Are books a waste of time in this digital age?

READING books is a waste of time, especially fiction.

If you want to find information it’s all online. So why bother with books? As for short stories and novels, they’re just stories and how could they even begin to help us?

Such disingenuous thoughts, unfortunately, are to ours and our children’s detriment.

There is, of course, unlimited information online. Studies, however, show that we only absorb a small percentage of what’s on screen.

We don’t properly read the article but rather our eyes scan through the page, only seeking out the relevant information.

That’s because when we’re online, we cannot fully concentrate. Our minds are too ready to be distracted by the next thing, whether it’s a message, a notification, social media or the latest news.

It’s craving to move on. Even as I’m writing this, I’m tempted to check today’s headlines, but I have to force myself to continue writing.

Reading a physical book is different. With our phones put aside on silent mode, we can give full attention to what’s on the page. We can fully absorb the information, arguments, nuances and conclusions.

That’s because we’ve given it not only our full concentration but also our time. There are no distractions.

Our minds are in contemplative mode, ready to receive and to learn. So, if we want our children to be properly educated, let them study from a real book or, at least, have the information printed out.

It’s the same with fiction. Online stories are not properly read. The characters, descriptions, settings and plot are not fully absorbed.

Once again, the mind is in distraction mode, ready to jump to the next thing. A physical book, limited in its paper and ink, keeps you bound to it.

Books allow us to be alone with the writing and our thoughts. It promotes contemplation and peace of mind. But what are the use of stories?

A few months back, I was on a panel at an online conference held by the psychology department of the Malaysia-Wales University entitled “Reading Fiction: How does fictional literature help us to understand the human person?”

At the conference, we all profoundly agreed that stories are extremely useful. They provide a simulation of real life.

Research shows that those who read fiction are much better socially, have better empathy, creativity and have a stronger grasp of language.

These are all qualities that can help us in work and business, attributes our children can have if they regularly read fiction.

A few months ago, as one of several judges, I attended an online prize-giving of the Maybank Foundation - Perdana Leadership Foundation Writing Contest. The quality of the entries were sound but, honestly, could have been better.

Although writing does improve with practice, reading copiously is a cornerstone of good writing.

If we can write good fiction, our overall writing, whether it’s an essay, a report, a sales presentation or an email, will improve considerably which will help us in school, university, our career, work and business.

So is reading books a waste of time? Definitely not.

Some years ago, I said to my son: “The day you stop reading books, is the day you stop learning”.

And that, in this age of screen and, particularly, social media addiction, is the sad truth.

So I encourage you and especially your children to use the time at home during this enhanced movement control period to read physical books, to educate and improve ourselves and to find greater peace of mind.

Tunku Halim is the author of the children’s books The Midnight Children, The Vanishing, History of Malaysia, A Children’s Encyclopedia and A Children’s History of Malaysia.

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