(April 23, Shakespeare’s birthday, was World Book Day. It passed unnoticed in Jamaica.)


A recent poll on the BBC internet site chose Johannes Gutenberg, the creator of the printing press, as the greatest inventor of the millennium. Surely he was the right choice, for no invention of the past thousand years has so changed society. Before the development of  printing in about 1450, the number of manuscripts in Europe could be counted in thousands. Fifty years later there were more than 9,000,000 books. The printing press took knowledge from the province of a privileged few and made it available to all. If knowledge is power, this was the greatest empowerment of the people in history.


There are few greater divisions in humanity than that between the literate and illiterate. It is virtually impossible to explain to someone who has no experience of the process what it is to be able to interpret the written word. To read is to fly, for books allow the mind to soar through time and space, and to survey at will a virtually limitless expanse of peoples and ideas. A being thus equipped might not be happier, since to know more can be to feel more and the ground note of history often seems a cry of pain. But though much learning may mean much sorrow, an informed and examined life is one experienced incomparably more richly.


The difference between literate and illiterate cultures is perhaps even greater than that between individuals. To be sure societies with no systems of writing can create mighty empires and great art, as did the Aztecs, Incas and the people of Benin. But we know about these only what literate cultures have written about them. A people who do not record their own history might as well have never been, for in the eyes of posterity the undocumented past does not exist. (Historians, goes the old joke, are able to do what is impossible even for God -they can change the past.) All great religions have been based on the written word – the Bible, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Upanishads, the Tipitaka and the Koran. Books are above all the memory of peoples’ actions, thoughts and beliefs.


Some argue that the telephone, radio, cinema and television have rendered the written word obsolete. But though the electronic media undoubtedly spreads information more easily and rapidly than the printed page, they do so in a much more superficial manner. The spoken word is always subject to emotional manipulations and inevitably lends itself to simplistic generalizations. Only the printed word allows detailed analysis and objective comparisons of differing points of view. Countries have written laws and constitutions, not recorded ones. It is no accident that the most successful societies have the highest reading levels.


Trinidad, Barbados and Jamaica have almost identical historical backgrounds and political systems. Yet our cousins have been far more successful in providing economic necessities for their citizens. Why? In my opinion primarily because they have a more literate electorate and hence one less easily swayed by rhetorical beguilements and better able to link long term cause and effect. World Bank figures put Trinidad’s and Barbados’ illiteracy rates at 2% and 3% respectively. Jamaica’s is officially 15%, but anyone with a practical knowledge of this country knows that the real level of functional illiteracy is much higher, especially for men. Indeed official statistics, supplied by Zoie Anderson of the Department of Correctional Services, show that 57% of male prisoners are illiterate. (The figure for females is only 13%. Jamaica is the only country on earth with significantly more illiterate men than women.) There is undoubtedly a strong link between illiteracy and crime.


A half-literate populace can hardly be expected to express its needs and wants clearly or to fully understand the issues which keep public officials fully accountable. A people who can not read and write properly will never assimilate knowledge and technology efficiently or become generally computer literate, and will be left even further behind in the information age. The argument that Jamaicans are people from an orally based tradition is irrelevant in the globalization era, where the only choice is to adapt or die


(Not that Jamaica does not produce books. Ian Randle Publishers and Kingston Publishers have done yeomen work in trying to educate this country. Ian Randle in particular is likely the largest black publisher in the Commonwealth and probably the largest black publisher outside the USA. He is literally creating a documented history of Jamaica and the West Indies. In the last two years alone he has published ‘The Story of The Caribbean People’, ‘The Story of The Jamaican People’, ‘Reggae Routes: The Story of Jamaican Music’, and ‘Modern Jamaican Art’. But Ian Randle sells far more books abroad than in Jamaica. If he had to depend on the local market alone, he would probably have gone bankrupt.)


The problem is only compounded by having an elite which is unwilling to read. Because most so-called ‘educated’ Jamaicans read so little and are therefore shallowly informed about the larger world, their views on matters outside their normal experience often have little rhyme or reason.  Few ascribe to the common sense adage that a man should remain silent about matters of which he knows nothing. Many rather seem to think that volume is a valid substitute for knowledge, and that opinions shouted at the top of one’s voice have merit whether they are logical or not.


People trying to make ends meet have little time for theoretical niceties. The tone of national debate is always set by those with enough leisure and education to ponder ways of bettering the country. Which is why few states with an ignorant and apathetic elite develop successful economies or stable societies. Jamaica is exhibit one.


“Reading maketh the full man” said Francis Bacon. It also maketh the full nation.

Comments (0)

Post a Comment
* Your Name:
* Your Email:
(not publicly displayed)
Reply Notification:
Approval Notification:
* Security Image:
Security Image Generate new
Copy the numbers and letters from the security image:
* Message: