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What and how shall we read?

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Though it is said that Malawians do not read books, at the flea market in Blantyre some vendors sell nothing but second hand books. Apparently there must be a few people here and there who could gain from hints on reading.

Generally the books people read can be categorised into those that give knowledge and those that give pleasure. One man whose full details I do not have called Francis Gay-Gay had this to say about books:

“The rain may fall, the wind may howl, the night may be murky but what care I, wet or dry, a book upon my knee I read and read, adventure far stride down the years and find roes and find romance and thrill on sea or hill….. a book? And life seems kind.”

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To get so absorbed in reading, you must select carefully what books to read and define the purpose of reading. Life is short and time is made up of only 24 a day. Therefore read only the best books to derive out of them either profit or pleasure. Some well-written books do provide both profit and pleasure.

One question often asked is: should you read a wide range of books or only a few specialised ones? You should read a few books thoroughly so as to reach a high level of erudition in that field. If you are interested in law you will read as many good books on law as you can find especially in the branch you decide to specialise in.

However, some books, magazines and newspapers must be read with concentration because they bring you the knowledge expected of an educated person. Several times Dr. H. Kamuzu Banda would say he had decided to study for the Degree of Bachelor of Philosophy in history because he wanted to become an educated doctor. To be a doctor, lawyer and yet be totally ignorant of simple facts of other branches of knowledge is unbecoming of an educated man or woman.

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Because you are educated people expect you to have some rudiments on various branches of knowledge such as history, geography, social sciences or religion.

In some universities, abroad whatever faculty a student chooses they are required to read some classics such as Homer’s poems, standard histories of their country. Specialists in certain branches of knowledge have shocked me with their ignorance of what you would expect a well-educated person to have.

In 2002, I was on a plane from Guatemala to Quito when as we approached Quito, we were given immigration forms to complete. They were exclusively in Spanish and I just did not understand the language. The man sitting next to me helped me to complete the form.

“I come from Brazil,” he said, “Where do you come yourself?” I told him I came from Malawi. He racked his head to make sense of it. He said he had never heard of a country like that. I asked him if he knew a country called Mozambique and that Malawi and Mozambique were neighbours.

I was not amused that a Brazilian who spoke English so fluently had never heard of Malawi. How much of Africa did he know? I am not a geographer but if someone asked me where Honduras, Uruguay or Chile was I would not be at a loss.

Read a good book. Such a book is written in a lively style, with accurate information. Because the book is dealing with a serious subject it needs not be dull. Good books are written in very clear style. You do not have to be a philosopher to understand what Bertrand Russell is saying in his numerous essays. If you are studying for an exam or just to be thoroughly knowledgeable seek advice on the most representative book instead of reading books which treat the subject superficially.

Some people have taken much to reading poetry and fiction. They know Tolsloy, Agatha Christie, Jane Austen, Chinua Achebe and so on. They read for nothing but pleasure. Knowledge of any other subject does not attract them. This is unfortunate. Poetry and fiction are works of pure imagination. They do not deal with the realities of life. Reading confined to fiction hardly prepare for participation in public life which is both a right and a duty.

Many writers on motivational books begin with Samuel Smiles. The author of self-help stuff tells us that great people had been inspired by reading biographies or autobiographies of earlier great people. Among the general books to read you should always include a biography. If you have an ambition to achieve, biographies will have a lot to guide you. Biographies of generals like Napoleon or Shaka will show you that they suffered defeats before they won great victories.

Great writers received rejection slips before they wrote their best sellers. All biographies reveal that persistence is always behind success.

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