words to magically create vivid, unforgettable scenes.

My life would have been nothing without the gift of reading from my late beloved parents

Let’s start at the beginning of our journey through that magic door into the world of books. A lucky, lucky baby will be born into a home where there are books for everyone, even a baby; that parents and family take time to read to their children every day, that bedtime stories are an essential part of a child’s routine, unwinding before sleep and sweet dreams. It is never too early to start reading to your offspring.

Babies love books: bright colours, lift the flaps, touch and feel, animals, cars, dinosaurs, a page to turn to find out what’s next. Tastes in the kind of books that a child enjoys, starts early in life. A toddler will want to return to the same book again and again. With my seven young grandchildren, each one of them likes different books, and I always make sure that there are plenty of books for them, that they can pull off the shelves and bring to me to read. Choice is very important for any reader; we need access and exposure to a wide variety of genres so we can find our favourites.

School students inside the Darra Adam Khel Library in Darra Adamkhel town, some 35 kilometres (20 miles) south of Peshawar, on December 14, 2022. AFP

What does scientific statistical research tell us about the benefits of children being read to from the earliest age?

Pre-school children, who grow up in a home where books are available, who are read to regularly, whose parents read themselves, where books are discussed, will have a better than average vocabulary, be more confident, have better mental health, will have developed empathy, and an understanding of the world outside their actual experience. These children start school with a clear advantage over their peers who have not had the same engagement with books and reading. They also undertake the process of learning to read, with a more positive mindset, because they know that books are enjoyable, and they want to be able to read for themselves.

Once parents realise their key role in their own child’s development, I’m sure they will make every effort to give their child the priceless gift of reading for pleasure and allow them to flourish at school and achieve excellent academic success. There is a mistaken belief by many parents that it is the school’s responsibility to educate their child. Education, in the broadest sense, starts the day a child is born. Moral values, kindness, healthy food, exercise, fun and books are areas that require parents and families to make the right choices every day.

We can become a reader at any age, but the human brain is at its peak during the first seven years of life, so please make the most of it. I would like to share two results of what happens to us, when we are read to, or read: our blood pressure decreases and our heartbeat slows, both signs of relaxation and stress release. The opposite frequently happens when we spend time on social media.

My life would have been nothing without the gift from my late beloved parents: instilling in me a love of books and reading in my early years. I loved school and I am so grateful to my teachers and librarians, who guided my journey through literature, until I was ready to fly solo.

Since arriving in this amazing country, in 1968, my working life has been dedicated to a single vision; helping people, particularly young ones, fall in love with books and reading.

The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature's 15th edition will be held from February 1-6. Courtesy Emirates Literature Foundation

My efforts culminated in founding the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in 2008 to allow readers or those who don’t yet enjoy reading, a chance to meet the inspirational writers, poets, and speakers, up close and personal, who can help change their lives for the better.

At the Emirates Literature Foundation, that oversees all the initiatives, including the flagship festival, we have a year-round calendar of programmes, for schools and universities, for writers and for the whole ecosystem of literature, in Arabic and English.

We are celebrating the 15th anniversary of the Litfest from February 1-6 in Dubai at the Intercontinental Festival City and the Mohammed Bin Rashid Library: 270 authors, 300-plus events, something for everyone. Whether you are 2 or 92 years old, it could be your chance to discover new ideas. We guarantee that it will be a meaningful and memorable experience for you, your family and your friends.

Published: January 27, 2023, 6:00 PM
Updated: January 29, 2023, 10:23 AM