An illiterate person is one who does not know how to learn, unlearn and relearn. On Teachers’ Day, during the interaction with the Prime Minister, a valid point was made about the futility of just accumulating degrees that mean nothing. What is the point of having graduation and postgraduation degrees with no skills — be it hard skills or soft skills?
Functional literacy is important. It helps an individual contribute effectively with the knowledge acquired through formal education. In a fast changing world, one has to keep abreast of developments in various fields and for this, books are invaluable. Education is not just about learning what we do not know. It is about learning to live gracefully and peacefully with other people. Books have an important role in shaping people’s culture. Men may come and go but their thoughts continue to influence humanity through their books.
The word ‘library’ is derived from the Latin word ‘liber’ meaning book. Historically, every civilisation has encouraged the collection of thoughts in tablets, palm leaves, etc at a central place as an archive of records which gradually grew as a centre for sharing knowledge.
A temple in the Babylonian town of Nippur in the first half of third millennium BC was found to have rooms filled with clay tablets suggesting well-stacked archival writings. History is replete with references to rulers of Rome, Greece, Persia, Egypt, Byzantine, the Islamic world, China, Asia Minor, who established libraries with a huge collection of books on varied subjects. Emperor Shih Huang-ti, a member of the Ch’in dynasty and the ruler of the first unified Chinese empire, rebuilt historical records. The university of Nalanda, which reached its zenith during the Gupta dynasty, was a centre for learning and had a large collection of books. The library was located in a nine-storey building where meticulous copies of texts were produced.
A leading figure in the transformation of library services was Antonio Panizzi, who was knighted by the king. He was a political refugee from Italy and began working for the British Museum in 1831. He served as the principal librarian from 1856 to 1866. It is to his credit that library administration witnessed revolutionary changes. He laid down principles of library management, saying that books in a library should match their declared objectives. He also showed what these objectives should be for a great national library. He perceived the importance of a good catalogue and set a complete code of rules for cataloguers. He saw the potential of libraries in a modern community as instruments of study and research that could be made available to all. He planned the British Museum reading room, added to the book stacks and showed the importance of libraries and availability of good literature.
Once Swami Vivekananda was sick. The physician who attended him advised him complete rest and told him to avoid travelling. As advised, he confined himself to the ashram at Belur and spent time reading the Encyclopedia Brittannica. As he was poring over the volumes, one of his disciples curiously asked him how he could continuously read the voluminous information in those books. Vivekananda replied that he was not just browsing but was studying and retaining what he read. He challenged the disciple to question him from any of the volumes that he’d studied. And unsurprisingly, he was able to answer every question that the disciple posed. That is the power of concentration and the wealth of information that books can provide. Lord Bacon rightly said, “some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested.” He meant that some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly and with diligence and attention.
Bhagat Singh, the freedom fighter, was found reading a book by Karl Marx before he was to be hanged. To the wonderstruck jailers, he said that he was bonding with the great thinker through his writings! After completing the book, he was taken to the gallows where he bravely embraced death.
With the spread and reach of the Internet, there is a general feeling that the number of people reading books has come down. There is so much of distraction among the youth with a plethora of content available online — the good, the bad and the ugly. So it’s all the more important to inculcate the reading habit in the younger generation so that the habit does not die out. Books are wonderful companions and one can never be lonely with books around.
World Book Day is an annual event celebrated on April 23. It is organised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to promote reading. The day coincides with day of remembrance for two great literary giants — Shakespeare and Cervantes — who died on that day. World Book Day was first celebrated on April 23, 1995.
It is books that humanise us, give us a worldwide view and make us global citizens.