Fat cat on the mat: the first step to freedom

A few weeks ago my son started reading. Okay, it’s not riveting stuff (fat cat on the mat, fox on a box, this is my Dad, and so on), but the delight on his face is a pleasure to behold and makes the mommy heart swell with pride.  Soon he will be reading “proper” sentences, paragraphs, stories, books — and new worlds will open up for him, worlds in which I will have no part, because reading is an activity that engages each reader’s imagination differently. Learning to read is the first step to freedom.

By reading you start to see things around you in a new light, you get to experience new points of view, you light up niches in your conscience and the outside world that would otherwise remain mysterious and feared.

Reading lets your mind soar free, engages your imagination and helps you add to the ever-evolving edifice of what makes you you.  And—here is the important thing—you are free to accept or reject what is presented to you as you read. Reading empowers you, and when you are empowered, you become free.

I can’t imagine not being able to read, or being prevented from reading what I want and, as a corollary, from thinking what I want because of what I have read.  Our imagination and our skills in thinking, discriminating, and arguing are nurtured by our ability to read.

In our society we take it for granted that children must learn to read—literacy is the cornerstone of our education, and rightly so. Because only by being able to read can we access information and make informed choices, all of which empowers us and makes us more self-reliant. We don’t have to depend on demagogues or snake-oil salesmen to tell us what we can or cannot think and do.  (Unfortunately, being able to read does not necessarily translate into an ability to think for ourselves, or to dare to think for ourselves, but that is another topic). The ability to read enables us to become self-directed, confident, and educated in ways that an illiterate person would have a hard time achieving.

And yet this right to reading and education is not universal. Just look at the Afghani teenager who was shot in the face for daring to speak up for girls’ education. (Malala Yousafzai). Or other Afghani girls subjected to vicious attacks just because they wanted to go to school. Whenever a new oppressive regime arises, the first thing it does is attack education and literacy, often using intimidating measures to stop people from reading and thinking. Oppression becomes so much easier when you prevent people from becoming free and self-directed individuals with the ability and desire to make their own choices. Reading is the first step towards the kind of freedom we take for granted.

A few years ago I read Reading Lolita in Tehran, a memoir by Azar Nafisi that recounts the crackdown on women’s rights to education and access to information. If you have any doubts how important reading is for our sense of personal freedom and accomplishment—even for our sanity—I recommend you read this book. Sadly, the story of repression by denying access to education continues in various parts of the world, and it affects mostly girls.

My son’s pleasure in his growing ability to read bodes well for his future as a reader, thinker, and self-confident citizen of the world—at least, that is what I wish for him.  And to think that it all starts with the fat cat on the mat!

Read lots, read widely, read on! 

David Gaughran

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