God's Second Greatest Gift to Mankind

Published: Sunday | December 6, 2009
Kevin O'Brien Chang, Contributor

The following is an excerpt of a speech given at the National Library's 30th Anniversary Awards Dinner

Sometimes in idle moments I contemplate life's blessings, and make a list of the things that bring me the most joy. Number three on my happiness list is cricket, lovely, cricket. No other game, and indeed few other pastimes, produces such moments of beauty. Watching a great innings unfold is, to me, like seeing a gorgeous painting being created before your very eyes. My idea of paradise includes Brian Lara batting at one end and Gary Sobers at the other, both playing glorious strokes all around the wicket. Although the way the West Indies are playing these days, I might soon have to find a new number three!

Now when it comes to number one and number two, I always get a little confused. There's no doubt about the two things I love the most. But I can never quite make up my mind - which is the Lord's greatest gift to mankind, women or books?

Of course, as Warrior King sang a few years back, "A real man can't live without a woman, like night and day is a woman to her man." And as the Italian proverb says, "A beautiful woman is the strongest evidence in favour of the existence of God." So I guess if push ever comes to shove women would have to be number one. But books do have a big advantage. While a man is not supposed to have more than one woman, we can indulge in as many books at a time as we please.

Greatest inventor

A BBC poll in 2000 chose Johannes Gutenberg, who invented the printing press, as the greatest inventor of the millennium. (And I apologise here for my Western-centric presentation. But we are, after all, an English-speaking country). Gutenberg was surely the right choice, for no invention of the past thousand years has changed society as much. When printing was developed in about 1450, the number of manuscripts in Europe were counted in thousands. Fifty years later, there were almost 10 million books.

Before the printing press, written information was the province of a few privileged aristocrats. But now it has become available to all. If knowledge is strength, this was the greatest empowerment of people in history.

The written word gives our brains almost unlimited powers, for reading allows our minds to soar through time and space. With books we can survey at will an infinite range of peoples and ideas.

Some say movies and TV and DVDs have made the written word obsolete. But though the electronic media spreads information more easily than the printed page, they do it in a superficial manner. A person who has read many good books is admiringly referred to as 'well read'. But I've never heard anyone who watches a lot of television paid the compliment of being 'well watched'.

Objective comparisons

Countries have written laws and constitutions, not videotaped or DVD-recorded ones. This is because books remain the most efficient way of analysing detailed knowledge. Only the printed word allows objective comparisons of different points of view. It's no accident that the most successful societies have the highest reading levels.

Now, one of Jamaica's most glaring problems is our gender-educational disparity. Girls outperform boys at all levels of school, and the University of the West Indies is now 80 per cent female. How can we stop our boys from falling further behind? One way is to get them to read more. Our parents should pay attention to the '100 books' factor, for studies show that children from homes with 100 books or more do well in school regardless of race, religion or socio-economic background. So if you want your children to do well in school, fill the house with books!

We must teach our boys that far from being a pastime for sissies, as so many of them seem to think, reading is the ultimate source of power. Countries with high literacy rates will always dominate those with low literacy rates, economically and otherwise. "Reading maketh the full man," said Francis Bacon. It also maketh the full nation.

In-depth examination

Only the written word allows in-depth examination and reflective comparison. Only the written word can preserve and convey our deepest emotions and thoughts. Which is why all higher religions are based on written texts - for instance, the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, the Tripitaka, and the Koran. The prophet of Islam, Mohammed, called those whose beliefs he considered worthy of respect "people of the book".

The most profound, transforming, and lasting works of art are those of literature. The history of western figurative art really begins with Giotto in the 14th century. And western music as we know it only goes back to Palestrina in the 1500s. But the Epic of Gilgamesh, the first known work of literature, is over 4,000 years old.

Man has never discovered a more profound means of expression. Even the Cassandras who tell us that books are dying have found no better way to do so than in writing.

Essential principle

Books may soon be computer- rather than paper-based. And the Internet is completely changing the way knowledge is stored and transmitted. But the computer monitor will not alter the reading process. The Sumerians - who invented writing - wrote on clay tablets. The Egyptians used papyrus. The Greeks recorded on parchment. We use paper. The next generation will mostly read from LED screens. But the essential principle remains the same.

Books are the carriers of civilisation, the repository of peoples' actions, thoughts and beliefs. Scripta manet, verba volat - which is Latin for 'What is written remains, what is spoken vanishes'. Societies with no systems of writing can create mighty empires and great art, as did the Aztecs, the Incas, and the Kingdom of Benin. But all we know about how these peoples lived and what these peoples thought is what literate cultures wrote about them.

The Tainos inhabited Jamaica for perhaps a thousand years. The Spanish were here for less than 200 years. But the Spanish had writing while the Tainos did not.

What did the Tainos feel when they first saw Columbus' ships? What did they think of the Spanish guns and swords? What was their view of the Catholic religion of these invaders? We have no idea. All we really know about the Tainos and their culture is what the Spanish chose to record.

Not to write down your own story, then, condemns you to having your story told by others. Or to be forgotten forever. We know virtually nothing, for example, of the Ciboneys who inhabited Jamaica before the Tainos. To posterity, a people who did not document their history might as well have never existed.

Written and preserved

History may be written by victors, but it's also written by writers, and preserved in libraries. Which means that a nation's archivers may well have an even greater impact on its accepted past than its generals, or politicians, or musicians, or artists. Over time, the pen is not only mightier than the sword, it is more stirring than speeches, louder than music, brighter than art. As the old joke goes, historians can do what is impossible even for God; they are able to change the past.

This is why the National Library of Jamaica is so vital to the country. By collecting and documenting all printed and recorded information, on the nation's past and present, it is, in essence, acting as the memory bank of the country. Whatever noteworthy deeds and accomplishments our countrymen and women have achieved, or will achieve, it is the National Library which will be the ultimate preserver of their greatness.

And by facilitating access to the nation's cultural heritage, the National Library is enabling all Jamaicans to learn about their history. Because, in the words of Marcus Garvey, a people without knowledge of self is like a tree without roots. If you don't know where you are coming from, you can't know where you are going.

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