As a nation upon whom meditation, deep reflection, solitude and focused thought are incumbent, the death of reading symbolises the death of our souls. The woody smell of rich, layered words on old brown edged pages that crackle, as you turn them, is lost to us. Verses lie forgotten, other worlds decay untouched and the wisdom and potency that books carry within their dusty spines remain a silent secret. You’ll find us in the shiny shopping malls, the cinemas, shisha cafes and on sofas in front of the TV, as the dust shimmers on the bookshelves of libraries untouched.
‘A book is like a garden in the pocket’ – Chinese proverb
The first verb, and in fact the first word revealed to the Prophet SAW was ‘Read”. Knowing that this revelation, the Quran, is the seal of revelation to humanity and the most powerful link we have to God, the very first command issued to us is a clear indication of the necessity and significance of reading as the primary building material and path to approach, know and reach our Lord. The word ‘Quran’ linguistically derives from the root meaning ‘to read, recite/repeat’, lending the act of reading in and of itself the honoured status of an act of worship. Another meaning for the Quran is the ‘Book’, and combined with the primary command given to us; ‘read’, it should be evident to us that the base of Islam is rooted here. That the source of preservation of knowledge and the means of growing human understanding, the book, manifests through participating in the fundamental action of reading. This key concept reaches further than religious text and sacred knowledge, to the wider context of all knowledge and beneficial content.
The Muslim world has well and truly lost the art of reading. Seeking solace and companionship with books is a rapidly disappearing phenomenon, a tragedy considering the rich history of elevation of books and reading that actually fed into our success as an ummah. Ronsenthal writes in ‘Knowledge Triumphant; within Medieval Islam’; ‘The concept of knowledge achieved its unique triumph in Islam.’
The thirst for knowledge was not limited to Islamic content, and included material that opposed and disagreed with Muslim beliefs, as well as diverse and cultural literature.The loss of this potent fountain that forms the prerequisite for any society’s development and progress stems from too much focus on military and technical knowledge, intersocietal corruption, loss of religious endowment institutions and the accompanying of state politics. Nowadays, the decline has been bolstered by the global decline in reading, triggered by the development of the internet and technology. Not a single one of the top 56 publishing houses in the world today is located in the Muslim world, nor are the top-selling and most widely read (non-scripture) books are written by Muslims. Contemporary book culture simply does not exist in the Muslim world (outside of one’s academic speciality), and accompanying this crisis is the inevitable creeping in of fundamental ignorance.
I spent most of my (home-schooled) childhood sat in trees devouring books. I read sci-fi, contemporary literature, historical and political novels as well as vast range of non-fiction. I could not sit without reading something, be it the back of a cereal box or even the Yellow Pages. I would sneak a torch under the covers and read till the early hours (not advised, this ruins your eyesight!) and was well and truly addicted. The smell of a library is incredibly nostalgic for me and through books, I lived through wars, experienced cultures from all corners of the globe, gained knowledge of politics, justice and race, and provided a wondrous escape, into worlds of beauty, adventure and fascination. I got through around 5 or 6 books a week on average.
When I reached university, however, it was a different story. The internet and accessing the world of social media began to cripple my mind to lose focus after a paragraph at max.
The bombardment of headlines and clickbait and images upon images changed something within my brain. I was reading fewer books, and could not commit to finishing the ones that required more intellectual activity.
The scientific explanation for this is simple, when we learn something new and fast, a dopamine rush ensues, stimulating the brain’s pleasure centre. This pleasure is short-lived and addictive, similar to the effect of intoxicating drugs. Analysing technology, emails, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat stimulation also trigger this response. In the words of Nicholas Carr;“Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”
The world is losing the art of deep reading, and this is having detrimental consequences for our brains. Focused concentration, patience and imagination seem too much to ask of our society raised on instant images, flashing lights, headlines and incessant scrolling. Elon Musk was raised reading two books a day. Zuckerberg (ironically) reads at least one book every fortnight and Bill Gates reads 50 books per year. Some of the greatest minds in the world clearly recognise the need for reading books. It requires less energy to focus intently than to scroll and whizz from one thing to the next as we do so often. Hence why we are so chronically fatigued and no better off for it. IF we were to have read a book deeply for one hour, we are less tired and neurochemically drained, leaving us more knowledgeable, calmer and overall more capable of addressing mental challenges. Perhaps the answers to the question of why as a nation we are not flourishing intellectually, politically, or socially lie somewhere in this realm?
