I have always been a bookworm, which is why I’m still shocked over the article I read a few weeks ago on the state of reading in the Arab world.
The article reminded me of an incident that occured last July, when a cousin and I were reading in a public park and an old lady approached us and started laughing, “Who reads books when they are in the presence of their friends! You should be laughing and joking, leave the books till later! Books are for boredom, didn’t you get enough reading during the school year?”
I was too amused to say anything (or at least anything nice, I had to a7tirem 7ali cause she’s old and all).
It also made me reflect on how essential reading was is in my life. A book is always a treasured gift, reading is always something joyful- as a child, a trip to the bookstore was more enjoyable than a trip to the toy store, now, I would much rather read a good book than watch a movie.
My affair with books started at a very young age. When I was too young to actually read, I filled my time with comic books, but they were soon replaced by Enid Blyton followed Ann Martin’s “The Baby Sitter’s Club” . Before I turned 12, I switched from children’s books to “young adult”, devouring almost every single book Christopher Pike wrote with a hungry passion(and which I still re-read every few years. Dude, he has awesome vampire fiction).
My nose was always buried in a book, and books kept piling and piling until shelves weren’t enough anymore and some had to be moved to boxes in the attic- I probably owned over 500 books by the time I was 14 (open the first page of three quarters of the second hand children’s books at Books@Cafe and you will find “Ruba Assi” messily scribbled on the top right-hand corner).
Fiction wasn’t the only thing I read. One of my earliest reading-related recollections happened around the time I was 9 years old. My grandfather had passed away a few years earlier and had bequeathed my mother his startling collection of books. Being an avid lover of the written word, I had picked up one of the “easiest” books around (easy being relative to the encyclopedias on philosophy, politics, and religion that lined up the shelves), a tattered and ancient copy of “The New Medicine Show”, which, if my memory serves me correctly, was published in 1977. Filled with technical jargon and scientific concepts that a 9-years-old kid couldn’t possibly have understood, I read the obsolete book from cover to cover anyway, several times. I remember being fascinated by the difference between paracetamol and aspirin, being curious about the effects of the food allergies with which I suffered, and amazed at the various OTC treatments available for various ailments.
The New Medicine Show was only the start of a trend that included reading a lot of stuff that didn’t make sense to me, because in the pre-internet world, I also had a certain affection towards encyclopedias, which I spent hours pouring over. Even to this day, I still have a tendency to read things which are way too specialized, but with the help of Google and Wikipedia, “difficult to understand” is a phrase that doesn’t exist anymore.
By the time I was 13 and a little after the advent of the internet into my life, my reading became more adult and more niched towards historical fiction and science fiction, with a strong love of Anne Rice and J. R. R. Tolkein. Among my favorite ever reads are “Memoirs of a Geisha“(which I first read when I was 14), “Summer Sisters“(hi Nisreen), “Wicked“, and “The Da Vinci Code“.
All this said, I must stress on the fact a link does not neccessarily have to exist between isolation and a love of reading- although many Arabs seem to believe so. I’m a social person by nature, and some of my sweetest memories involve group reading activities, something quite common in the society that I grew up in.
Unfortunately, due to lack of time (and way too much online reading ;) ), I don’t read as many novels as I used to. A lot of people here hold the stance that novels are “silly” and “worthless”, but I personally believe that novels have had a much more drastic influence on my writing and style than other types of content. Admittedly, I still read too much content daily than I could possibly retain, and perhaps more than the average Jordanian would read in a month, but my average of two novels a week has dropped to around a novel every two months. Most of my novel reading is done in classes (thanks to a listening concentration span of exactly 128 seconds, my ears just don’t work damnit) or in the car while waiting for street lights to turn green.
But I’m digressing. Walt Disney said, “There is more treasure in books than in all the pirate’s loot on Treasure Island”, which brings me back to my intitial shock- why do we as Arabs fail to appreciate the treasure in books? When did you read your first book? What are your favorite books? Why do you think Arabs dislike reading?