The same is true today. Reading is closely linked to greater academic success and wealth. And its importance is only set to increase over the coming years, as the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” gathers pace and knowledge-intensive, high-tech and creative industries become an ever greater part of our economies. Those countries with the highest levels of reading and learning are likely to be those which prosper most in the new global economy.
There are other benefits to reading, too. We all know that going to the gym regularly is great for our physical fitness, but it’s less well known that reading books regularly is like a workout for the brain. Reading stimulates the mind. Unlike watching television or playing video games, books rely completely on the reader to use their imagination for the work to come alive. “The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp,” commented the legendary science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin, who died last month. “The reader, reading it, makes it live: A live thing, a story.”
In fact, there is even evidence suggesting it could make you live longer: A study from the Yale University School of Public Health suggested that reading for half an hour a day could add two years to your life. The researchers found that reading books stimulated the brain, improving vocabulary, reasoning, concentration, and critical thinking. It also promoted social skills, such as empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence.
So, if reading is so good for us, why don’t we do more of it? There are plenty of reasons — from lack of time to lack of money, and our growing addiction to smartphones and social media. The Arab world faces particular challenges, including piracy, weak distribution networks, economic pressure and a lack of public libraries. Reading for pleasure has also traditionally been seen as something reserved for intellectuals and the elite, rather than part of mainstream culture. Reading rates are believed to be lower than other parts of the world with similar income levels. This is reflected in the low number of new books the region publishes each year. A 2014 report by Frankfurt Book Fair estimated annual publishing levels at between 15,000 and 18,000 new titles, equivalent to the total output of Romania or Ukraine. Such figures have sparked debate about a “reading crisis” in the region.
However, the situation is changing rapidly. Nationwide literacy is still a relatively new phenomenon — only 59 percent of the region’s population could read as recently as 1990, compared to 78 percent in 2010. As a result, reading for pleasure is only now starting to go mainstream. Interest is particularly high in the Gulf, where purchasing power is higher. New book stores and reading groups have appeared in recent years, and the book market in the UAE alone is thought to stand at $272 million.
Children need strong role models at home to encourage them to take up a book and enjoy it, giving them the best chance of ultimately receiving the academic, financial and even physical benefits reading can offer.
Government initiatives, such as the UAE’s national reading law, are seeking to make reading a daily habit. Introduced in 2016, the law provides for tax-free books, libraries in shopping malls and dedicated reading times during work hours for government employees. In the tech field, the growth of e-books — which make it easier to access books on smartphones —are set to further increase reading levels in the region.
But, in the long term, the most successful initiatives will be the ones targeted at children. Starting young is key to developing a culture of reading in adults. In particular, children need strong role models in the home to encourage them to take up a book and enjoy reading it. If your parents read to you as a child, or read for pleasure in front of you, then you are more likely to read regularly as an adult. In the UK, a program called Bookstart gives parents free books, which they can use to encourage their child to read as early as possible. The UAE has started a similar scheme with its “knowledge briefcase” for pre-schoolers.
Back in Jerusalem, the passion for reading started by Mohammed Al-Khalidi more than 300 years ago is still kept alive and well by his family, who remain guardians of the library today. Perhaps we should all “take a leaf out of the book” of the Al-Khalidis, and nurture a life-long love of reading within our families. We could all be happier, healthier and wealthier as a result.
• Alison Baily is an international affairs analyst, specializing in the Middle East and cultural issues. She currently works for the British Council, the UK’s international organization for cultural relations and educational opportunities. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of the British Council.