We owe it to ourselves, our ancestors and future generations to work hard to rebuild ourselves the necessary environment to protect from the toxic and damaging environment in which we live, and to allow ourselves to enter the sacred space of real reading.
“Books are delightful society. If you go into a room and find it full of books, even without taking them from the shelves they seem to speak to you, to bid you welcome.” – William E Gladstone, 1809-1898.
Imagine visiting a hundred cities in a day, wandering across centuries in a weekend. A holiday that spans the globe and the universe. I speak not of a sci-fi time travel film, but of a most breathtaking and brilliant resource, only a few hours drive from the centre of England. Gladstone Library is an utterly exquisite collection of books, housed in a charming Listed building in the Welsh countryside. But it gets better. You can sleep there. Yes, that’s right, you never have to leave! No librarians pestering you to leave at closing time and no overdue library book fines. You never have to put your book down because you can simply hop on up to your boutique bedroom and continue reading it there. What could be better than escaping the chaos of life and allowing your tired, overwhelmed body sink into a plush leather armchair while you’re tired, overwhelmed mind is filled with the wonder and enchantment that only a good book can bestow?
If like me, you find a certain holiness and meditative tranquillity in the silence of a library, where the only sound is the rustle of well-worn pages being turned, then you will be sure to find a healing and sense of peace in the hundreds of thousands of books adorning the wooden shelves of Gladstone. William Gladstone was once the Prime Minister of Britain and a lover of books. Following his death, Britain’s first residential library was founded; Gladstone Library in Hawarden, North Wales is a tribute to his love affair with the written word.
Incredibly, a large number of the books in Gladstone Library were actually the personal property of the man himself, who acquired a huge personal collection of books across his lifespan.
The accumulation of his priceless treasure began as a child when Hannah More gifted him a copy of her book ‘Sacred Dramas’, and continued through his time studying at Eton and The University of Oxford. You are likely to pick up a book that has his handwriting scrawled across the pages as he frequently annotated them, and this intimate and deep relationship he had with his books extended to the point when he decided to make his collection public. In 1889, when he had exceeded eighty years old, he took it upon himself to physically transfer (many of them by wheelbarrow) over 32,000 of his books from his “Temple of Peace” at Hawarden Castle to a public building for the library. On this topic he said; “What man”, he wrote, “who really loves his books delegates to any other human being, as long as there is breath in his body, the office of introducing them into their homes?”
Following the wheelbarrow trips and the opening of the library, after Gladstone’s death, money was raised for the current building and the library now houses over 200,000 volumes of history, theology, philosophy, art, classics and fiction.The library has been described as ‘a temple of learning, a place for restful meditation, for research, mental and spiritual refreshment and stimulus – and this amid charming natural surroundings, at the feet of the Welsh mountains’ by James Cape.
Beginning at an affordable £66 for a room, this hidden gem is very accessible as hotels and holidays go. Be it for a weekend break or a little holiday, be it to provide inspiration to finally finish that manuscript, or simply to detox, rejuvenate and reawaken the mind, the library/hotel combination will not disappoint. A sanctuary for bibliophiles, students, scholars, researchers, writers and basically anyone who appreciates the art of reading, will appreciate this literary sleepover.
Other ways we can revive this key element of our faith and identity, include nurturing a love for books and stories in our children from a young age (this has to be authentic, we can’t expect our children to become attached to books if they never see us read). Bedtime stories, book clubs, reading competitions, investment in book publication and authors, attending literary festivals (such as the Hay-on-Wye festival in Summer) and making books a key part of family and community life. Excellent books can be bought very cheaply from charity shops/markets, and your local library would love your presence! Rethink your perspective on this lost art, see lifelong learning as an act of worship and God willing, the blessings that accompany its implementation in your life will be countless.
Pick a book today and commit to reading a certain amount per week, for the sake of honouring the Divine command ‘Read’, and you may just find you can’t put it down!